Followers of St. Francis

Theresa Diersen

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Perhaps the most famous survivor of the RMS Titanic disaster of 1912 is Molly Brown, the socialite and philanthropist whom the press would later christen “unsinkable.” Known for her warmth and dry wit, Brown could be gracious but tough, accommodating but firm.

When Theresa Diersen walks into the Mother Teresa of Calcutta dining room at St. Francis Seraph Ministries (SFSM) in Cincinnati, Ohio, she radiates those same qualities. Guests immediately take notice: Faces light up; hugs are in abundance.

Diersen, indeed, navigates the challenges of her job with unsinkable joy. As the volunteer services director at SFSM, Diersen is many things to many people. SFSM is one of six ministries within the Saint Anthony Center in Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The center’s goal, its website states, is to provide a “safe environment where our community’s most vulnerable can find refuge and restoration.” That kind of noble work requires many volunteers. Enter Diersen.

In her role, Diersen works with upwards of 600 volunteers in a given month. She might be managing volunteers at the dining room for breakfast or dinner, making sandwiches for the center’s popular Bag Lunch Program (which feeds 600 day laborers in the area, some of whom make less than $35 a day), or helping with Cooking for the Family or Sarah Center, two additional ministries sponsored by the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province.

“I believe that working here is truly the work of God,” she says. “I love working with all demographics in hopes that each person leaves our facility a little bit happier than when they walked in.”

Diersen’s history with the Franciscans stretches back decades. A Cincinnati native, both of her parents worked at St. Francis Hospital. The family lived across from and were members of St. Bonaventure Parish. The friars, she says, were always on the periphery of her life growing up—and their influence took root. “I truly believe that growing up as a Franciscan Catholic has made me who I am today.” And though Diersen may not fully understand the depths of poverty SFSM’s guests face every day, struggle is nothing foreign to her. In fact, it informs her work.

“I thought everyone ate ketchup sandwiches and pancakes for dinner. I didn’t realize that my mother was doing her best to make sure we survived,” she says. “When I reached high school, I decided I would work to make people’s lives better, starting with my family. Working at SFSM makes me feel a little better about the world we live in.”

The work can be taxing, but Diersen never loses sight of the bigger picture. “The challenge is staying positive. With so many people needing assistance, it can be emotionally draining. We’re not just providing food or teaching cooking classes. SFSM is a safe haven, a resource for help, an ear to listen, or encouragement that they are not alone.”

Diersen knows SFSM is changing lives. Last year, a former client approached her to express his gratitude for the many meals SFSM provided him. Because of this ministry, he was able to save money for an apartment. Now, he’s off the streets and employed at a cold shelter. He went from being homeless to helping the homeless. Diersen deflects the credit to a higher power: “That is God working through me.”

To learn more about the work of St. Francis Seraph Ministries, go to

Photo: Kate Messer Photography

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