Benet Hanlon served love and left a legacy of caring

DAN RODRICKS

May 27, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

For inspiration, I keep in mind a picture: Benet Hanlon's long fingers cupped under a bowl of soup, steam rising from the bowl, the bowl crossing the face of a cross-eyed boy with dirty red hair, then Benet Hanlon setting the bowl on the table, and the cross-eyed boy's mouth twisting into a grin and saying, "Thanks you." Then Hanlon takes two slices of bread from a plastic bag and hands it to the boy, who sits at a table among old, silent men in winter coats. I hear a radio. I hear Beethoven, or maybe Bruckner.

It has been 12 years since the first time I saw Benet Hanlon in action, but I cling to the image as a golden memory of this shy, gentle man who inspired awe with his soup-pot ministry.

I always had trouble telling stories of his loving, merciful works; I knew he'd rather not have his name in the newspaper. Hanlon was a selfless man, and he was protective of the people he served in Fells Point -- the broken, the abused, the drunken, the disabled, the homeless and the hungry who knocked on his door each day at 1621 Aliceanna St.

But it was important, back in 1980, to report the growing number of homeless men and women, many of them the deinstitutionalized mentally ill. When Benet Hanlon, a Benedictine priest, opened Beans and Bread, there were only a handful of soup kitchens in Baltimore. Our Daily Bread, which would become the best-known such place, was four years away from opening when Hanlon got a sink and a stove from defunct restaurants, set up tables and chairs, boiled up the first big pots of soup and baked the first loaves of his famous banana bread.

For a long time, Hanlon resisted publicity, though he knew he needed help. There were days when he made soup from whatever arrived at the back door. I remember watching him pick meat off cooked chicken necks to make a meal.

"I used to argue with Benet about the fine line between information and exploitation," said Sister Catherine "Missy" Gugerty, who worked years ago at Beans and Bread. "He was very protective of the people he served. He treated them with great respect. He operated Beans and Bread as if he were welcoming people into his own home. He stood at the front door and welcomed every single person. He knew them by their names. . . . We needed more help. I used to tell Benet all the time: 'We need to let more people know.'"

"The downside of our arrangement," Sister Catherine recalled, "was that Benet had to keep another job to have enough money to keep the kitchen going."

Eventually, Beans and Bread came to have a network of volunteers and donors, and it remained one of the smaller, low-profile kitchens, serving about 75 meals daily in a cozy rowhouse dining room with yellow walls.

"To me," Hanlon once said, "the message of the Hebrew `D prophets, and of Jesus, is to get involved where the misery is."

As a Benedictine, he had lived in a monastery before moving to Baltimore to teach and take graduate courses. While visiting Fells Point, he found himself among street souls who begged for food. He opened the door to Beans and Bread in 1977, with no major subsidy from anyone.

"I think Beans and Bread became Benet's monastery in the city," Sister Catherine said. "It was a refuge for people."

Hanlon believed he would be closer to Christ by being closer to the poor. "Christ's place is with those who do not belong," wrote Thomas Merton, the influential monk and Catholic reformer. "With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst." That became Benet Hanlon's world.

When the Benedictine order requested his return to the monastery, to fulfill his vows, Hanlon resisted. He left the priesthood in 1982. He operated Beans and Bread until the St. Vincent de Paul Society assumed control in 1986.

He was a brilliant man who worked in the Washington area as troubleshooter for the computer systems company founded by H. Ross Perot. Considering the fortunes that were made in the computer industry, Benet Hanlon probably gave up great financial rewards to serve the poor. And that makes his story all the more remarkable.

Hanlon died the other day at his home on Fleet Street.

I have a feeling he left this world delighted with the legacy he left Baltimore. Beans and Bread is his legacy. Unfortunately, it is needed more now than when Benet Hanlon first opened it -- so much so that the little rowhouse dining room has been given up for a new facility on Bond Street.

Today, a couple of hours after Benet Hanlon's funeral at St. Michael the Archangel Church, a ribbon will be cut for the new Beans and Bread. The first meal, meatloaf and sweet potato, will be served tomorrow. More than 200 are expected for lunch.

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