Rome’s St Eustachius Basilica welcomes the poor, helps the needy

Tables ready as if in a restaurant in the St. Eustachius Basilica

Located between the Pantheon and the Senate, St. Eustachius Basilica stands in the midst of Rome’s tourist and political heartland.

Throughout the year, hordes of tourists crowd with local Romans at the Caffe Sant’ Eustachio for the opportunity to taste one of the city’s best espressos.

Every day except Sunday, 130 to 160 poor people also gather here to eat inside the basilica at the “restaurant Don Pietro’s friends.”

A dynamic 82-year-old priest, Don Pietro Sigurani’s friends include migrants, gypsies and Italians of every age, not to mention the donors and volunteers who prepare the meals.

A chaplain at the French Lycée Chateaubriand, Florence Boyrie Journau is always ready to help, often with students from the high school.

“Our young people need to appreciate that everyone deserves dignity and friendship,” she said. “Look how beautifully the nave and the portico are decorated with fresh flowers.”

Each day, a social cooperative provides the meals, which may comprise a tomato and mozzarella entrée followed by pasta, meat or fish with vegetables and a piece of fruit.

“The meals are for the stomach but the gentleness is for the heart!” said Don Pietro.

“I buy the food myself if the donations from neighboring traders do not suffice,” he said as he embraces a friend who has arrived for lunch.

Impeccably dressed in his freshly ironed blue shirt and spectacles on his nose, Christian, 57, is an Italian of African origin.

Highly qualified with several degrees and a specialist in logistics, Christian is a separated father of two students. He was formerly an executive in a multinational company until he lost his job in 2013.

“Since then, because of my age, my skin color and the (economic) crisis, I’ve only been able to get a few small jobs,” he said. He has sent hundreds of letters to various businesses to no avail. “I come to Don Pietro’s restaurant because I cannot make ends meet,” he said haltingly. “The meal is precious but the welcome and the listening are just as important,” he said.

Originally from a poor family himself, this grassroots priest has made it his primary mission to champion the dignity of the excluded.

“To do charitable works in a charitable way, the church needs to give up its possessions and give them to the poor,” he said. “And that is everything!“Personally, I never accept government assistance. Our restaurant is able to operate thanks to donors and our benevolent activities.

In fact, it is precisely for the purpose of promoting people’s self-esteem that Don Pietro has developed his latest project in partnership with the Roman group, The Poor at the Center.

“We are planning to open a House of Mercy, the door of which will be opposite the Senate,” he said laughing. With backing from government agencies, architects and workers are now working tirelessly to prepare the center.

A priest with a heart of gold, he whispers that Pope Francis has promised to join him for the opening of the House of Mercy, which is expected before next winter.