Confirmation students with turkeys for the hungry in Hartford. (Photo courtesy of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish)

Helping the Hungry During a Holiday Season Like No Other

Stephen Mangione and Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, 5.6 million households in the U.S. struggled to put food on the table. With tens of thousands of families turning to food banks for the first time ever, Franciscan outreach and service ministries across the country have been meeting the unprecedented demands – from Virginia, where St. Francis House has been distributing nearly 17 tons of food a week, to Pennsylvania, where St. Francis Inn soup kitchen provided baskets with complete Thanksgiving dinners to 140 families.

As most food banks are serving greater numbers of people than they did a year ago – due primarily to record unemployment caused by the pandemic – thousands of more families facing food insecurity and besieged by financial struggles will seek assistance during the Christmas holiday season.

The efforts of some Franciscan ministries during the season of giving – providing for the hungry, destitute and marginalized – are featured below.

The Breadline on West 31st Street in New York City has served the homeless for 90 years. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Regan)

The Breadline in NYC — Serving New Yorkers for  Nine Decades
Neither hurricane nor war nor any other natural or manmade calamity has stopped the work performed every day for the past 90 years at the St. Francis Breadline. Add pandemic to that list. Like every Thanksgiving Day since 1930, staff and volunteers were at their stations on Nov. 26 distributing sandwiches, fruit, snacks, juice drinks, special gifts, and donated hygiene kits to the more than 200 people, mostly homeless men, and women, who lined up outside St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street.

“The passion and dedication of our volunteers and staff have kept the Breadline moving throughout the pandemic. Suspending operations, even when most of New York City was shut down, was never even a thought,” said Patrick Regan, program director. “In fact, we never missed a single day of operation at either the Breadline or the food pantry. People need these services now more than ever.”

The Breadline was founded by a friar during the onset of The Great Depression. When the friars stood outside the 31st Street friary providing bread and a nickel to the impoverished, hungry, and unemployed on Sept. 26, 1930, they could never have realized it was the birth of the iconic St. Francis Breadline.

Guests receive their food on the Breadline. (Photos courtesy of Patrick Regan)

While the Breadline averages 230 guests daily, the pandemic has seen that number swell to as many as 400-plus on some days.

During Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season, the Franciscans Deliver program – the food pantry on 31st Street – delivers meals to people confined to their homes. Recipients were offered options for their Thanksgiving meal delivery – including turkey, filet mignon, or canned salmon.

The food pantry also serves walk-ins seeking supplemental food assistance, providing groceries to families on an appointment basis. There were fewer walk-ins during the height of the pandemic, but more people are venturing out again even with the increase in coronavirus cases. The home delivery and walk-in programs serve 200 people per week.

The pace of the Breadline has varied throughout the year, as the pandemic – and its related behaviors and protocols – has affected people in New York City, according to Regan.

“At the height of the pandemic – when everything was shut down and people either lost their jobs or were laid off – we purchased and distributed 400 sandwiches a day,” said Regan. “When the city shut down the mass transit system, we noticed a drop in our numbers because many of our guests sleep on the subway and get off the train at 7 a.m. and come to the Breadline for food.”

In April and May, the Breadline served a total of 30,000 people, according to Regan. However, the numbers decreased slightly in the summer months to a little more than 25,000. He also said that the fall months have been consistent with the latter numbers, but expects more guests to show up with the Christmas season on the horizon.

Regan said more volunteers are also returning to the Breadline – calling it a welcome sight.

“In the past, many of the volunteers were people who were employed in Midtown Manhattan and would work the Breadline before they began their own workday. With many offices still closed and people working remotely, that group of volunteers decreased because they are commuters who don’t live nearby. But we are seeing some people return,” Regan explained

“We do everything safely for guests, staff, and volunteers. Even before CDC recommendations and government requirements, we made a decision to wear masks and gloves. We are fortunate to have a dedicated corps of staff and volunteers at the Breadline. This is an incredibly rewarding job, with nothing more satisfying than being able to help people,” he added, noting that masks are provided to guests if they need one.

Thanksgiving Food Baskets and Hot Meals from the Inn in Philadelphia
The pandemic forced a pivot from a sit-down traditional Thanksgiving dinner to 140 to-go food baskets and 200 lunches, but the spirit and hectic pace of the holiday season was fully present at St. Francis Inn, the Franciscan soup kitchen in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, where poverty was a permanent resident long before the coronavirus outbreak.

