Kathe McKenna barely attracts any attention as she settles into a table at Haley House, the hip and diverse Dudley Square cafe she all but founded, and that’s just the way she wants it.
The place has become such a neighborhood anchor so quickly that it feels like it’s always been there, but in fact it’s less than 20 years old. Its roots, however, stretch back to 1966, when McKenna and her husband, John, had the crazy idea of trying to save homeless men left to the streets of the then-dicey South End.
McKenna is not big on the word retirement, but she recently stepped down from the helm of Haley House, an organization no one else had ever run. What began as a makeshift homeless shelter became a soup kitchen. That, in turn, spawned a bakery staffed by men who had trouble finding work and, finally, led to the creation of a cafe.
None of those places, however, captures the true mission of Haley House, as McKenna explained recently. “Our mission is not food, and it’s not homeless services,” she said, her piercing blue eyes blazing. “Our mission is breaking down barriers.”
This unsung Boston heroine is actually a native New Yorker. Politically she comes out of the Catholic tradition exemplified by Dorothy Day, one of her early role models. In the 1960s, this passion took her to the Deep South, to the civil rights movement. She spent time in Memphis and New Orleans and rural Alabama, getting her first look at segregation.
“I’d never been to the South as an adult,” she said. “It was a real eye-opener for me.”
She moved to Boston to recruit college students to activism, but she and her husband soon noticed there was a big need for their passion right outside their door. Publicly intoxicated people were routinely arrested, and the shelters we take for granted, such as the Pine Street Inn and Rosie’s Place, hadn’t opened yet.
So McKenna and her husband began taking in homeless people in their basement apartment on Upton Street. Through a stroke of luck, they bought a piece of property at 23 Dartmouth St. to serve as a shelter. The soup kitchen they opened there still operates six days a week. Their clientele in those days was almost entirely male — at first, because most of those living on the streets were men; later, McKenna says, because men and women often didn’t mix well in shelter situations.
By the mid-1990s, Haley House had begun baking bread and selling it to their new upscale neighbors. That was an almost immediate success, but with a downside: The place was outgrowing its physical space. That was solved by scraping together the money to buy a building in Dudley Square.
McKenna and her group had no idea how hungry the neighborhood was for a real gathering spot. Overnight, it became home to artists who decorated the walls with their work and performers who suggested programming for different nights of the week.
“People were so responsive, they were all over us,” McKenna said. “We didn’t come in with these ideas. Those ideas were presented to us by people walking through the door.”
Haley House Bakery and Cafe actually loses a modest amount of money every year. But the identity it has provided its parent organization has proven invaluable.
To McKenna’s delight, it’s a community center masquerading as a restaurant. “Haley House is now an entirely different organization than it was before we opened these doors,,” McKenna said. “All these folks brought their perspective of life, of Dudley, of how to serve. Now it’s us doing it together. It’s changed who we are.”
As she turns the reins over to her longtime deputy, Bing Broderick, McKenna plans to stay involved as a consultant and to serve as custodian of the mission. “We’re not here to serve food,” she said. “We’re here so people who would never meet each other and understand each other’s circumstances get a chance to do that.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.