Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas Blessing

Some 185 people celebrated Christmas at the soup kitchen Thursday. The hungry. Those alone for the holiday. And volunteers full of Christmas cheer.

It was a record number, and a huge jump over the 100 people who enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner there.

Not only did they enjoy a Christmas menu of turkey, stuffing, yams, squash, salads, rolls, pies and candy cane, but they also were treated to gifts left by Santa's helpers. Personal gifts for the men and women, and toys for some 20 kids.

"Everything went very smoothly and we had just the right amount of food," notes Deacon Gil Nadeau, soup kitchen director. In fact, "the food was great, and nice and hot."

He offers a "special THANK YOU" to the "small army of volunteers" who "kept things rolling along smoothly," who "cleaned up," and who helped make the "Christmas Dinner a total success."

Bob Oderkirk (the evening volunteer food preparation supervisor), Donna Nelson and Jeannette Williams, SFO, "did a magnificent job setting up and directing the 'action'," Deacon Gil notes. "Liz Droz added some nice menu items and really chipped in." And Marilyn and Dave Schwalbach "handed out a goodly portion of the over 200 toys we had displayed in the chapel."

It was a Christmas blessing. For everyone.

Monday, December 22, 2008

You Won't Be Alone

"People ask me how we got the idea to start a soup kitchen," Deacon Gil Nadeau told the congregation at the weekend Masses.

"It was through prayer."

In praying, in communicating with God, "we received a call to come down off the mountain" and take action. "You responded with your support. You responded with your donations..."

"A few days ago we surpassed 15,000 meals served, and that's just in the first nine months of operation. I thank you for that, for making it possible..."

"Jesus commanded, feed my people. We all responded."

Deacon Gil noted that the soup kitchen would be open on Christmas Day, serving a turkey dinner.

Everyone is invited, he said. Hungry neighbors. Senior citizens. Anyone who may be alone this Christmas.

You won't be alone at Mother Marianne's West Side Kitchen.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kids Put Faith into Action

"I feel like I'm working at a restaurant," 6th grader Emma Short giggled as soup kitchen guests started arriving Monday at Mother Marianne's West Side Kitchen.

"That's exactly right," beverage station volunteer Veronica Prezybyla shot back. "Only, you don't get any tips!"

Emma was one of ten 6th graders from St. Mary's School in Clinton who were excited about returning to the soup kitchen to volunteer.

They were a little nervous before they came the first time, back in November, teacher Bernadette Verna admitted. But they took to it right away, she said, and "they've asked to come back."

She added: "They feel as though they're doing something worthwhile, and they bring a joy with them. The guests seem to really appreciate it."

The adult volunteers were all smiles, too. "We love having the kids here," noted volunteer daytime supervisor Joanne Lockwood.

"They're so enthusiastic about helping out," added Pat Fletcher, a regular Monday volunteer who was there both times the 6th graders showed up. "They do everything: They wash the dishes, they go out and clean the tables, and they serve the food. They make it fun to be here."

Fun also was how 6th grader Anne Krysczuk described working there. "I feel like a waitress."

Sixth grader Jack Hughes said, "It makes you feel good when you help people," and classmate Daniel Hillman was convinced their presence "really helps the needy."

Sixth grader Madeline Krasniak spoke of a sense of community: "I like helping here because it's for the good of the community... We all should care about each other because we're all part of the same community. It doesn't matter who's richer or poorer."

The students arrived with some 20 bags of food and goodies to donate to the soup kitchen -- the spoils of a "dress down" day at the elementary parochial school, where kids got to leave their uniforms home for a donation of foodstuff.

In addition to Mrs. Verna, the contingent from St. Mary's included two parents, Kelly Liddell and Maureen Hughes, and the following students: Madeline Krasniak, Anne Krysczuk, Emma Short, Audrey Bartels, Collin Liddell, Troy Newman, Michael Howard, Daniel Hillman, Tyler Jury and Jack Hughes.

"We're always preaching to them" about loving their neighbors and helping people in need, as part of a Virtues Program, their teacher said. Here "they get a sense of people 10 miles away from them who need help; it's not some other country."

In other words, she said, "They're putting faith into action."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Laughter Filled the Air

St. Mary's School in Clinton arranged for bus transportation, then 6th graders sponsored a "dress down" day last Friday, where students donating canned goods to the soup kitchen could dress down, and on Monday eleven 6th graders showed up at Mother Marianne's West Side Kitchen with the cans of food, a teacher and two parents.

"They were wonderful and so happy to be there," reports volunteer daytime supervisor Joanne Lockwood. "Our regular Monday volunteers couldn't believe their eyes when they came in to see the kitchen overflowing with children."