Fred Dilger with food at the Inn. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Inn)

Early into the pandemic, the Inn was one of the first soup kitchens in Philadelphia to switch its sit-down meals to carry-out dinners for the safety and health of staff members and guests. The Inn’s 11-member team wasn’t going to disappoint on Thanksgiving. An enormous assist from local friends and supporters made sure of that.

The Philadelphia Flyers hockey organization, two local schools, and a nearby bakery donated turkeys, hams, produce, pies, and all the fixings of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner – enough to fill baskets for 140 families, which picked up their complete holiday feast outside the Inn a few days before Thanksgiving.

“The baskets were provided mainly to families, mostly with three members, who cooked and enjoyed their Thanksgiving meal in the safety of their own homes,” said Michael Duffy, OFM, who has been stationed at the Inn for 30 years. “From Nov. 16, the phones were ringing off the hook with families placing their orders.”

Unable to host its annual sit-down dinner on Thanksgiving Day – which has been customary for the past three decades – the Inn also provided a to-go hot meal to 200 individuals, mostly homeless, who showed up at its doorstep. The Inn’s team – consisting of four friars, two women religious of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y., one lay volunteer, and four members of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry program – prepared the meals in the facility’s kitchen and distributed them outside the building.

Aaron Richardson welcoming guests at the Inn. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Inn Facebook)

This holiday season has been challenging, with all of the work placed on the shoulders of the 11-member team, said Michael, because volunteer groups from high schools and church organizations – which usually spend a week or a weekend providing their time and talents at the Inn – have all canceled their service trips during the pandemic.

“Our team is highly dedicated and motivated. We continue to meet challenges as we have never faced before,” said Michael, noting that all team members have equal roles, with no one designated as director – although Michael has the most experience with having served at the Inn for three decades.

Established in 1979 by friars asked to expand the Province’s presence and ministry with the poor in the Philadelphia area, the Inn strives to meet the daily needs of the homeless and poverty-stricken with food, clothing, and hospitality – the latter which has been missing, says Michael, without sit-down dining.

Normally, the friars, sisters, and volunteers are able to get to know the guests when they sit with them at the table over dinner – a personal contact, says Michael, that helps connect them with available social services. Even during the pandemic, the team has done its best to restore hope and provide a semblance of dignity for those who rely on the Inn’s hospitality – even if it’s served in a different way.

Turkeys Fly the Coop During Drive-By in Hartford, Connecticut
The new pastor at St. Patrick-St. Anthony, Tim Shreenan, OFM, sang the praises of parishioners of the downtown Hartford parish for their incredible generosity during the turkey drive-by held the week before Thanksgiving Day.

More than 250 frozen and fresh holiday turkeys “flew” from vehicles during the drive-by drop-off outside the church, where Confirmation students and members of the parish men’s group collected the bounty of birds and more than 2,000 pounds of stuffing, gravy, and canned goods. The students and men’s group then delivered the food to the House of Bread, a ministry that serves the hungry, homeless, and economically disadvantaged with hot meals, a thrift shop, and programs for children and mothers through the Franciscan Center.

“With everyone struggling because of the pandemic, we didn’t know what to expect. But people were so generous and have such a desire to give back and feel connected. Collecting, sorting, and delivering was done in a true spirit of community. We were blessed to have this turn out as one of our most successful turkey drives,” said Faith VosWinkel, who coordinates the Confirmation program as a member of the parish’s religious education team.

The parish is offering a number of opportunities in outreach services to the poor and indigent, including the no-freeze-meal team program, which provides hot nourishing meals every Sunday night for residents at a local homeless shelter.

In addition, St. Patrick-St. Anthony’s annual giving tree program for the Christmas season has been moved online to protect the health of parishioners. In lieu of physically selecting the cards from trees, the parish created a website to collect gifts for two programs in Hartford – the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and the House of Bread’s seven programs that serve children and adults.

The long wish list includes everything from winter coats, bath towels, and apparel, to art supplies, toys, and supermarket gift cards. There is also an online global giving tree for St. Patrick-St. Anthony’s sister parish of St. Genevieve in Haiti, for which parishioners can provide a range of monetary donations to help pay for a year’s worth of textbooks and school supplies, lunch, and tuition for students at the parish school.

