It was a chilly Thursday in December, with a dusting of snow on the ground. But that didn’t stop hundreds of poor and homeless people from packing the Denver Cathedral for what the pastor calls “the greatest day of the year” for the parish.
It was the Father Woody Christmas cash giveaway, the annual event when the cathedral hosts a prayer service and gives $20 – in the form of two $10 bills – to all of the poor and the homeless who attend.
The idea behind the two bills? It gives the recipients the option of giving one of the bills away.
“I got kind of a crabby e-mail about this event, saying ‘Why are you giving the homeless money, they’re just going to spend it on alcohol or drugs,’” Fr. Ron Cattany, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Immaculate Conception in Denver, told EWTN News.
“And I responded back with a line from Father Woody: ‘Everybody needs a little cash in their pocket at Christmas,’” he said.
It gives them a sense of dignity, and a sense of generosity, he added.
“What’s beautiful is that sometimes what you’ll see here…is one of the guys will come up and say, ‘Today’s my birthday, will you give me a bunch of (McDonald’s) cards so I can take my buddies out to lunch on my birthday?’ And of course you do that because even from where they are, they’re giving and sharing with other people,” Cattany said.
The event all started 28 years ago, when an endowment fund was set up in honor and in the spirit of Monsignor Charles B. Woodrich – better known as Fr. Woody – a Denver priest renowned for his generous spirit and can-do attitude.
During his time as a priest, he established school lunch programs for poor children, opened up the doors of his parish to the homeless during cold winter nights (most famously during the blizzard of ‘82), and would routinely give his friends on the street the coats off his back and the cash in his pockets. Today, the name Father Woody is synonymous with charity in the Denver community.
The attendees of the Father Woody giveaway often line up outside the cathedral for hours before the event begins.
On Thursday, they filled the pews to standing room only, and attended a prayer service before receiving their cash, along with hugs and greetings of ‘Merry Christmas’ from numerous volunteers from the Christ in the City program, Regis University’s Father Woody program, and several other groups and private volunteers.
“It’s so cool to be here with so many people who experience homelessness, and so many of them we can call our friends, and to know that God loves them the same and that they are so welcome here,” Emma Rashilla, a missionary with Christ in the City, told EWTN News.
“These are the people who are usually on the outside looking in, and now they’re on the inside, and it doesn’t matter if they’re Catholic or Christian,” or have no faith, all are welcome, Fr. Cattany added.
After they receive their money and McDonald’s gift cards, hot chocolate, new socks and homemade hats are waiting for them outside.
“It shows the real meaning of giving, of sharing gifts and showing your emotional and spiritual awareness of the real reason for Christmas which is that Christ is born that day,” Kevin, one of the attendees, told EWTN News.
“When you don’t have much to give, you don’t feel so jolly, but when someone gives you something, it makes you feel more generous,” he added.
“It’s people getting together and seeing old friends, (I feel) highly favored and blessed,” said Wilma, another attendee.
Odalis Hernandez, a senior at Regis University who was helping hand out colorful, homemade knit hats from the students in the university’s Father Woody program, said she was inspired to start helping people after seeing a movie about Fr. Woody.
“It’s something that I wouldn’t have done without the inspiration of someone like that,” she said.
Lovey Shipp, a spunky nonagenarian who worked as Father Woody’s secretary for several years before he passed away in 1991, still cherishes the many “Father Woody-isms” that she remembers. She has participated in every cash giveaway since its official beginning 28 years ago.
“Father Woody used to say, ‘service is the rent you pay for the space you take up,’” she told EWTN News.
“He taught people with money how to give. It’s not yours, it’s by God’s grace that you have it, you could be one of the homeless if he saw fit to do so,” she said.
She encouraged anyone who desires to help the homeless this season to “keep an open mind and have your heart match. That’s what Father Woody did.”
“Just give,” she added. “Give from the heart. And smile!”