The sanctuary at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland was still quiet before 9 a.m. Wednesday. The pews had been full at midnight, and they would be again later that morning for the Christmas service.

But downstairs, the basement hall was humming.

The holiday was also the first day of a temporary warming center in the Episcopal cathedral. The city’s shelters are at capacity in the coldest time of the year, especially as more than 50 families have arrived in Portland in recent weeks to escape violence and persecution in their home countries. While dozens of parents and children are sleeping in a local gymnasium at night, the city has scrambled to find a place where they can stay warm during the day. The leaders at St. Luke’s agreed to open the hall as an overflow space for the new asylum seekers.

“We had 600 people up here last night,” the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh said, gesturing around the waiting cathedral. “It was glorious and beautiful. But all the people downstairs, that is beautiful, too.”

Some of the volunteers who arrived at 7:30 a.m. to set up had been at the church just hours before during the midnight service. A half dozen people set up a counter with warm drinks and waved arriving families into the parish hall. Within two hours, more than 30 guests had entered the cozy room. A Portuguese translator welcomed everyone, and adults chatted at folding tables. More than a dozen children played with stuffed animals and blocks on the floor, and the Rev. Eleanor Prior laughingly intercepted a toddler as he tried to speed down a nearby hallway.

Many of the families arriving in Portland are coming from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. During a training session, volunteers were advised to focus on the future in their conversations with asylum seekers, rather than ask questions about the harrowing journey to the United States. A reporter who visited the warming center Wednesday morning was also asked to give the guests privacy.

“Americans are so used to asking questions about the past,” said Linda Carleton, who is coordinating the volunteers. “The questions of the past can reincite the trauma.”

Because of the Christmas holiday, the volunteers handed out small gifts to children, and a platter of cookies sat in the kitchen. But most days, the cathedral will not offer food or other services. Church leaders described it as a place where families could rest and get warm as they make arrangements for their new lives in Maine. Well-wishers dropped gift bags and other donations at the parish hall for the families, but the staff asked for those items to go to other venues in the future, in part because the guests at the warming center do not have places to store their belongings.

Prior said one place to make donations would be the St. Elizabeth Jubilee Pantry, which provides essentials not covered by food stamps, including diapers and hygiene products. The pantry is open to any Mainers in need and also operates out of St. Luke’s on Tuesday mornings. Donations are accepted Monday and Tuesday mornings. The warming center will be open Wednesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“The need is to keep people warm,” Prior said. “Then there is a spiritual warmth that comes with that, knowing we can work together and help people in dire need.”

More than 100 volunteers from the church and other groups signed up within three days, and Carleton said they are working to train those people before actively seeking more. Her husband played with a grinning toddler, trying to use Spanish phrases that translate closely in Portuguese.

“I sure hope they feel welcome and relieved,” Peter Carleton said.

Shambaugh still had the typed copy of his midnight sermon folded in his pocket. He had included the warming center in his Christmas remarks, telling the congregation about a quick succession of events that led to the decision.

“The more I thought about the story of Christmas – how there was no room in the inn, and how the holy family quickly became refugees themselves – I realized that Christmas Day was the perfect time to start,” he wrote.

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