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.