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From Mobile Kitchen to Mitre: Bishop-Elect’s Food Truck Feeds Body and Soul…

From Mobile Kitchen to Mitre: Bishop-Elect’s Food Truck Feeds Body and Soul…

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It’s the Ides of March, and Father James Ruggieri, the bishop-elect of Portland, Maine, is asking about the differences between East Coast rap and West Coast rap.

It’s the latest installment in a long-running conversation with a tall Black man standing in front of a table where the priest and other volunteers are giving out food.

The man, who thinks of himself as an East Coast rapper, said the people in rehab preferred gangster rap.

He has something he wants to get off his chest.

“I’m getting kind of nervous,” he says.

“Why are you nervous?” the priest asks.

“Because it’s time — getting closer and closer and closer to God, you know what I mean?” the man says.

“Just be ready,” the priest replies. “Just be ready.”

“I’m more anxious than anybody,” the man says.

“That’s okay. Don’t be anxious,” the priest says. “What did Jesus say? ‘Don’t worry; don’t be afraid.’”

Then he adds, “I think you should go Christian rap now.”

Food-Truck Driver Extraordinaire

In February, Pope Francis named Father Ruggieri, 56, the bishop of Portland, which covers the entire state of Maine. He succeeds Bishop Robert Deeley, 77, who is retiring but staying on to help. 

Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, is scheduled to ordain Father Ruggieri to the Diocese of Portland, a suffragan diocese of Boston, on May 7 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.

Bishop-elect James Ruggieri drives 2024
Bishop-elect James Ruggieri drives to distribute food in the Rhode Island capital. (Photo: Matt McDonald/National Catholic Register)

Becoming a bishop wasn’t on the to-do list for Father Ruggieri, whose major ambition for the coming year was finishing the commercial kitchen at the second parish he runs so it can start giving hot food to the poor.

A native of Rhode Island, Father Ruggieri graduated from Providence College in 1990 with a degree in religious studies. He also has a master’s in divinity. But otherwise, as the Register reported in early March, he fits the profile of recent bishop appointments by Pope Francis — men without advanced Church degrees whose major experiences are in parishes.

Father Ruggieri may be an ideal sort of bishop for Pope Francis. But his parishioners will tell you he’s also perfectly suited to be a pastor in Providence. So while they’re proud of his appointment, they’re sad to see him go.

Father Ruggieri began in Providence as pastor of St. Patrick’s, which has a mix of English and Spanish speakers, in 2003. He also serves as pastor of nearby St. Michael’s, a largely Latino parish. (He speaks both languages.)

April 8 is his last day. But in the meantime, he continues to drive the St. Patrick’s food truck on Friday and Sunday afternoons, delivering food, drink and clothing to homeless and other poor people at three places in the city.

It’s a white 1980 Grumman Olson. While he was making the rounds one day in mid-March, the odometer said 45,597 — but since the truck was made back before odometers had six digits, it’s anyone’s guess what the digit before “4” should be.

The food truck attracts attention as Father Ruggieri chugs along the streets of Providence. The right side of the exterior has an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Divine Mercy image of Jesus. The left side has images of St. John Paul II and Mother Teresa. In between, in big blue letters with the first letter of every word capitalized, is a quotation from Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Standing on the dashboard are statues of about 15 saints — including two of St. Patrick. On the rear doors are the name of the ministry (Project Emmanuel) and its motto: “We Feed People.”

St. Patrick’s had had a food ministry for years before November 2019, when a parishioner made a suggestion: Why not bring food to the homeless on the day after Thanksgiving?

Father Ruggieri said Yes. That first step has turned into a much larger operation.

During a visit in mid-March 2024, Margarita Rivera-Zuleta was one of a dozen women preparing vast quantities of American chop suey, the hot meal of the day.

About four years ago, she went to Father Ruggieri for counseling. He suggested the parish kitchen. Two Fridays a month — and more if needed — she comes in from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. to help prepare 250 hot meals for the parish food truck, plus another 90 meals for the students at the parish school.

“I love what I do here. I love coming here. It’s my sacred, special place to be on Fridays. This is where I find Jesus, too,” said Rivera-Zuleta, a North Providence resident originally from Puerto Rico. “Jesus loved to eat, so I know he’s enjoying this, too.”

As for Father Ruggieri, she said, “He’s a wonderful man, a humble man, a holy man. He’s a future saint.”

The Little School That Can

St. Patrick’s is distinct. For one thing, the church looks like a school, because it is — in 1979, after the parish’s early-20th-century Gothic church was demolished because of structural problems, the parish moved into a 1920s elementary-school building. The church sanctuary is surrounded by the school’s classrooms and offices, which now house St. Patrick Academy — a high school Father Ruggieri founded in 2009, after closing the failing parish elementary school.

It’s the only parish-run Catholic high school in Rhode Island. And while it costs $13,000 per pupil per year to operate, nobody pays even close to that — and the parents of 53 of the 85 students pay $1,000 or less, thanks to fundraising that brings in $850,000 to $1 million a year, said Robin Tagliaferri, the director of development.

She was asked if that’s a hard thing to accomplish. Not as hard as you would think, she said.

“The bishop-elect is a faith-filled man. The mission here is well known. And everyone knows where the money is going,” Tagliaferri said. “So that makes my job very easy.”

Father Ruggieri teaches theology at the school, filling in gaps as needed. Another theology teacher, Mary Cipriano, described going on past student trips led by Father Ruggieri to Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., that were part pilgrimages and part service to the poor.

