Men in search of second chance flock to Holy Mountain

Perched high on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, St. Christopher's Inn, a men's shelter and a drug treatment center, has been attracting thousands of troubled people seeking to change their lives.

"I can't begin to explain the miracles that happen up here on a daily basis," says Courtney Smith, of Suffern.

Smith, an accountant and father of three, became homeless after losing everything due to drug and alcohol addiction. Smith came to the mountain on Route 9 in Garrison in March.

"You feel embarrassed, and that just drives you lower into the ground," he says.

Those who found spirituality and guidance at the century-old ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement call its location the Holy Mountain. The Friars, dressed in long brown habits, follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, a 12th-century Italian monk who led a life of poverty and simplicity.

True to St. Francis' spirit, the ministry started from humble origins. The first inn was housed in a chicken coop, which became a destination for people seeking sobriety and a new beginning.

Douglas Levy says he has struggled to find sobriety for many years. He was successful for a while, but then he broke down and went back to using heroin. The final straw for Levy was the suicide of his girlfriend. Friends in recovery told Levy about St. Christopher's Inn, but he was reluctant to visit the ministry. Born to a Russian-Jewish father and an Irish-Protestant mother, Levy says he was confused and did not want anything to do with religion.

"I didn't realize that they don't push religion on you, and I got very close with a lot of the friars and especially the nuns, the sisters," Levy says. "They're my heart and soul."

Father Bernie Palka leads those who seek healing help at St. Christopher's Inn. He says funding in these economic times is difficult, but no one is ever turned away because of finances. According to Palka, over the past 100 years the inn helped enough people to fill Yankee Stadium.

"This ministry started because people started stopping here and asking for help, and it's never stopped," Palka says.

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