By the time guests arrived, "the regulars and newcomers had teamed up...and their laughter filled the air. The guests joined in and everyone was enjoying being together."

The 6th graders, who arrived at 10 a.m. and left about 1 p.m. when clean-up was done, are already planning a bottle drive to help pay for bus transportation so they can come again next month, Joanne notes.

While the school children were filling the building with their joy and enthusiasm, soup kitchen director Deacon Gil Nadeau was compiling end-of-month statistics for October -- which showed that 2,358 meals were served (151 children, 107 elderly, and 2,100 other adults), bringing the grand total, since opening March 10, to 12,639 meals.

"There was almost a 30 percent increase from the previous month and a 60 percent increase from an average month to date," Deacon Gil notes. "These numbers are starting to reflect the need that is skyrocketing in our area."

He adds: "Thank you to all who volunteer their time and treasure. We could not do this without you."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Every day's a birthday party

I got to act silly yesterday.

I made funny faces and uttered strange sounds. But the 4-month-old infant enjoyed it, breaking into big smiles and flailing his arms. His light grey eyes locked on mine, curious and completely open.

I was privileged to be reduced to a babbling fool so that his mom could go get a tray of food. She returned with soup, sandwich and cookies, and was joined by two other women who fussed over the child.

Other volunteers mingled with the guests, chatting, saying how good it was to see them, and laughing. Kitchen volunteers occasionally helped guests with their trays – a young mother with kids, a scruffy older gentleman with a cane.

They were among the 85 guests Wednesday.

Watching over the dining room were two Vietnam vets – former Marines – who liked to jovially kibitz with guests, especially some of the men.

A little earlier the former Marines were bowing their heads in prayer, joining the other volunteers for a few minutes of spiritual reflection before opening the doors of the soup kitchen.

Joanne Lockwood, the volunteer daytime supervisor, read a spiritual passage about being content with what one has. Coveting what others have is not being content.

That thought “is anti-cultural” is today’s society, she said. We want more, we want bigger, we want better.

There was discussion of woes and ills afflicting the world – from selfishness to genocide. There’s a need for sacrificial love, one said. This soup kitchen is an example of sacrificial love for hungry neighbors.

Several spoke of how well the volunteer staff treats the guests. Like family.

“They’ve come to trust us,” one said.

“Some say they’ve never been treated so well,” another offered.

“As Franciscans,” Joanne added, “we try to give birth to Christ in everything we do. West Side Kitchen is showing the fruits of that.”

There’s joy, she said; there’s confidence building; there’s the Spirit.

“It’s as though we’re having a birthday party every day.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Anything But Typical

Melissa McCann of Poland showed up to volunteer at the soup kitchen this past week, helping to prepare meals, greet guests and clean up tables.

It was her first day, but it was anything but typical. A WKTV News Channel 2 photojournalist and a WIBX radio reporter dropped by. So did Jan Squadrito from the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, Inc.

Jan was there to take part in a ribbon-cutting and blessing for a new walk-in freezer – purchased with a grant from the Community Foundation.The news media were there to cover the event and interview Deacon Gil Nadeau about the growing populace that the soup kitchen feeds.

“We started out feeding 20 to 40 people a day,” he said. “Now we’re feeding 100 to 125 people a day.”

In the first six months since opening March 10, “we served 8,933 meals.”

The unemployed and working poor primarily comprise the guests. A good percentage may be homeless at any given time. (Another agency that Deacon Gil invited interviewed 60 of the guests one day and discovered that 17, or 27 percent, were in need of shelter.)

With the soup kitchen staffed by volunteers, and operating on donations of food and money, the walk-in freezer came at a critical moment. It enabled West Side Kitchen to accept more donations, and not turn any away due to lack of storage space. It also replaced two failing smaller residential freezers.

Donations keep coming. As do volunteers, who may commit to a day a month or every other week. Like Melissa, who spent the summer working at Water Safari in Old Forge after graduating from Holy Cross Academy in Oneida. She decided to take a semester off to experience life before heading off to college. And what does she do? Volunteer at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Adventure Continues

The soup kitchen reached two milestones on Tuesday.

Volunteers served 117 lunches. A new record, according to Deacon Gil Nadeau.

And they pressed into service a new walk-in freezer, just as an upright unit and a chest freezer both failed. Talk about timing!

The walk-in unit was made possible by a $9,899 grant from The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, Inc., and its Richard W. Couper Memorial Fund and Leroy and Hazel Scheidelman Fund.

Regarding the record number of guests, Deacon Gil noted: “They’re coming (because) they like the food. It’s good food.”

“They like the soup,” said volunteer Jim Caldwell.

“Everyday we’re seeing new faces,” added volunteer-supervisor Joanne Lockwood.

