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Norwich - Diocese of Norwich officials said St. Vincent de Paul Place should be allowed to operate permanently at the former St. Joseph School as a right under the U.S. Constitution, but neighbors described confrontations with soup kitchen patrons that have left them afraid to be in their own yards.
About 150 Cliff Street area residents and diocesan and St. Joseph parish officials packed the Council Chambers Tuesday night for a lengthy public hearing on the plan to permanently move the soup kitchen to the former school.
The diocese, which runs the soup kitchen, needs a special permit from the Commission on the City Plan to operate at St. Joseph School on Clairmont Avenue.
After three hours of testimony, the commission voted to continue the hearing to Nov. 20.
St. Vincent de Paul Place, founded in 1979, was in the former city train station behind Main Street for 12 years until July, when renovations forced the move. St. Vincent's temporary permit at St. Joseph expires in January.
Attorney Timothy Bates, representing St. Vincent, told commission members that the diocese believes it has the right to operate at the school as a religious use associated with the adjacent St. Joseph Church under the U.S. and state constitutions.
Bates said the Roman Catholic Church has used St. Joseph for religious purposes for decades and would continue to do so.
Hobart Avenue resident Brian Kobylarz argued otherwise. He said St. Vincent essentially provides social services to its patrons.
"Nowhere in the IRS qualifications does the providing of social services become an integral part of religion," Kobylarz wrote in his testimony. "A soup kitchen is a social service, not a religious service. The deed is not defined by the person, persons or organization providing that services."
Kobylarz also submitted emails he had sent to Mayor Peter Nystrom and City Manager Alan Bergren describing incidents since the soup kitchen moved to the Cliff Street neighborhood.
He said trespassers on his property have shouted vulgarities at him. A man called him a Nazi when Kobylarz asked for his name.
"Can you not see that this is an impact on my quality of life?" Kobyalarz wrote.
Mark Gagne and his wife, Sharon Reilly, said they experience intrusions on their property every day. Gagne said children no longer play in the school parking lot. "Please bring back the joyful, safe neighborhood that I have been a part of for 23 years," Gagne said.
Even several parishioners complained that the parish no longer can use the former school cafeteria, where popular Lenten fish and chips dinners had been held.
The Rev. Tadeusz Zadorozny, administrator of St. Joseph Church, said the 108-year-old parish is "a community of believers" whose activities extend beyond Sunday services. He said the parish has been feeding needy people since the Depression.
"The parish has helped St. Vincent de Paul Place with food and clothing drives for 12 years and counting," he said. "Having St. Vincent de Paul Place in the vacant building of St. Joseph School incorporates itself very well into our history and our identity."
St. Vincent Executive Director Jillian Corbin said St. Vincent serves more than 90 people for breakfast and 120 to 145 for lunch. When operating fully, St. Vincent also offers laundry and showers - not currently available at the school.