Bakers of Holy Bones stand alongside the new 10-shelf oven that was installed in March as a result of financial support from Holy Name Province.

Holy Bones! A Parish Ministry That Has Bark – And Bite
Developmentally Challenged Baking Dog Bones in a Church’s Kitchen Basement Receive Support from Holy Name Province

HNP Communications HNPNow

Make no bones about it. This ministry program at a New Jersey parish is all bark – and bite!

Four days a week, a team of bakers of the Holy Bones initiative at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes can be found in their workspace: the commercial kitchen in the church basement. But they aren’t just any bakers, and you won’t find their tasty creations on a dessert tray.

A happy member of the Holy Bones baking team uses a cookie cutter to shape the dog bones.

Holy Bones is a ministry program that provides meaningful skills-training and employment opportunities to developmentally and intellectually challenged adults. From Monday to Thursday, under the supervision of a kitchen manager and volunteers, they bake preservative-free, all-natural peanut butter, sweet potato, and chicken-flavored bone-shaped biscuits and bit-sized treats – for canines, according to John Aherne, OFM, parish administrator of St. Mary’s.

John Aherne, OFM, parish administrator, listens in as Marie Cioletti, head of Holy Bones and director of the Special Needs Ministry at St. Mary’s, offers helpful guidance to the bakers.

As for the name Holy Bones, what else would you call a ministry that bakes dog bones in the basement kitchen of a church!

The weekly production is impressive, with close to 500 8-oz. bags sold at St. Mary’s Parish Center next to the friary, and at nearly 20 of the program’s still-growing list of retail partners, which includes animal hospitals, pet establishments, cafes, coffee and gift shops – even a deli – in Pompton Lakes and surrounding communities. When some of the bakers get involved in the sales end of the business once a month outside the church after weekend Masses – or at local farmers’ markets – they wear their aprons, each embroidered with Holy Bones, the voluntary handiwork of a relative of a parishioner.

Business was booming for the Holy Bones bakers as their tent was a big hit with canines and their owners at Paws in the Park last October in Hawthorne, New Jersey. It was the first community outdoor selling event in which the program’s bakers participated.

Holy Bones is a great story about community-building around a wonderful mission that is 100% supported by the friars, our Province, parishioners, and the broader community. Holy Name Province has been an important part of helping this ministry thrive,” said John.

A baker at his work station shaping the bones with the cookie cutter.

“It is inspiring to see the community that Holy Bones has created. The bakers themselves form a community when they gather to prepare, bake, and package the products. They are joined by members of the parish and others who help supervise the work,” explained John, who is a member of the program’s advisory board, which lends support to marketing and sales. “The extended community has also joined in this mission – for example, MBA students from nearby William Paterson University revamped the website, launched a social media presence on Instagram and Facebook, and created a business plan that has contributed greatly to the program’s success.”

One of the bakers making the bits that are great for dog-training exercises, according to the Holy Bones marketing pitch.

In the kitchen, the bakers do it all – from measuring the ingredients, mixing the batter, and molding the bone-shaped biscuits, to lining the oven trays with the bones, packaging the finished products, and labeling the bags. Seed grants (including one from HNP) enabled Holy Bones to purchase a mixer and other equipment and supplies. The bakers have learned to operate much of the equipment – such as the new sheeter, a machine that kneads dough into a pie-like crust, which they take back to their work stations and stamp with bone-shaped cookie cutters.

But like all start-up business, they hit a snag just months into production, when the five-shelf aging oven was showing its temperamental side, overcooking or undercooking some batches of bones.

John Aherne, OFM, parish administrator, and Marie Cioletti, head of the Holy Bones program, praised Holy Name Province for its generous support.

Financial support from Holy Name Province helped the parish purchase a new 10-shelf oven in March that will enable the bakers to double the output of dog bones and treat bits, according to Marie Cioletti, head of Holy Bones and director of the Special Needs Ministry at St. Mary’s – where she has been a parishioner for 37 years. The capacity of the new oven is more conducive to the program’s mass production needs and will help Holy Bones to generate more revenue to purchase supplies and provide wages to the bakers.

This baker is all smiles as he measures out the ingredients for the dog bone batter.

“Our bakers are always so happy and excited about coming to work. But the smiles on their faces were even wider when we got the new oven. Everyone is grateful to Holy Name Province and the friars. If it wasn’t for them, we would not have gotten this off the ground, and wouldn’t be where we are today,” said Ms. Cioletti, a retired 40-year veteran of the Paterson public school system, where she was a special education teacher and learning consultant.

A baker joyfully fills a large tray of bones.

“The nature of Holy Bones is very Franciscan. We are helping people who cannot advocate for themselves and who, unfortunately, aren’t always accepted. We are creating a culture of inclusion, a sense of belonging and being part of something – and, equally important, empowering them to be independent. We embrace them and show them that they are productive and valued members of our community. At the same time, we are providing for all of creation – in this case, our canine friends – just as St. Francis did,” said Ms. Cioletti.

“I find that developmentally challenged persons are underutilized in the employment world. Our bakers come to work every day so joyfully and with much to offer. They love what they are doing. We celebrate their work at Holy Bones, creating a positive experience and fostering an environment where they can grow, learn, and take pride in their achievements. It’s an opportunity for them to display their talents and skills – and their time to shine!” she added.

The Holy Bones logo can be found on all packaging.

Although Holy Bones was established in April 2022, the first batch of bones wasn’t baked until September 19 because it took the better part of five months for the program to receive approvals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, set up bar codes, print the packaging labels, and complete other administrative and compliance requirements. The advisory board, parish office, and friars all pitched in during the start-up process.

A parishioner who attends Seton Hall University produced a documentary on Holy Bones for one of his classes, which led to NEWS12 recently airing a Spotlight on New Jersey segment about the special needs initiative, whose origins was the result of a parishioner – who volunteered at a similar program when she lived in Delaware – proposing the program to Ms. Cioletti and the friars.

The Holy Bones bakers ply their trade in the commercial kitchen in the basement of the beautiful St. Mary’s Church.

The St. Mary’s Special Needs Ministry serves more than 250 adults from Bergen, Passaic, Morris, Essex and Sussex Counties. They meet monthly at the parish center and host a half-dozen dinner-dances annually. The ministry, which often partners with other local service organizations, also provides religious education to 80 special needs children.