On Wednesday they served 96 meals, and among the volunteers were three young girls, busily sweeping the carpet, prepping trays, or helping moms with infants and strollers.

MacKenzie DeRyder, already a veteran volunteer at the age of 9, is quick to help out everywhere, but especially likes “bringing trays into the kitchen.”

Samantha Mussatto, 10, and her sister, Amanda, 7, were back. The pair accompanied their grandmother, Diane Hnat, SFO, when their school was on spring break in April. They came all the way from New Hampshire. Now that they are visiting grandma during summer vacation, they are coming to the soup kitchen a couple of days a week. The sisters are avid readers, bringing their books everywhere, but Wednesday they were too busy to immerse themselves in an imaginary tale.

“It’s great!” Amanda said.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Better Than Day Care!

With school in recess, summer has seen a jump in the number of children coming to Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen. Families sometimes take up half the dining area, and volunteers love to interact with smiling and giggling kids.

At the same time we are seeing more young folk wanting to volunteer at the soup kitchen.

Last Wednesday, for example, when we served 90 guests, three children were busily helping to serve drinks and preparing trays.

Alyssa Sharp, 12, who was all smiles at the beverage station, wouldn’t let a guest get by her without asking what he or she wanted to drink.

Her mom, Tammy Sharp, was in the kitchen helping to prep items for the trays. Tammy is on recess, too, since she is a second grade teacher in the Utica School District.

It was Karina Zabko’s third day volunteering. The 11-year-old, who was helping to set up trays, is the niece of kitchen volunteer-supervisor Joanne Lockwood.

“She wants to keep coming,” notes Joanne.

The youngest volunteer was MacKenzie DeRyder, 9, who had been there every day for two weeks.

The daughter of a friend of the family, MacKenzie accompanies Joanne to West Side Kitchen, where “she makes salads and helps with preparing trays,” and when she returns home, she “evangelizes” her mother and grandparents about volunteering.

“She prefers to come here instead of going to day care,” Joanne laughs.


P.S. Help!

Donna and Bob Oderkirk, the volunteer “chefs” who supervise the nighttime food preparation, are putting out a plea for more volunteers to help out on Wednesday evenings.

“Tonight in the kitchen we made 549 sandwiches and 19 gallons of soup,” Donna reports. “Bob sliced all the meat. We prepped the celery and carrots…We really need some new volunteers as the same 10 people show up every week. I am afraid we are going to get burned out.”

In addition to the Oderkirks, those evening volunteers are: Tom and Josie Abounader, Ann Longo, Gordon and Kathy Morrock, Ann Furner, Tony Weber, and Rosemary Tamer.

To volunteer, or for more information, email Donna, or call her at 315-725-0516. You can also volunteer online.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Numbers Tell a Shocking Tale

Deacon Gil Nadeau has become an advocate for our soup kitchen guests. He met with staff at the Resource Center for Independent Living (RCIL), and this past Wednesday RCIL sent an outreach team to Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen to see the need first hand.

The team did a survey of 62 of the guests, and 10 actually filled out an RCIL questionnaire, with five of them accompanying staffers back to RCIL for follow-up assistance.

“This has been a very humbling experience for all of us,” one RCIL staffer told Deacon Gil.

She shared the results of the survey. Of the 62 guests interviewed:

-- 49 (or 70 %) needed employment.
-- 41 (66 %) needed help with food.
-- 40 (65 %) needed clothing.
-- 33 (53 %) needed assistance with transportation.
-- 21 (34 %) needed medical help.
-- 17 (27 %) needed shelter.
-- 14 (23 %) expressed the need for counseling.
-- 13 (21 %) needed help with the cost of utilities.

While the numbers confirm our belief that we are serving the homeless, the jobless, and the working poor, it’s still shocking. At least 17 of our guests are living on the streets. At least 49 do not have jobs. And 21 need medical care.

And those are just the ones who were interviewed. We’re now seeing 60 to 80 guests a day, and as many as 110 on some days.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Lunch Milestone

“We reached a milestone at the soup kitchen,” Deacon Gil Nadeau told the congregation at the conclusion of 10:30 a.m. Mass a couple of weeks ago.

“We served 1,589 lunches last month.” The congregation erupted into applause.

“And just last week we served 400 lunches.”

He paised the volunteers and donors.

“It takes a lot of effort, thanks to our volunteers. And it takes your contributions.”

In an email to West Side Kitchen’s Coordinating Group, Deacon Gil announced another milestone, with volunteers serving lunch to 110 people on a recent day – a jump from the previous high of 85.

“The kitchen crews are doing a fantastic job taking care of our guests on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “The food is wholesome, balanced and always presented very well on the tray.”

