Mercy House, in a certain sense, was established in 1993. It was then that Father Joachim Parr purchased the four-story building on 3rd Street, between Avenues C and D. But to understand its mission, one must know of work accomplished years before. In the 80’s Father Joachim lived among and served a community of homeless in Harlem known as Emmaus House. Founded by Father David Kirk in the 1960s, Emmaus House functioned not merely as a shelter, but rather as a living community of homeless men and women who themselves served the homeless.
Father Joachim’s desire to establish an Orthodox Christian presence in the Lower East Side of Manhattan grew out of his numerous years of experience working among the homeless of Harlem. And it was the very transition from Harlem to Alphabet City, with its numerous challenges, total scarcity of funds, and the true need for divine assistance, that shaped the fabric of Mercy House in the early years. In fact, it was during this period that the very name of Mercy House came to be.
A retelling of the now beloved story has Father Joachim walking through the then seedy and oft-dangerous neighborhood of Alphabet City and stopping in front of an essentially bomb-out squat with a boarded-up front entrance and no stairs. This was the place. But there was no way of inquiring about the building: no phone number, no realtor’s sign, nothing. Numerous visits and chats in the neighborhood yielded no results. Father relayed all this to his spiritual father and was given the advice: “Pray to the Mother of God.” Soon thereafter he made one last visit to the dilapidated tenement, and this time a local told him to leave a note under the door. Having nothing to write on, Father reached into his pocket and pulled out all he had: a little icon-card. He wrote down his phone number and slipped it under the door. Suffice it to say, Father received the call he had been waiting for. Reflecting on the episode, he kept coming back to the card. Which one had it been? He came to realize that the phone-number-bearing image had been none other than the icon of the Mother of God of Mercy. Mercy House had been born.
When the house was purchased, the building was in hazardous condition: there was no electrical wiring, no heat, most of the window panes were broken or missing, and the roof had caved in. Dirt and debris were everywhere. Renovation of the building was only possible with the help of volunteers, and in the beginning, these were comprised of none other than the poor of the neighborhood.