“They were very fun times, but they were very spiritually filled times,” she said.

It hurts to see him go to Maine, she said.

“But I know the Pope chose him because of his holiness,” she said. “It’s hard, but it’s a gift to them.”

The principal of the school, E. Christopher Myron, told the Register he finds the appointment uplifting.

“He is the best priest I’ve ever met. He is so authentic. He is a great role model. But more than that: You speak with him, he calms you,” Myron said.

“Our Church is stronger now that he’s a bishop. It really gives me great hope for the future of the Catholic Church,” Myron said. “It makes me excited that someone who’s involved in such hands-on ministry has been seen in such a public way.”

Lorraine Cournoyer, parish secretary at St. Patrick’s since 2011, said she goes to Father Ruggieri for spiritual advice. 

“With Father James, I’m sure he brings out the best in everybody, because of his personality. He’s very generous and humble,” she said. 

Father Joseph Brice, the parish’s parochial vicar, who is taking over as pastor, described Father Ruggieri as a “humble preacher” whose message is always simple and clear. He said he’ll make a good bishop. 

Providence Catholic Food Truck
L To R: Father Joseph Brice, Richard Howard, Bishop-elect James Ruggieri are committed to faith-filled service, living the Divine Mercy message.(Photo: Matt McDonald/National Catholic Register)

“I think it’s a phenomenal choice, given the pastor that he is, that he’s been. He’s always people-oriented, deeply spiritual. He loves the poor. He loves regular people. He loves the work of the parish. He’s a great administrator. He’s very serious about the Gospel,” Father Brice said. 

Getting to Know You

Father Ruggieri is 5-foot-11 and thin to the point of being lanky — with a slight lean to his body as he walks. He smiles easily and often. Soft-spoken, he projects friendly inquisitiveness — How can I help you? During a recent outing on a gray day in the 40s, he wore a gray jacket from a local construction company, a knit cap and glasses.

The first stop of the food truck is the parking lot of Crossroads Rhode Island, which provides housing and other services for the homeless. Several dozen people line up, single file, waiting to be served by about a half-dozen volunteers.

The mood is festive. The served banter with the servers. At one point, Father Ruggieri seizes the hand of a man in line as if they are old friends.

The recipients get a brown paper bag with two cardboard boxes of the hot meal, their pick of pastries donated by a bakery, coffee or tea, and socks.

One of the volunteers is Richard Howard, 60, who lives in public housing nearby. He has known Father Ruggieri more than 20 years, starting when he was in a much rougher place in life. He credits the priest with inspiring him to better himself.

“So when he leaves, you can hear me choking up, because he’s good people,” Howard said.

The second stop is at the corner of busy Cranston Street and Ford Street in the West End of Providence, outside a Dairy King ice cream place closed for the winter.

Some of the recipients live on the streets. Some have a place to stay but are in shaky circumstances.

A Black woman with kids drives up to the corner on Ford Street in a dark gray Honda Civic, asking for food. From her car, she has a brief conversation with another Black woman standing on the street.

“It’s a hard time. I’m homeless,” the driver says.

“Me too!” the other woman says.

A Latino man named Sam, 61, stands on the sidewalk for a while chatting with Father Ruggieri. He has a first name and a cross tattooed over his left eyebrow.

“Father, a good man. I never seen this before,” Sam says.

Not everyone is satisfied, though. At the third stop, which is also on the side of a street, a white man with several nose rings takes a bag of food through the food truck’s window from the priest, but after he takes it, he offers a parting shot.

“Still hate the Catholics,” he says.

“What?” the priest responds, not hearing him over the ambient noise.

“Still hate the Catholics for what they did to me,” he says, and then walks off.

Later, Father Ruggieri explains that the man has told him in the past that he was mistreated in a Catholic orphanage as a boy. “Doesn’t sound too good,” he says.

Father Ruggieri says he tries to get to know the people who come for food, to the extent they are willing to talk about themselves.

“I always say, if you hear people’s stories, you can understand them better,” he says.

The Pope Is Calling You

At about five minutes to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 3, as he was in the lowest level of St. Patrick’s getting ready to say Mass upstairs, Father Ruggieri got a call on his cellphone from a 202 area code. Puzzled, he answered.

On the other end was Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, telling him that Pope Francis wanted him to become the next bishop of Portland, Maine.

Father Ruggieri was shocked. But he said Yes. Then he went up and said Mass.

Since then, he has been trying to learn what he can about being a bishop before he actually starts doing it. He takes comfort in the fact that he didn’t know how to be a pastor before he started doing that.

Media is not his thing. When the Register asked for a second round of picture-taking for this story, for instance, he declined. He had already submitted to a local television station interview and being followed around by a TV camera and a reporter taking still photos. 

“I just feel that we have reached our media capacity. It has been a little much lately,” he said by email.

After the announcement in February, he attended a press conference in Portland, which is standard fare for a new bishop.

“When I heard about the appointment I said, ‘Wow, this is big,’” Father Ruggieri said, to laughter. “I said, ‘I’m just a pastor.’”

So how will he do it?

In mid-March, he told the Register he is taken by something the current bishop of Providence, Bishop Richard Henning, told him about the ring a bishop wears.

“Every day it’s a reminder that you’re not just a bishop, you’re wedded to this presbyterate — this local Church,” Father Ruggieri said.

That’s how he says he wants to approach his new priests and his new flock.

“I look at it as I’m not on the outside,” he said. “I’m on the inside with them. So my hope is to know them and to serve them and to love them as best I can.”

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