Volunteers were chatting among themselves about how much the guests appear to appreciate the food, Quality Control Coordinator Joanne Lockwood noted. One guest was overhead saying, "My diet depends on the generosity of my neighbors."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Let the Little Children Come to Me

By Mary and Robert Stronach, SFO

Wayne, our legally blind guest, was laughing and conversing with volunteer Jim Caldwell between sips of soup. He mentioned he had been on the phone with Protective Services that morning.

“They told me to get my butt right over there,” after learning he had been living on the street for 47 days.

“But I thought I would get something to eat first.”

Across the room, volunteer Katie Koscinski, SFO, was playing “high-fives” with a giggling 3-year-old. His 6-year-old sister came rushing over with a big smile to take a turn at slapping Katie’s hand. Their mom, a refugee who speaks very little English, smiled as she nibbled on a sandwich.

The poignant truth is that children come to the Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen. Some are infants and some, a little older. It’s not unusual to have as many as six or seven on any given day. Shortly, when school is out, we fully expect those numbers to go up. For the most part, our children are very well behaved. They sit close to Mommy or Daddy, quietly enjoying their soup and sandwich.

We are happy to see them…to know that they are having a nutritious lunch. And part of us wants to scream, “Why? Why should our little children have to know that hunger is real? Why should they even know what a soup kitchen is?”

Everything should be sunshine and daisies for them. They should feel safe and secure, knowing that Mommy and Daddy will always be there for them.

Life is not so easy for some families. Dad or mom may have lost a job. The spiraling price of oil and gas has affected the cost of transportation, utilities, food and just about every product we use. The dollar just doesn’t go as far. And our children are affected. They now come to the soup kitchen. It’s part of their daily routine, just like playing with toys or taking a nap.

When you come right down to it, West Side Kitchen came at just the right time. It is a blessing. And, we have our children close to us – safe and secure at the parish center.

When you come right down to it, it’s a miracle we have them with us, rather than in an empty apartment with an empty refrigerator.

When you come right down to it, they bring us joy. The volunteers play with them and laugh. And the other guests smile every time they see a child. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Christ said, “Let the little children come to me.”

They are here, Lord. Keep them safe.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

An Open Letter to My Homeless Friend

By Mary Stronach, SFO

We speak briefly at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen. You smile and tell me how great the soup is. “It’s the best soup in town.”

Such small talk must hide many scars – of war, of a lost childhood, of lost love, lost companionship, lost work, lost home, drug use, alcohol, emotional setbacks. Whatever it was, something happened that put you into a tailspin. One morning you found yourself homeless and alone.

How was your childhood different from mine? How did you end up under the overpass and how did I end up living in the country? Why do you have to worry more about the cold and rain than I do? Why do I have the pleasure of a daily shower, clipped nails, clean clothes, hot meals, and a warm bed?

If we’re both children of God, why is our earthly inheritance so different? Homelessness was never your goal, hunger was never your intention.

Yet, here you are, walking through Christ’s passion.

Here you are. Hungry and homeless. Your “bed” is a bush or a patch of grass. The sum total of your belongings fits in your pockets or an old grocery cart.

Where do you go from here? Are you at the point that you don’t even see beyond your next meal at the soup kitchen? Do you ask yourself the same questions we all ask in life? “What is my purpose? How do I get there? Where is the meaning of my life?”

Trust in the Lord. He will care for you.

Many years ago I heard a man sing the following song. He was previously homeless and a recovering alcoholic.

“Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I'm happy,
I sing because I'm free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.”

If He loves and cares for the sparrow, how much more does He love you? Open yourself to His healing love.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nourishment for the Homeless

Fr. Richard Dellos put fingers to mouth and blew a loud, piercing whistle.

He did it again and again, each time to show his appreciation for the singers and dancers at the 40th anniversary of his ordination Sunday.

It wasn’t a small party. He had invited the entire parish to a barbecue, and well over 400 people showed up, spilling over the campus, jamming the huge tent housing dining tables and performers, and filling the parish center, also decked out with tables for eating. Some brought gifts and momentoes, including State Sen. Joe Griffo, who presented a proclamation from the New York State Senate recognizing the priest’s service and ministry to the community. A big part of that ministry is serving the poor and those in need.

It started to rain, but the showers didn’t dampen the fest, as long lines of parishioners filled their plates with sausage, pork, beef, chicken and fixings.

A number of our regular soup kitchen guests were enjoying the festivities, too. Among them was Wayne, who had heaped several layers of meat and bread on his plate. He let out his easy, ebullient laugh, even though he would be bracing himself for another cold, damp night on the streets.

Wayne, who is legally blind and was burned out of his home weeks earlier, mentioned that his plans for a new apartment fell through, and that he was now spending his nights under a viaduct.

