Many churches have beds of flowers planted under the windows. Gabriel’s Place has tomato plants. The former St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church no longer functions as a house of worship—it closed in 2008 after years of dwindling membership—but its buildings and grounds still hold a special place in the Avondale community. That’s because the Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of the Diocese of Southern Ohio refused to let it go. After the Aldi grocery store closed that same year, rendering Avondale a so-called “food desert,” Bishop Breidenthal and a cohort of community planners decided that the church’s new purpose should be food accessibility. They called their initiative Gabriel’s Place, and opened it to the neighborhood last fall.
The program has a lot of local big-name friends, thanks in no small part to its affiliation with the Avondale Community Council. Local organizations like The Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and Xavier University have donated time, resources, and funds to help Gabriel’s Place get up and running; in six months, the operation has grown to include a popular community garden program, cooking demonstrations, and a weekly Marketplace, held every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. in front of the church (and inside during the winter). These programs exist alongside, and sometimes in tandem with, a soup kitchen that has been operating in the church for 23 years.
Program Director Troy Frasier was originally brought on to build a hoop house and an aquaponics system to raise bluegill and grow vegetables year round. In the coming months, Frasier hopes to add beehives and a fenced orchard, which would also support poultry. “One of the residents from the senior citizen home [across the street] wanted to donate a fruit tree,” Frasier explains. “And we thought, If we have one tree, we might as well have a whole orchard. And then it kind of snowballed.”
Simply put, Gabriel’s Place is using food—and community cooperation—to create a better living experience for Avondale residents. “Food is so vital,” adds Volunteer Coordinator Leslie Stevenson. “When you don’t have it [accessible], it changes everything in your life.” But the Gabriel’s Place model isn’t just about charity. It’s also about empowerment. “We’re not just doing a soup kitchen,” Frasier explains. “We’re not just giving food away. We’re trying to teach people how to grow their own, which will go a lot further. We don’t have to sit here and beg Kroger or Aldi to come back. The neighborhood can come together and actually find a solution.”