Nursing Home Tradition Continues at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey
The common theme of doing things differently and not letting the pandemic stand in the way of tradition was on full display at St. Mary’s Parish in the borough of Pompton Lakes. Parishioners didn’t skip a beat in hosting the North Jersey parish’s annual Thanksgiving luncheon for 50 residents, and the staff that cares for them, at the Lakeview Rehabilitation and Care Center, located a little over a mile away from the church.

Delivering food to a nursing home near the Pompton Lakes parish. (Photo courtesy of John Aherne)

In the past, the skilled nursing care facility would transport its residents to St. Mary’s on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, where parishioners would serve the luncheon to their special guests in the parish hall. But seven years ago, it made more sense in terms of transport logistics to bring the Thanksgiving feast to the residents in their own familiar environment, according to John Aherne, OFM.

“Since then, our volunteer parishioners have prepared the meal in the church kitchen, transported it to the Lakeview nursing home, and served it to the residents while also providing entertainment,” explained John, who said that this year the Thanksgiving luncheon was prepared, as usual, at the church, but served by the facility’s staff since pandemic-related restrictions prohibited outsiders from entering the nursing home.

“The residents and staff members really loved that St. Mary’s remembered them during the holiday season and kept this tradition alive. They look forward to it every year,” said John, who has been stationed at St. Mary’s since 2018 after his ordination to the priesthood that summer.

Michael Cocilovo, a volunteer of the annual event, said parishioners were grateful to Frank Critch, OFM, the new pastor of St. Mary’s, for continuing the tradition.

“We were most grateful to Fr. Frank for his willingness to support this event. We also give a special thanks to Greg and Kim Lebron who have been spearheading the preparation of this meal since the early days when it was served in the church basement,” Cocilovo said. “We look forward to being able to return to the nursing home for next year’s Thanksgiving luncheon.”

Frank Critch with a load of supplies for the hungry. (Photo courtesy of John Aherne)

St. Mary’s Parish is also involved in other holiday outreach programs. During the entire month of December, the parish food pantry will be the beneficiary of a portion of the proceeds – a $1 donation – from the sales of the $2.50 reusable community bag at the Stop & Shop store on Hamburg Turnpike in nearby Wayne. Cocilovo said the parish is grateful to the supermarket for “this great opportunity to help fund our food pantry” during a time of great need.

St. Mary’s has also partnered with local cub scouts – Pack 38 – in the organization’s food drive for the parish’s food pantry and the Military Assistance Pantry of Passaic County, the latter which serves more than 80 veterans and their families, including 22 children ranging in age from eight months to 14 years old.

“More than 700 bags of food were collected, which means that our veterans and our food pantry clients will be well taken care of during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. We especially thank the youngsters of Pack 38 and their leader, Phil Epstein, for their efforts in this important ministry,” Cocilovo said.

Gifts of Warmth and Food at St. Francis on Jersey Shore
An interesting phenomenon is occurring on Long Beach Island.  With the pandemic causing families to flee their urban confines for the more spacious Jersey shore, the transient summer crowds have become permanent fall and winter residents.  Local schools have experienced increased enrollment. The population uptick has even affected St. Francis of Assisi Parish, which normally consolidates Sunday Masses to one of its four churches after the summer beach season.  But this year has been different.

Three of the four churches, says Andrew Reitz, OFM, guardian of St. Francis friary.   have remained open with a near-full complement of Masses, one of which is live-streamed on the parish Facebook page.  Offering Mass at three churches provides several options to worshippers, enabling them to follow all safety and health protocols – like social distancing.

The pandemic effect has also had an impact on the outreach efforts at St. Francis Parish.  The year-round community of parishioners, along with the newfound winter population of worshippers, says Andrew, have answered the call of helping financially struggling families in the southern tier of Ocean County during this holiday season.

“Our parishioners haven’t let the pandemic effect their response to the needs of others during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons,” said Andrew.  “Parishioners prepared food baskets for 150 families as part of the parish’s traditional food collection for Thanksgiving.”

But they didn’t stop there, according to Andrew.  “There has been a tremendous outpouring of generosity for our Christmas ‘Gift of Warmth’ program.  When the parish made public that families in the area were going without the basic necessities because of untold financial difficulties, the tags on our Christmas trees at the three churches quickly disappeared,” he explained.