At the party he was nursing a sore thumb, and when he came into the soup kitchen Wednesday, it was sporting a splint. It had turned out to be broken, and had to be reset at St. Elizabeth Medical Center.

“I was sleeping in a tree, and I fell,” he explained.

“A tree is okay (for sleeping) if you don’t move,” he laughed. “Now I’m sticking to the viaduct.”

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Spring Shines Through

Our blind guest, Wayne, was sitting outside, basking in the spring sunshine a half-hour before the soup kitchen doors were to open Wednesday, while inside Deacon Gil Nadeau and daytime volunteer supervisor Joanne Lockwood led a group of eight volunteers in prayer.

Mother Teresa, Joanne told the group, “spent time in daily prayer and reflection before going out” to serve people in Calcutta. In the same way, she described their coming together in prayer and reflection as a “daily self-offering,” putting them in a frame of mind to better serve people coming to Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen.

“I believe the Holy Spirit is working in us, enabling us to do what we do. I also pray that the Holy Spirit inspire the hearts of many who cannot serve to donate money and food.”

Added Deacon Gil: “In addition to money and food,” people offering “prayer is important, too…We need people to pray for this ministry.”

The volunteers returned to their stations, and soon dining-room greeter Jim Caldwell was opening the doors to guests. Fifty men, women and children filed in for hot soup, sandwiches and dessert. Among the first in was Wayne. Behind Wayne was a guest sporting a small backpack, who quipped: “The soup is always good here.”

In an area adjacent to the dining tables, Deacon Gil had set up a distribution point for free personal care items – from soap, deodorant and toothpaste to toilet paper, band aids and hair spray. Marc, a new volunteer who has been a regular guest, was manning that station, allowing each guest to select two items.

Yesterday, Deacon Gil noted, Compassion Coalition sent over four truck loads of food and commodities – in exchange for volunteer Diane Hnat spending two hours working in the Coalition warehouse.

“Two loads were free, and we paid just for the shipping on the other two loads.”

In addition to personal care items, there were cases of orange juice and canned food for the soup kitchen, plus 20 cases of baby food and 40 boxes of cereal which “we gave to Thea Bowman House” (which is located on the parish campus and provides daycare and assistance to families in need). They also got a free supply of candy bars to place in Saturday’s lunch bags as well as on trays during the week as an extra treat.

But the soup kitchen couldn’t accept everything that Compassion Coalition was offering, as its freezers, coolers and storage bins were jammed full.

“That’s why we need a walk-in freezer and a walk-in cooler,” said Deacon Gil, noting that he and his coordinating group are applying for a grant and trying to raise money to obtain and install large walk-in units. “We need the capacity to accept donations as they’re made available.”

Meanwhile, as Marc was distributing personal care items, Jim was kibitzing with hungry diners as they laughed and chatted among themselves. Suddenly his voice boomed across the room:

“Hey, we’re all family here!”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mother Marianne's Avid Readers

The two girls sat against the wall, their knees pulled up, as they got lost in their books Wednesday. Samantha Mussatto, 10, found herself sailing the ocean to Ireland as she turned the pages of The Wanderer by Sharon Creech. Her sister, Amanda, 7, was caught up in a Boxcar Children Special, The Great Shark Mystery, by Gertrude Chandler Warner.

But what could be as fun as solving a shark mystery, or following the journals of kids crossing the Atlantic?

How about helping Mary Schmitt stuff freshly made sandwiches into pastic bags? Which they had done just minutes before.

Deacon Gil Nadeau made a bunch of sandwiches, and Mary took over to bag and place them in containers.

“The kids were a big help to Mary, because with her arthritic fingers, she could barely zip-lock the bags,” said Joanne Lockwood.

Then a woman came in with her toddlers and infant. Samantha jumped up to carry a tray of food for the woman’s children, and Amanda pushed the baby stroller into the dining room.

“When I say I’m working at the soup kitchen,” said their grandmother, Diane Hnat, “now they know what I’m talking about.”

Besides being the youngest volunteers at Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen, they also traveled the farthest – from Hookset, New Hampshire. Schools there are on spring break this week, which is allowing the family to spend time with grandma. And her soup kitchen family.

So what did they think?

“It was cool!” the girls chimed in unison.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Serving Soup Like Dorothy Day

“We’re all characters. There’s a lot of joy and humor.”

The Franciscan friar listened with interest, as Joanne Lockwood spoke of the interaction between guests and volunteers at the soup kitchen.

“We have ladies close to their 80s” who earnestly volunteer every week. “There’s a man who volunteers in the dining room, who I’ve seen pull out the chairs for guests, as if we were a 4-star restaurant. There are volunteers who sit down with some guests while they eat, chatting and laughing.”

Joanne was making her remarks to fellow Secular Franciscans during their monthly fraternity gathering Sunday afternoon in St. Joseph-St. Patrick Parish Center.

