Thanksgiving and Advent Activities from Florida to New England

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

The Advent Giving Tree in Greenville (Photo courtesy of Susan Cinquemani)

Parishes, schools, and ministries throughout the Province have been busy with seasonal holiday activities since the weeks leading to Thanksgiving. From extraordinary outreach initiatives and service projects to timeless traditions, festive events and Advent retreats below is a summary of how friars, parishioners, students, and community members – from Florida to Massachusetts – shared fellowship during the Thanksgiving holiday. They are now preparing for Christmas with a host of services and events during the season of Advent.

Sacred Heart Parish in Tampa, Florida
Heeding a U.S. State Department advisory against travel to Haiti because of civil unrest, the Sacred Heart Haiti Mission Team, for the past two years, has grounded its annual trip during which it provides medical and dental care, and other assistance, to the members of St. Gabriel’s Parish in Beau Sejour. But the group has found another way to meet the needs of the population in this underserved mountainous region located southwest of Port-au-Prince. Sacred Heart’s annual Christmas Giving Tree initiative has been dedicated to St. Gabriel’s.

“It just isn’t safe to travel through the heart of the unrest, but at the same time, the needs of St. Gabriel’s and its people haven’t subsided,” said George Corrigan, OFM, pastor. “It is heartbreaking and frustrating for our mission team, so we came up with a way that lets the people of St. Gabriel’s Parish know that we haven’t forgotten them.”

The team decided that monetary donations would be the safest and most effective intervention even for the St. Gabriel parishioners, who have access to nearby retail for essential items and supplies. Each ornament on the Sacred Heart giving tree identifies a need and associated costs – such as school supplies, food, medical assistance, fuel for the parish vehicle, and sponsorship of a weekly parish meal.

“St. Gabriel is the one enduring anchor in Beau Sejour. It brings people together in prayer, catechism class, and community dialogue. People walk as much as four hours in one direction to attend Mass,” said George, noting that the “Sacred Heart to Haiti’s Heart” ministry has provided wide-ranging assistance to St. Gabriel’s, including rebuilding the parish church after it was destroyed in 2010 by an earthquake. 

St. Anthony Catholic School’s student choir sang at the opening of Greenville’s Ice on Main this year. (Photo courtesy of Susan Cinquemani)

St. Anthony of Padua Parish – Greenville, South Carolina
The St. Anthony 20-Something Group typically performs service work once a month at the Greenville County Juvenile Detention Center. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, the 20-Something Group is doing a little extra by organizing the “Thankfulness Project” – a special undertaking in which members are assembling greeting card and cookie packages for the children and staff at the detention center to let them know that they are loved and not forgotten during the holiday season.

On Nov. 26, the parish hosted its 10th annual community Thanksgiving dinner, an event started by parishioner Ruchie Campbell in 2009, and now continued in her memory by family and friends. Attended by several hundred area residents, the fellowship dinner was supported by food and monetary donations from St. Anthony parishioners and local businesses and organizations. Uncooked turkeys were donated to families in need and leftover food was provided to a nearby soup kitchen. Organizers also collected hats, gloves and gift cards for families and individuals who attended the dinner.

The parish, whose pastor is Patrick Tuttle, OFM, also was a sponsor in the first citywide community potluck dinner on the Monday before Thanksgiving, when free meals were distributed on Main Street in Greenville. For the Advent season, a number of projects and events were planned.

A different giving tree is placed on the altar each Sunday of Advent so that parishioners can gift a dollar amount in the collection basket to the specific needs printed on the back of paper candle ornaments. Parishioners are also invited to place a non-perishable food item under the tree showing they participated.

The men’s club launched its annual gift drive on Dec. 1, collecting donations of toys and bicycles for children under 12 years old, and gift cards for teenagers. The gifts will be distributed at the club’s annual party a week before Christmas, with at least 200 children expected to attend. On Dec. 11, the parish is offering a reconciliation service as part of a four-day parish mission being led by Fr. Chester Smith, SVD.

Students, teachers, and staff at St. Anthony School kicked off the holiday season on Nov. 22 by sharing a celebratory Thanksgiving meal. During Advent, students are collecting canned and other non-perishable items for the parish food pantry. The St. Anthony student choir has been invited to sing carols at several community events and facilities, including the Diocese of Charleston Christmas television special.

St. Camillus Parish and St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, Maryland
During the Thanksgiving season, students at St. Francis International School demonstrated one of the institution’s foundational principles – reaching out in a spirit of service to others. Led by the student council, a three-week food drive produced 1,340 items that were delivered the week before Thanksgiving Day to the nearby St. Mark Food Pantry. In a separate drive for the St. Camillus Food Pantry, items collected by students were blessed by Joseph Nangle, OFM. In addition, 8th graders unloaded one ton of food delivered to the parish pantry by the Capital Area Food Bank, according to principal Tobias Harkleroad.

