WHEN BROTHER Denys Cormier passes the plate among the faithful, it’s best to use a fork. And when he reads from the daily scriptures, he’s as likely to refer to sole as soul. Brother Denys, founder of the Wandering Monks of Emmaus, an ecumenical community, has figured out a new way to reach the inner man: feed him.
Since opening his New Haven restaurant last June, the 40-year-old monk—who has just been ordained as a priest—has gone from man of the cloth to man of the apron. His Wandering Monk’s Guild and Bakery has become a hangout for young professionals and students from nearby Yale University seeking hearty fare and spiritual hipness. “People get to know each other every day here,” says Brother Denys. “They’re developing the community.”
In more ways than one. Brother Denys uses the restaurant’s proceeds to fund the Children’s Soup Kitchen—a New Haven organization he started in 1992, which delivers food to 1,130 needy kids daily. “Children should not have to stand in line with drug addicts and alcoholics just so they can have a meal,” he says. Brother Denys believes his organization’s outreach to children is the largest in the U.S.
Remarkably, Brother Denys has no formal training as a chef, but compensates by reading cookbooks, a hobby he picked up six years ago as a way of filling the hours he lay awake with insomnia. Among the guilty pleasures he and his staff of six—drawn from a pool of two dozen volunteers—served up one recent day was a meal of Caesar salad, creamy beef Stroganoff, homemade bread and chocolate cake. And yes, sometimes he’ll prepare monkfish. Regulars like Virginia Newman, a local marketing consultant, praise his work. “People like the simple elegance,” she says. “And you know you’re helping a larger issue.”
Housed in a former storefront in a section of town with antique stores and folk-art galleries, the guild aspires to a simple elegance in decor too. It has exposed brick walls and three hanging bells made of empty bomb casings. There is no menu for the all-you-can-eat buffets, and no prices—just a basket asking for donations.
Most days the basket is stuffed with $10s and $20s—although there is the occasional freeloader. When a diner walks away without leaving an offering, says the proprietor, “I go out back and pray to God. I say, ‘You send ’em, you pay for ’em.’ ”
Ingrained in Brother Denys’s life ever since his childhood in Nashua, N.H., is the notion that you get what you give. The third of four children of Raymond Cormier, an engineer, and his wife, Genevieve, a homemaker, Denys knew by age 6 what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wanted to devote his life to God. As an Eagle Scout in eighth grade, he started a care package drive for American soliders in Vietnam.
He earned a degree from St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., in 1976, having taken the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty two years earlier, and did graduate work in the history of Christianity at Fordham until 1982. After three years of teaching in a Catholic high school in New York City, he went to a conference of spiritual leaders in India. There he met the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa—or “Mom,” as he calls her. In India he took vows with the Wandering Monks, a group that reaches back to the 4th century, whose members traditionally wander and minister to communities along the way. Brother Denys’s order has 25 such members—men and women of various Christian faiths—throughout the U.S.
Wandering eventually took Brother Denys to New Haven, where in 1988 he opened the city’s first church for the homeless. His congregation, mostly drug addicts and AIDS patients, started a baseball team that played local businesses for soup-kitchen donations. He admits to using un-Christian motivation at times to arouse his players. “I used to say, ‘See second base? Pretend it’s a VCR and you’re going to steal it.’ ”
Indeed, Brother Denys does not yield to defeat easily. When city officials evicted homeless people from New Haven’s Union Station several years ago, he sued. Public places, he argued, should not bar anyone in a crisis—and being homeless was a crisis. He won. Not only has the station remained open to the homeless but the city agreed to help Brother Denys start up two more shelters. “He’s a model for what communities should be all about,” says Matthew Nemmerson, president of the local chamber of commerce.
Though his endeavor continues to grow (he opened a combination bookstore-tearoom last week), Brother Denys believes more work needs to be done. He worries about the 1,000 needy children in New Haven his soup kitchen doesn’t reach. “I think of all the kids we don’t serve who are going to sleep hungry,” he says. “I’m not going to feel right until we feed them all.”
ANNE LONGLEY in New Haven