The friar, a spiritual advisor for the fraternity, and a veteran of New York City soup kitchens and shelters, then took note of a comment by Betty Frank that the atmosphere of the soup kitchen has become “very Franciscan,” and not just on Wednesdays, when the fraternity staffs the operation.

Joanne is convinced that “the Holy Spirit really is at work here,” and that “nothing would happen without prayer.”

“There’s so much. It takes so many people to make this work. Yet it all comes together. Like it says in the Bible, there are many parts, but one body.”

The friar, Fr. Kevin Kenny, OFM Conv., then offered his congratulations to the fraternity and the parish, and commented that their soup kitchen ministry reminded him of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and now a Servant of God (the first step to sainthood in the Catholic Church).

In fact, Father Kevin, who is director of the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine and Indian Museum in Fonda, is a proponent of Dorothy Day’s non-judgmental approach – “you identify with everyone,” even those you may think are undeserving.

Like that other saint who started quite a movement himself – Francis of Assisi.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

It's a Wonderful Mystery

Joanne Lockwood, who has been studying to be a Franciscan for the past year, often leads the kitchen volunteers in prayer before opening the soup kitchen doors. Last month she was formally admitted into the Secular Franciscan Order as a candidate, and given the Tau cross to wear as her “habit.”

But running the kitchen every weekday has been an unexpected blessing, she says.

“In the past nine months I’ve done a lot of reading on Franciscanism. I’ve learned more working here than in any book I’ve ever read. It has given me the opportunity to live it.”

Dianne Hnat, another Secular Franciscan, was volunteering in the kitchen Wednesday, too. She has been there every week since Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen opened – even though she is recovering from spinal surgery and has to wear an upper body brace for six months.

“My grandkids think I’m invincible. Just call me Xena, the Warrior Princess!”

Out in the dining room was no warrior, but rather a young volunteer with a huge smile -- Elizabeth Sczerzenie, a junior at Notre Dame High School. It was her second time there. As guests would leave and arrive, she would wash table tops and chairs, engage in occasional chit-chat, or spend a few moments playing with a child.

She mentioned how she likes journalism, but has a passionate interest in pursuing a healthcare career, looking to major in biology in college and eventually working with children in a hospital setting. Cancer patients in particular.

Another volunteer with an interest in healthcare is Donna Nelson, who was behind the kitchen counter serving up meals. She is a maternity nurse at Faxton-St. Luke’s Healthcare, who likes to drop in on a day off after working 12-and-a-half-hour shifts.

“I’m not a parishioner here, but I come here for mass, and I heard the deacon’s sermon (announcing he wanted to start a soup kitchen). The deacon has provided the leadership for people who want to do something, to do some good.”

Donna went on to express gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

That gratitude is part of what Joanne refers to as “a mystery going on here.”

She explains: “I’m not sure who goes home happier – the guests, or the people who serve them.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

We're Maxed Out

Wayne, our blind guest left homeless by a fatal fire two weeks ago, exhaled his exuberant laugh as he brought his tray of food to the table Tuesday.

“I finally have a place to live!” He settled in the chair and put his white cane down by his feet. “I move in on the first of the month.”

Wayne missed by a few minutes a special visitor, Jan Squadrito, senior program officer with the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, Inc. Volunteer Coordinator Rose Marie Roberts had contacted Jan to inquire about a grant for an $8,000-plus walk-in freezer for Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen. Jan wanted to see the facility herself. Deacon Gil Nadeau gave her a quick tour, pointing out the food-line traffic flow, three overstuffed home-type freezers, and the busy kitchen with five volunteers heating up soup, setting up bins of sandwiches, putting out beverages, and prepping trays with celery sticks and cupcakes. He pointed out where the walk-in freezer would go, and answered her questions about how the space could accommodate a freezer unit’s electrical and structural needs.

Between the soup and sandwiches prepared in advance and donations of bread and other foods, “our freezer space is maxed out,” Deacon Gil said. A bakery “offered us a hundred loaves of bread, and we had to turn it away.”

Asked whether there was any proselytizing or whether soup kitchen guests were expected to attend church services, Deacon Gil said, “Absolutely not.” The operation is about feeding the hungry.

They moved into the dining room, and sat down. Rose Marie and our community ambassador, Bonnie Woods, joined them. Jan mentioned that Community Foundation staff prefer to meet with a group prior to starting the process. She offered guidelines and a checklist of what to do in submitting a grant application. The Community Foundation prefers not to fund organizations that duplicate a service already being provided, so it was good, she noted, that the soup kitchen was the first to step up to meet a need on the west side of Utica.

