For 40 years, St. Francis Center has provided hunger relief to homeless and extremely low-income families and individuals in Los Angeles. Though its beginnings were modest, the Center’s aim was always high, thanks in large part to its three inspiring founders.
In 1972, with the help of lay Franciscans, Father Hugh Noonan, O.F.M., founded St. Francis Center and began serving coffee and doughnuts and distributing clothing to the poor and homeless.
Long before starting the center, however, Fr. Hugh had established himself as an innovator. In 1946, as a resident of St. Joseph Church in Los Angeles, he created and produced “The Hour of St. Francis” radio program. The weekly show included dramatic tales that explored everyday problems in a uniquely practical yet uplifting way. Broadcast over 500 stations nationwide, the program was so highly regarded that many top names in Hollywood took leading roles in the productions.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, while still at St. Joseph’s, Fr. Hugh began encountering an increasing number of poor families and homeless individuals knocking on the church’s doors, requesting food and help. Although the parish had a modest food pantry as part of its social ministry, Fr. Hugh wanted to do more. He wanted to serve the community in a more comprehensive way, so he set up a clothing and food donation center in a small building next to the church.
Lay Franciscan Helen Payne helped Fr. Hugh realize his dream of a new service center. In the early stages, she sought out donations of coffee, doughnuts, and other food from local bakers and neighborhood stores to distribute to the homeless. Later, Helen would serve as the center’s treasurer, and she now sits on its board of directors. “The neighborhood needs this help—needs it desperately,” she once said. “Deep down, underneath I really believe we’re supposed to be here.” Helen has been “here,” a dedicated volunteer at the center, ever since.
Juanita Vaughn also began volunteering at St. Francis Center during its humble beginnings. She took a particular interest in aiding the migrant workers who emigrated from northern Mexico. So dedicated was she that she spent three months in Mexico just to learn Spanish so she could better communicate with the center’s guests. Her devotion to the migrant workers earned her the loving nickname “abuela” (grandmother). Even years after she stopped volunteering, homeless people were still asking for her by name. On June 13, 1997, Juanita was honored as the “soul” of St. Francis Center.
The Center Today
In 1993, the center became incorporated as a 501(c)(3). With financial support of foundations and individuals, the board of directors purchased the building in which it operates today, just several blocks away from its original location at St. Joseph Church. Although its core mission has never changed, the center has expanded its programs over the years and now is a true multi-service community organization.