Imagine cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 20,000 people, Christmas dinner for about 17,000 and Easter dinner for nearly 15,000. That’s what volunteers at St. Augustine Hunger Center in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood have been doing for decades.
They prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the trimmings for those who have no place to go for the holiday, as well as for shut-ins and residents of senior citizen complexes across Greater Cleveland. It’s a ministry of mercy and love.
“There was a small food pantry when I came here in 1970 and it grew. We were making 3,000 food baskets for the holidays and we couldn’t keep up with it, so we decided to begin serving the holiday meals,” said Sister Corita Ambro, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph.
She orchestrates the preparation, distribution and serving of the meals, aided by a cadre of dedicated volunteers, many of whom return every year. Much of the food is donated and cash contributions help defray costs.
“I don’t know what we’d do without them,” Sister Corita said of the volunteers and donors. “People are extremely good to us and I don’t know how to thank them all.”
Bob Ambro, Sister Corita’s brother, handles inventory control, as well as planning meals and buying needed products. He said Thanksgiving meals are distributed to about 15 sites, some as far away as Huron. “We supply everything for them, including paper products, salt, pepper, coffee cups, etc. All the residents have to do is come and eat.”
It takes weeks to prepare for such a large undertaking. Sister said roughly 1,500 turkeys, including about 250 donated by the Elk & Elk law firm, are needed for the Thanksgiving dinners. Volunteers began cooking the turkeys in early October. Each turkey weighs about 10-15 pounds. After roasting, the meat is removed from the bones, then sliced and frozen until it is needed.
The meal also includes dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, jellied cranberry sauce, yams, vegetables (usually green beans or corn), salad, rolls, pumpkin pie and juice.
“The volunteers who come in are phenomenal. They love what they’re doing and are happy to come. We’ve even had celebrities volunteer. The volunteers are a combination of people who work and serve to help our clients. It’s very important to me that our clients feel welcome and loved. I’m a hugger,” said the diminutive nun. “When you touch someone, you show them you mean what you say.”
Sister said holidays are a difficult time for some. “People are lonely and are grateful for visitors. I encourage the volunteers to spend some time with the recipients when they deliver the meals.”
Father Joe McNulty, St. Augustine pastor, said one year his brother was delivering Thanksgiving meals and he ended up eating with four different homebound clients, each of whom was lonely and happy to have company.
“When he got back, I reminded him that we were just about ready for our family Thanksgiving dinner and he’d better eat. He told me he didn’t think he could even look at any more turkey,” Father Joe recalled, laughing.
Sister Corita said she likes to scan the room while people are eating. One Thanksgiving, she noticed a man who seemed to be depressed. “I asked one of the volunteers to go over and talk to him,” she said. “He did, and later on the man turned in a gun, which we immediately gave to the police. He said he was so lonely and so depressed that he had planned to kill himself that day. The volunteer who talked to him literally saved his life,” she said.
The holiday meals and hunger center are just two of the many works of mercy offered at St. Augustine Parish. Established in 1860, St. Augustine’s has had outreach programs since its early days. Father Joe, who has been at the parish for 44 years, 39 as pastor, said that many years ago, some of the priests used to quietly deliver food to needy families. Over the years, the program expanded.
Sister Corita said when she began at St. Augustine, there was a soup kitchen feeding 25-30 people daily. “We gradually went from one to two and finally three meals a day to meet the need.”
The hunger center provides meals for anyone who needs them, Sister Corita said. “We never turn away anyone in need.” Breakfast is served at 7:30 a.m. and consists of hot or cold cereal, pastry, coffee and juice. Lunch, served at 11:30 a.m., and dinner, served at 5 p.m., are hot meals. The menus include meat (like beef strips served with barbecue sauce or chicken served with rice), vegetables, salad, soup, dessert and juice. Robert Williams, known as “Junior,” does most of the cooking. Clients sit at tables and are served by volunteers.
Many parishes, schools and organizations provide volunteers to assist with the meal programs. Several Catholic high schools in the diocese regularly send groups of students to help. “They do whatever we need,” said Sister.
One recent Wednesday at lunchtime, a group of sophomore theology students from St. Edward High School was volunteering. Their chaperone, theology teacher Jurell Sison, said about 100 students were volunteering that day at various sites around the city.
Jurell said the students do a series of service retreats at soup kitchens, nursing homes, hospitals and shelters. “Community service helps foster relationships and helps to get them immersed in different facets of the community,” he said. Their service commitment ends with a prayer service and reflection.
Prayer is a key part of mealtime at St. Augustine. Clients gather in the church hall, announcements are made and there is a round of applause for the cooks and volunteers.
“Now let us pray for each other, for those in hospitals and nursing homes and for what goes on here at St. Augustine,” said Junior. All observed a moment of silence before prayer.
Sister Corita said the meals and food pantry are crucial to many people. “These people have real needs; many are struggling.” She said substance abuse and mental illness, in addition to economic issues, impact many of St. Augustine’s clients. Some have become success stories, learning the ropes of the food industry and obtaining work. A few even give back by helping at the hunger center.
The parish also has a robust deaf ministry – including a deaf choir and deaf senior citizen programs. Masses are signed for the deaf using American Sign Language, and monthly there are special liturgies for the blind that offer an explanation of what is taking place during Mass. There are numerous substance abuse support groups that meet at the parish. Sometimes, volunteer nurses stop by to check clients’ blood pressures; a doctor comes weekly to help with medical issues, while another volunteer offers advice on Social Security and disability questions. There are programs for the blind, for the mentally handicapped and mentally ill, senior citizen programs, a youth group, sacramental preparation and more. Sister said food and socialization are important parts of the programs, since many participants are lonely and need help. The parish also tries to assist – when possible – with utilities, rent and finding housing for those who need it.
Father Joe and Sister Corita said the parish is immersed in the community and creates awareness of its mission to serve those in need.
“We don’t just work with Catholics,” she said. As a result of their outreach, some people have joined the Church. “One man had been participating in some of our parish programs and he learned to love the Church. He asked if he could become Catholic. He attended RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), was baptized, made his first confession and received his first Communion,” Sister said.
“As I was reading my prayers on the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, one of the readings summed up what we do. It said we must serve Christ and see him in everyone, even the people who are ‘rough,’” Father Joe said.