Jan left moments before the doors opened to our guests, but not before volunteer Jim Caldwell arrived. His hulking presence provides a sense of security in the dining room, but his calm demeanor and sense of humor allow for good-natured bantering.

Complaining that he watches too much TV, he suddenly asks our blind guest, “So, what do you do for entertainment, anyway?”

“I come here,” Wayne laughs.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Corridor of Saints

Blessed Mother Marianne Cope was born in Germany, grew up in Utica and took care of her family, including her ailing father, before joining the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, my wife told the group of 12 women gathered around a table in the basement of St. John the Baptist Church in Rome.

Mary, the guest speaker for the Marian Guild Thursday night, eventually got around to mentioning the new soup kitchen named after the nun. But first, she related how Mother Marianne helped found St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica, and founded St. Joseph Hospital in Syracuse, before answering a plea from Hawaii to go there and care for leprosy patients.

“She also taught school in Utica and Rome,” I piped in.

The Marian women expressed surprise and interest in the idea that a nun on the road to sainthood had a connection to their home town – which brought Mary back to the topic of her talk, upstate New York’s “Corridor of Saints.”

That corridor starts just south of Albany, where Venerable Mother Angeline Teresa, O.Carm, established the Motherhouse for the Carmelite religious order she founded to care for the aged and infirm. She opened 59 nursing homes, including St. Joseph’s in Utica.

The Corridor of Saints follows the NY State Thruway all the way to the Buffalo area, where Venerable Father Nelson Baker ran his massive Our Lady of Victory ministries, which included an orphanage, a maternity hospital for unwed mothers, and, during the Great Depression, a program that served more than one million meals a year, clothed 500,000 people, and gave medical care to 250,000.

In between Albany and Buffalo, there are:

-- The Jesuit martyrs, St. Isaac Jogues and companions, at the Shrine to the North American Martyrs at Auriesville, which is also the site of the Mohawk village where St. Isaac died.

-- Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Mohawk mystic, who was born at Auriesville, and who spent some teen and young adult years at Fonda, before fleeing to Canada to live with a community of Native American Christians. The Mohawks moved their village across the Mohawk River to Fonda some time after a devastating smallpox outbreak that killed her parents and left her scarred. The Franciscan-run National Kateri Shrine and Indian Museum at Fonda includes an archeological dig of Blessed Kateri’s village, and the spring where she daily went to gather water still flows nearby.

-- Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, with a shrine at her home parish, St. Joseph-St. Patrick Church in Utica, and with her casket enshrined at the Sisters of St. Francis Motherhouse in Syracuse.

-- Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, America’s original television evangelist, who hosted his own TV programs throughout the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. What is not so well known is that in the mid-1960s, he served as Bishop of Rochester.

When Mary finished, the Marian women immediately treated us to cake and coffee. Delicious homemade carrot cake, by the way.

Following the refreshments, the group was planning to pray together, so we took the opportunity to ask them to pray for our new ministry – a soup kitchen dedicated to Mother Marianne, operated out of her home parish. Suddenly, their interest intensified. We spoke about the diverse population we’re serving – from teenage moms to aging alcoholics, averaging 30 to 40 people a day, and some days as many as 60.

“I make a motion that we give a donation to this ministry,” one woman piped up.

“Fifty dollars?” another offered.

It was unanimous.

Then the treasurer said something interesting – that she hardly ever brings the Guild’s checkbook to meetings, but that tonight she had felt compelled to have it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

White Cane Wasn't On the Menu

Wayne, who is legally blind, has made his way to the soup kitchen every day since the tragic fire last week that stole his white cane and left him homeless.

When he picked up his tray of food Wednesday, there was something extra. Something not on the menu.

As he turned to take his food to a table, he froze. Something about the shapes he could barely make out. His fingers touched it. A collapsible white cane.

Joanne Lockwood, the kitchen’s quality control coordinator, made sure it was on his tray. She got the cane from Deacon Gil Nadeau, who visited the Central Association for the Blind the day before and purchased it for $30.

Wayne shook his head, and let out his easy laugh -- the one that was missing a week earlier, the morning after the nightmare blaze that left four people dead.

“I can’t believe you guys did this.”

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

This Soup Will Perk You Up

If you have a hard day at work, and come home drained and exhausted, Bob and Donna Oderkirk know just the thing to perk you up.

Volunteer at the soup kitchen.

“I could be dragging my tail, but when I come down here at night, I’m energized,” Bob notes. “That’s when you know the Holy Spirit is at work.”

Bob and Donna love to cook, and they bring that passion to Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen every Thursday night, as food preparation coordinators.

With their alternating teams, they cook up batches of soups and chili to last the week, prepare meats and vegetables to go into the brews, and churn out hundreds of sandwiches. Because they prepare enough eats to last a week, they put everything into freezers. Two days before use, containers are moved to a cooler to slowly thaw, and stay fresh to the taste.

