While serving as the diocesan director of missions in Youngstown, Ohio, Father Edward Brienz organized parishioner trips to New Orleans to help rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina. On one such trip he visited Café Reconcile, a restaurant that employs at-risk youth to help them gain discipline and job training. Father Brienz wondered if he could bring a similar program to Youngstown.
In the fall of 2015, after nearly a decade of planning, he opened Café Augustine in the Newport Public Library. The highly visible street front ministry of the Church is located in a low-income area of the city where unemployment is 38 percent.
In its first few months, the café has already touched the lives of 80 students, 45 volunteers and nearly 10,000 patrons. It has led several students to become baptized and one young man to the seminary.
The café is a four-month work-readiness program for young people that teaches not only personal responsibility, financial management and teamwork, but also shares insights from Catholic teachings.
Brienz emphasizes that there is no religion test to apply and no tuition, but he holds participants to a high standard while teaching essential life skills to prepare them for future opportunities.
The café doubles as a visible evangelization tool for both students and patrons. The Catholic bishop’s picture hangs openly on the wall, and St. Augustine is held up as an inspiring example of a life transformed by faith.
Café Augustine has quickly become a bridge in the community to several resources, including the Children’s Services Agency that entrusts clients to the program and even uses the café as a safe place to meet clients.
The café itself has also become a safe haven for students who flourish with the love given by fellow staff, volunteers and patrons. One student shared that he is the product of rape and that he was raised by foster parents before finding a new family in the program.
A 19-year-old student missed three years of high school to care for his mother dying of cancer. His absence went unnoticed by his school, but not by Father Brienz. Thanks to the program, he is now completing his education.
Some young women ask to work in the kitchen because they are embarrassed by facial scars they bear from past abusive situations, while others are looking for guidance to reform a spotty resume.
The program offers five job roles — stewards, waiters, pantry chef, sous chef and department chef — so that all students can find a place to grow at Café Augustine. Those who complete the program are offered a four-week paid internship at other local food providers.
“His work is truly a response to our Holy Father who challenges us to ‘take the Church into the streets,’” said Youngstown’s Bishop George V. Murry. “The civic community and local Catholic parishes have been energized by Father Brienz and Café Augustine.”
The surrounding community and patrons from local parishes champion students in their work and help celebrate their growth. Farewell parties are thrown by patrons for students graduating from the program. The café has also celebrated student birthdays and life milestones, including one baby shower.
“Father Brienz’s efforts have tapped into a belief system within our community to help those who truly are trying to help themselves,” said the mayor of Youngstown, John A. McNally. “I believe he has found his calling.”
And others want to follow his example. The success of Café Augustine in such a short period of time has created demand from other counties in the diocese for a similar program. Father Brienz will soon expand his efforts beyond Youngstown to other counties in need.