St. Francis International School students serve their annual Thanksgiving feast to over 650 participants. (Photo courtesy of SFIS)

On the Tuesday before the holiday break, students, teachers, and staff at the grades K-8 school known for its cultural diversity participated in a Thanksgiving feast – a decade-old tradition that began with the Pre-K classes at St. Camillus School before St. Francis International opened its doors in 2010. The event now coincides with grandparents’ and elders’ day at the school, bringing the total to more than 650 guests at the Thanksgiving feast.

Harkleroad reported that the school is continuing a number of traditions throughout the Advent season, including a visit from St. Nicholas, a penance service on Dec. 11, the Dec. 14 annual Christmas Bazaar and Breakfast with Santa, the Dec. 17 band-grades 1-8 Christmas concert, and a Pre-K and Kindergarten Christmas program on Dec. 19.

At the multicultural Mass celebrated on Thanksgiving Day at St. Camillus Church, parishioners brought the bread they would be serving later that day at their Thanksgiving meal for a special blessing. Before Thanksgiving, the parish collected and distributed 286 winter coats in the nearby Langley Park community.

A daylong Advent retreat was held Dec. 1 for youth ages 13-17 at the St. Camillus gymnasium. An Advent retreat for adults, “Making Room for Jesus,” was held on Dec. 7 at Knights Hall.

Each year, St. Camillus offers parishioners an alternative Christmas giving project. This season’s alternative, explains Christopher Posch, OFM, pastor, is desks for students at Kalilombe School in Malawi, Africa. “Lift students off the ground and into desks to give them a more comfortable and better learning environment,” says Chris. “The perfect gift for everyone on your Christmas list is a desk for Kalilombe School!” Crafted by Malawi carpenters, the desks are $15 each. A quad of desks is $180, and an entire classroom could be outfitted for $1,800.

A parish-wide intercultural “Posada” – Spanish for “to take shelter” or “to take in” – will be celebrated on Dec. 22 in the Camilla Room. Posada is the Latino custom in which Catholics throughout Central America celebrate a novena of meditations and feasts before Christmas to give shelter to the newborn King in their lives. The St. Camillus youth and young adult ministry is hosting this inspiring celebration that will include Salvadoran tamales and Guatemalan ponche (a hearty fruit drink) as part of an international potluck meal.

New York City’s Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Parish
The season of giving began early at this Upper West Side parish when nearly 120 volunteers filled 79 comfort bags with sandwiches and other essentials for the JoyJ Initiative’s Nov. 9 third annual walk in Manhattan to raise awareness and resources for the homeless. As part of the event, homeless along the route are provided with JoyJ’s unique green bags filled with food, warm clothing, toiletry items, and a McDonald’s gift card. Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great volunteers – among them nearly 40 LeMoyne College alumni, all of whom are contacts of Larry Ford, OFM, pastor – made sandwiches and packed the comfort bags before delivering them to the homeless during the two-hour walk. The generosity of the LeMoyne alumni helped purchase some of the food and essentials.

Volunteers of the JoyJ Initiative who prepared comfort bags for the homeless. (Photo courtesy of Holy Name of Jesus Parish)

In early November, households that come to the parish food pantry regularly for non-perishables and fresh groceries were recipients of the first of at least three turkey distributions, according to a Facebook post. Through grants and donations in 2019, the pantry purchased additional refrigeration, which enabled it to increase its storage capacity and provide broader selections and healthier food options to the 900 clients it serves monthly.

The Holy Name-St. Gregory Giving Tree of Hope campaign officially began on the first weekend of Advent. Parishioners are asked to help fill the Christmas wish list for youngsters of Hour Children – which provides programs and support to incarcerated and released women – and Incarnation’s Children’s Center, the only skilled nursing facility in New York City that provides specialized care for children and adolescents living with HIV/AIDS.

Every Sunday at the 9 a.m. Mass during Advent, the parish is offering a special children’s Liturgy of the Word program for youngsters ages 4 to 8. The children are invited to the altar for a blessing before departing with their catechists to learn about the Gospel in an age-appropriate format, while the adults listen to the Word of God and the homily.

St. Francis of Assisi Parish on Long Beach Island, New Jersey
In 2018, St. Francis Human Concerns, part of the parish’s St. Francis Community Center Food Pantry, provided 275 families with a turkey and all the trimmings of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The program answered the call this year with its annual Thanksgiving project – collecting donations of frozen turkeys, stuffing mix, and canned yams, gravy, cranberry sauce, corn, and green beans to again feed hundreds of families.