“It’s humbling to know that our gift of cooking is helping people,” says Bob. “Just quietly stirring the pot, serving in the background.”

The nighttime food preparers are usually volunteers who cannot work at the soup kitchen during the day because of their jobs.

“Some people tell us, ‘it’s a lot of work’,” Bob says. “We don’t look at it that way. There’s a purpose here, doing what you’ve been guided to do by the Lord, and not questioning it.”

Donna and Bob met with some fellow volunteers Tuesday night to take them on a tour of the facility and walk them through the food preparation process. Julie Rand saw a newspaper story about the soup kitchen and volunteered to work the second Thursday of the month. Kathy and Gordon Morrock were already pitching in, but showed up to volunteer to work the 3rd Thursday. Marilyn Schwalbach saw the “family atmosphere” occurring at lunch time and decided to commit to the 4th Thursday of the month with her husband, Dave.

“I didn’t anticipate I would get more out of it than I would give,” Marilyn notes. “I already have.”

How did Bob and Donna get involved? When they heard Deacon Gil announce he wanted to start a soup kitchen, “we looked at each other” and knew immediately the Lord was calling, Donna relates.

Bob says when he got to stop in at the soup kitchen during lunch one day, the first thing he saw was a young mom with an 8-month-old baby. He made baby-talk with the infant, and after a minute, the baby finally gave him a big smile.

“That made my whole day. What we’re doing, this is what it’s all about.”

Saturday, April 5, 2008

It's a Good Thing She Didn't Like His Sermon

There are times when one should listen to his spouse.

Take Deacon Gilbert Nadeau. He showed his wife, Mary, the sermon he prepared for the Second Sunday in Lent (with the Gospel passage about the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain).

“She said it was too theological. She didn’t like it.”

He admits he was a little miffed. But he decided to sleep on it. The next morning he tossed it in the wastebasket.

That’s when he, or as he would put it, the Holy Spirit, decided it was time to start a soup kitchen.

Deacon Gil and Father Richard Dellos had been talking about the need for offering hospitality for two years. Every time someone would knock at the rectory door, seeking food or assistance, the subject would come up. Sometimes that would be almost every day. In addition, hundreds of people were visiting the parish campus every month for food, clothing and day care at Thea Bowman House.

Like Peter, James and John, who accompanied Jesus, it was time to come down off the mountain and take action for people in need, Deacon Gil told the congregation at the Saturday evening vigil Mass.

“I blind-sided Father Dellos,” he admitted. “But I knew he was for it.” And he was: Father Dellos gave his complete support.

From the pulpit, Deacon Gil appealed for volunteers and donations. By Sunday evening he had assembled a volunteer coordinating group, who would meet the following Thursday to start planning. Eighteen days after that, the soup kitchen was up and running.

The parish maintains a special bank account, called St. Stephen’s Basket, to provide food for the poor. “We spent a lot of money,” he said, to get the parish center kitchen up to snuff – cleaning, painting, installing sinks and three extra freezers, and bringing it up to code.

“What’s amazing is after we opened, we had more money in the bank account than when we started.”

He sees it as “an affirmation that we’re doing the right thing.”

People are being very generous: “They come up to us handing us checks” or donating supplies.

“The Holy Spirit is at work.”

Not to mention, it’s a good thing he listened to his wife.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

No White Cane Today

Wayne came into the the soup kitchen Wednesday without his white cane. He’s legally blind, so it’s always with him. Like his infectious smile.

“I lost it,” he said simply. His smile was gone, too.

What he didn’t say was that he lost it in the West Utica fire the night before, which left four people dead and others homeless – including Wayne.

The volunteers, mostly Secular Franciscans who staff the soup kitchen every Wednesday, were grateful for the chance to pray together for the victims of the fire -- even before we discovered that we knew some of them: as soup kitchen guests.

We gathered to remind ourselves why we were there, seeing the love and mercy of Christ all around us. The volunteers do this every day before opening the soup kitchen doors. Joanne, a Franciscan in formation and the kitchen’s quality control coordinator, offered a reflection on the meaning of the Peace Prayer of St. Francis. Her soft voice embraced the words, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

Joining us in prayer was an unexpected visitor – Capt. Frank Picciotto, who runs The Salvation Army soup kitchen, food pantry and social service programs on Clinton Place on the other side of town. Captain Frank dropped by to congratulate the parish on starting the soup kitchen, saying we all are working for the same purpose. He offered his blessings to all of us, and said he hoped there would be opportunities for collaboration.

But what struck us more than his words was a simple, impulsive act. One of our guests said he needed a belt to hold up his pants. Captain Frank immediately removed the belt from his own pants and gave it to the man.