“The wish-lists of 200 families – the items that were written on the tags – were fulfilled by the generosity of our parishioners,” added Andrew, who said that Communion is offered every Sunday for 30 minutes after the last Mass of the day so that elderly and other vulnerable individuals can receive the Body of Christ without leaving their vehicles.

Staff at St. Francis Community Center and volunteers from the parish organized the collection and distribution of the food and gifts.  Although most activities at the center and in the parish were suspended, the outreach programs were conducted in accordance with restrictions and safety protocols.

“Parish life has changed dramatically, but service and outreach to the needy hasn’t stopped.  Our parishioners know how important this is – especially at a time when so many people are struggling and feeling isolated,” said Andrew, who until his arrival at  Long Beach Island served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish on West 31st Street in New York City.

Drive-Through Meals Provided by St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, Maryland
The season of giving has always been a year-round ministry at St. Francis International School, but outreach efforts became even more pronounced since the COVID-19 outbreak. Throughout the pandemic, SFIS and the adjacent Parish of St. Camillus – where Brian Jordan, OFM, is the pastor – have been offering a variety of outreach services to the school, parish, and broader community, according to Toby Harkleroad, the school’s principal.

SFIS provides 2,000 free meals weekly to students – breakfast five days a week and lunch every Monday – through a drive-through system in which families pull curbside and pick up the prepackaged food without leaving their vehicles.

Harkleroad said the St. Francis Builds ministry of St. Camillus Parish constructed 20 desks for SFIS students who didn’t have desks at their homes so that they could maximize their learning environment when the school went from in-classroom to remote education. The principal, who also is a parishioner of St. Camillus, said St. Francis Builds, as part of its next project, hopes to make desks for children of the Catholic community in the nearby Langley Park neighborhood.

The St. Camillus Knights of Columbus donated 100 winter coats to the school for distribution to SFIS students whose parents have been faced with economic hardship due to the coronavirus.

After the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, several of the ministries at St. Camillus participated in the global initiative “Giving Tuesday,” encouraging donors to support parish outreach and other charities. The parish thanked donors on its Facebook page, noting: “Together, we nearly almost doubled our goal and raised $19,043 to support St. Camillus Parish and ministries. Your gift will help make a difference in the work our church can do for the community.”

Nearly 17 Tons of Food Distributed Weekly at St. Francis House in Triangle, Virginia
An astounding 33,500 pounds of food – nearly 17 tons – is being distributed each week at St. Francis House, the outreach center of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in northern Virginia, reports John O’Connor, OFM.

“As fast as the food comes in, that’s how fast it goes out. We see an increase in need during the holiday season, but nothing like this. With people unemployed and the economy hit hard by the pandemic, more families and individuals are relying on St. Francis House than ever before,” said John, who has been stationed at the Triangle parish since 2014 and has served as pastor since August 2017.

“On a weekly basis, we have been providing 100 families with bags filled with enough provisions – meat, produce, groceries – for one week. In addition, we have been distributing 100 boxes of perishable foods every week – containing milk, eggs, and fruit. We are also giving out supplies of diapers, wipes and toilet paper,” said John, who, at the request of the Diocese of Arlington, is serving on a committee with other area Church leaders established by the Virginia Catholic Conference to help improve the relationship between the Arlington and Richmond dioceses and the state legislature.

At the committee’s first meeting, a local elected official singled out the outreach services of St. Francis House. “We were cited as an example of positive and successful programs, and what the Catholic Church is doing for the citizens of Virginia, especially in response to the coronavirus,” John said.

Assistance during the holiday season from St. Francis House is far more than putting a turkey on the table of those in need. John says that the outreach center has provided thousands of dollars in supplemental financial aid to help families pay their rent and utility bills. In addition, he said that St. Francis House is working with local homebound ministry and children’s food nutrition services to help respond to the greater numbers of people and families that have become food insecure or can’t leave their homes because of the pandemic.

With four in-person Sunday Masses – and plans to soon add a fifth – John said the parish’s annual giving-tree program will proceed as planned – whereby parishioners will remove tags from trees and purchase the gifts inscribed on the tags to help make the Christmas season bright and joyous for financially struggling families.

Jocelyn Thomas is the Province’s director of communications and Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.