With the help of other local merchants and a small army of volunteers, the Sandbox Café on Long Beach Island offered a free community dinner on Thanksgiving Day – with one small catch. The more than 200 people who showed up for the free Thanksgiving meal were asked to make a donation – either a dollar amount or non-perishable food items – to the St. Francis Community Center. A Nov. 30 post on the restaurant’s Facebook page read: “Amazing is the only way to describe the turnout for the community Thanksgiving… Not only did we surpass the number of meals served from last year, we also surpassed funds raised for the St. Francis food bank. The response for volunteers and donations was overwhelming.” James Scullion, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, was grateful to the Sandbox Café, volunteers and the entire community.

As part of the “Gift of Warmth” project – whose goal is to keep the children of the community warm all winter long – parishioners and community residents are taking gift tags from the parish giving tree to help provide winter clothing and blankets for the children of more than 275 local families. Participants are also sponsoring families or providing monetary and gift card donations.

During the Advent season, the parish’s Secular Franciscans are continuing their practice of collecting donations for the Dwelling Place, a transitional residence for women in midtown Manhattan founded 42 years ago by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y.

The children of the parish will again re-enact the story of the birth of Jesus, complete with angels, shepherds, and a donkey. The Children’s Christmas Pageant is scheduled for Dec. 15 at 1 p.m. at St. Thomas of Villanova Church, one of the four churches that make up St. Francis of Assisi Parish. A community social will follow the performance.

The friars will continue a parish tradition of blessing Infant Jesus figurines from the home Nativity scenes and crèches of parishioners. In addition to the special blessing, which takes place at all Masses on the weekend of Dec. 14 and 15, small bundles of hay will be available for parishioners to place in their manger or stable. The story of the first Christmas crèche has long been associated with St. Francis of Assisi.

Church of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady – Wood Ridge, New Jersey
Advent got off to an exhilarating start at this North Jersey parish with a Dec. 1 performance by the Assumption adult and children’s choirs and Gabrieli Brass Quintet, according to Richard Mucowski, OFM, pastor, who said that the concert rekindled the true magic of Christmas. The “Sounds of the Season” performance came under the direction of award-winning music director Gabriel Valle and featured the latest holiday offering from parishioner and composer Ty Agosta.

Assumption Church hosted a multi-sponsored event, bringing together the congregants of three churches in the Wood-Ridge community on Dec. 7. Vocal and instrumental musicians of Assumption, the Transformation Life Church, and the Church of St. Paul’s and Resurrection Episcopal Church  collaboratively led an interactive Christmas concert in which congregants will join in singing Christmas carols. “It’s a great way to celebrate the season and to meet, greet and get to know your neighbors. All are welcome regardless of religion,” said Richard, who has served as pastor at Assumption since 2011.

Other events include a Dec. 9 Advent communal penance service co-sponsored by Assumption Parish and Corpus Christi Parish at the Corpus Christi Chapel in Hasbrouck Heights. A Dec. 16 pancake breakfast and picture with Santa is being sponsored by the Knights of Columbus St. Anthony Council.

St. Mary’s Parish and St. Mary’s School – Pompton Lakes, New Jersey
In true Franciscan spirit, parishioners and school children of St. Mary’s addressed the needs of the marginalized and forgotten during the Thanksgiving holiday. On Thanksgiving Day, parishioners prepared and served a traditional holiday dinner of turkey with the trimmings to residents at Lakeview Rehabilitation and Care Center in Wayne. The 6th grade class of the St. Mary’s faith formation program – comprising 135 students and 16 teachers – decorated Thanksgiving-themed boxes, filled them with goodies and necessities and delivered them to the parish food pantry for distribution to families in need. “We are so proud and thankful for these wonderful and loving children who so cheerfully demonstrated the spirit of helping others,” said Gonzalo de Jesus Torres-Acosta, OFM, pastor. “These amazing disciples show us what Thanksgiving is all about!”

On Dec. 22, the parish will observe a Filipino Advent tradition called Simbang Gabi – or, Mass of the night. Michael Reyes, OFM, of New York City, will celebrate the 3 p.m. Mass, which will be followed by a potluck dinner in the church hall. Simbang Gabi is a tradition in the Philippines that consists of a devotional nine-day series of Masses in anticipation of Christmas.

St. Anthony Parish – Butler, New Jersey
In the days leading to Thanksgiving, a dozen parishioners served lunch at Eva’s Village, a faith-based social services organization that provides care and support to those struggling with poverty, hunger, homelessness, and addiction. During Advent, the Butler parish is hosting a “Come Home for Christmas” program on Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. – an event whose goal is to welcome back Catholics who have been away from the Church.

For the first Sunday of Advent – the season marking the beginning of four weeks of joyful anticipation in the Catholic Church – the parish recorded  Ron Gliatta, OFM, its assistant pastor, on video. He talked about the meaning of Advent and the significance of the Advent wreath.

St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish– Hartford, Connecticut
The friars at St. Patrick-St. Anthony encouraged parishioners to bring an item from their holiday tables – such as a candle holder, serving platter, decorative centerpiece, or wine glass – for a special Thanksgiving blessing at the Nov. 26 and 27 Thanksgiving Masses.

On Thanksgiving morning, parishioners gathered for nearly two hours at the Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry to prepare brown-bag lunches that were distributed in the downtown Hartford area and at the House of Bread, one of the center’s many outreach ministries. “We give thanks through active response,” said Thomas Gallagher, OFM, pastor and guardian. The parish also launched a clothing drive, collecting new and gently used coats, sweaters and other cold-weather garments.

An Advent twilight retreat, “Hospitality: Entertaining Angels,” held Dec. 10, starting with dinner at 5:30 p.m.,  followed by a presentation by student friar Jay Woods, OFM. “Our religious tradition, beginning with our Jewish sisters and brothers, has always encouraged and called us to radical hospitality,” says Jay, who will use scripture and tradition to explore how God called us to welcome the stranger and how we are living this call to radical hospitality. Jay is also leading Advent nourishment, a series of short presentations following the 12:05 p.m. Masses on Dec. 10 and 17.

Rehearsals are underway for the parish’s liturgical dancers and Christmas songbirds, groups that will perform at the 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Masses on Christmas Eve. Under the direction of parishioner Mary Beth Griffith, middle and high school students will provide liturgical dance at the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass, while the parish’s songbirds – a group coordinated by parish cantor Pam Johnson – will provide musical leadership at the 5:30 Mass that day.

Among other happenings in preparation for Christmas at St. Patrick-St. Anthony, the youth ministry organized an Advent wreath-making workshop on Dec. 1. On Nov. 30, the parish kicked off its annual giving tree initiative, providing parishioners with the opportunity to give their time, talent or treasure. “St. Patrick-St. Anthony has a tradition of expressing gratitude for our blessings by sharing them with those who have less,” Thomas explained. The “treasure” tree provides gifts for the homeless, while the “time and talent” tree is for parishioners seeking to share through prayer and service in 2020 at such events as the walk against hunger, making and serving sandwiches for the Franciscan Center’s sandwich ministry, and other volunteer opportunities. The Haiti global giving tree assists St. Patrick-St. Anthony’s sister parish, St. Genevieve, in Zoranje, through donations that support the purchase of textbooks and supplies, school lunch programs, and other education-related needs.

St. Bonaventure Parish – Allegany, New York
Parishioners at St. Bonaventure provided Thanksgiving meals for dozens of families that were identified by Catholic Charities, the parish food pantry, and the local public school. This outreach effort of ensuring a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on the tables of less fortunate families in the rural community of Allegany was started in 1986 by Bernardine Kessing, OFM, when he was the pastor.

The annual “Swaddling Clothes” drive is underway – a program during Advent in which the parish collects packages of new underclothes and toiletries for children and adults in area shelters – such things as tee shirts, socks, and other undergarments, diapers, and toothpaste, deodorant, and other toiletry items. James Vacco, OFM, pastor, started the initiative when he was the administrator at St. John’s Parish in Olean, and continued the program when he arrived at St. Bonaventure in 2011. “People need underclothes and toiletries as well as coats and hats. Swaddling Clothes helps alleviate the burden on shelters and provides basic necessities to the neediest,” James said.

The Bridge, the parish’s food outreach program, has increased its efforts during the holiday season in collecting donations of canned vegetables, fruit, soup and fruit juice, jars of peanut butter, jelly and applesauce, spam and other canned meats, pasta and sauce, rice, instant potatoes and cereal to make sure its shelves are well-stocked to meet the needs of struggling families at a time of year when greater numbers depend on the pantry for assistance.

St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts
The Shrine seniors program typically meets every Wednesday in the basement auditorium for good conversation, interactive games and activities, movies, and a hearty nutritious lunch. But there was nothing typical about the Nov. 20 gathering – when seniors were surprised with festively decorated tables and treated to a Thanksgiving turkey feast with all the trimmings. In a Facebook post, guest Maryann Graf said, “God bless you all for this beautiful Thanksgiving senior dinner!” In another post, Kathy Henry said of the Thanksgiving surprise, “So loving and thankful.” Photos of the event were posted on the Shrine’s Facebook page.

The young adult ministry, a vibrant and active group that calls itself 20s/30s Boston, has several planned holiday-related events that began with a Friendsgiving potluck dinner on Nov. 24 and continued with an Advent Day of Retreat with Jeffery Jordan, OFM, on Dec. 7.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.