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Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Volunteer Jerry Gordon, left, greets customer Tony Harvey at the soup kitchen at St. Mary’s Catholic Church downtown.

A calling to feed hungry

St. Mary’s has filled a need for 39 years with soup kitchen

Diane Day and Joe Voirol bag bread and rolls at the soup kitchen.
Maureen Kelly adds containers of chicken soup to outgoing meal sacks.

– The morning was cold, though not bitterly so, because the bright sun offered warmth. The weekend storm that would drop several inches of snow on Fort Wayne was several hours away.

According to the one-column advertisement in the newspaper that morning, there were still 12 shopping days left until Christmas.

Because the temperature in the low-20s felt reasonably comfortable, there was an easy feeling to the late morning outside of the St. Mary’s soup kitchen. A few people who milled about, many in ragged coats or thin jackets, some with gloves and many without, chatted near the door before they stepped inside.

The line wasn’t long, but it wasn’t ending, either. Every now and then, the numbers would whittle down to three or four, but a few more would come through the door on the Madison Street side of the downtown St. Mary’s Catholic Church and stand quietly in the sheltered alcove. It would be like this until 2 p.m., when workers locked the doors for another day.

Because it was Friday – one of his two days to volunteer – retired furniture and appliance salesman Jerry Gordon, wearing his well-worn blue Notre Dame baseball cap, stood inside and greeted each person who approached the open window. Those in line for the food (on this day, it was homemade chicken noodle soup in a 16-ounce Styrofoam cup, plus a piece of bread and a quart of milk) would sign their name on a sheet of white notebook paper next to the window and indicate how many meals they would receive.

Some got food only for themselves, while others collected for family members or perhaps a friend who was sick. If they wanted two or three meals, Gordon didn’t ask why. He smiled, handed them a paper sack containing whatever they requested and wished them a nice day. The next person in line stepped forward.

Since 1975, when the late Rev. Tom O’Connor began serving bowls of soup through the doors of the St. Mary’s Rectory, the church’s soup kitchen has fed the multitudes. Every day – seven days a week and going into its 39th year – soup and bread have been provided to the homeless, the poor, the needy and, Gordon admits, sometimes the not-so-needy.

“I’m fully aware that there are people who take advantage of the soup kitchen, but I think most of the people here are either working poor or they’re homeless and live under bridges,” he says.

With a paid full-time staff of only three but nourished with roughly 60 volunteers, the soup kitchen has established itself as one of the more recognizable leaders in the city’s charitable community. Each Thanksgiving, the church opens its doors to serve more than a thousand meals to the poor. On Saturday, its Christmas Box Program distributed nearly 1,000 30-pound boxes filled with non-perishable food to go along with either a turkey or ham.

“Probably $45,000 to $50,000 worth of groceries go out the door that day,” says Joe Miller, who oversees the program. “And how many soup kitchens are prepared to do 160 turkeys in two days for the Thanksgiving meal? We do it. And it’s all volunteer.”

It’s estimated that the soup kitchen serves more than 300,000 meals per year and that its $270,000 annual budget is solely funded through donations.

“You have to tell yourself that this is not a solution to the problem,” says Diane Day, who has served eight years as the soup kitchen’s director. “This is somebody who is hungry today, and we have the means to feed them. Unfortunately, for me, the frustration is you know they’re going to be back in line tomorrow. You know they’re going to be back in line the next day.”

Wyotha Tatum isn’t sure how long he’s been coming to the soup kitchen. Six years, maybe seven, he guesses.

He wears a battered, red Ohio State cap and a thin coat, and when he takes off his dark, plastic sunglasses, he shows the tired eyes of a man who is 60 years old.

Still in the small alcove, just feet away from Jerry Gordon’s window, Tatum, who is unemployed, places his bag of food down long enough to praise this place.

“It’s very important. Very important,” he says. “I need the help. My income is not really what it should be. The food that we get is a big blessing for me and all the people who come here. Otherwise, some people won’t have nothing to eat.”

Cheryl Faust, 59, says she was hesitant at first to come and stand in line and accept food.

“I wanted lunch one day,” she says.

Her husband works, she says, but times are tough for them.

“Prices are going up. Paychecks don’t do anything. You come here, if you need something to eat or if you’re low, you can get your bread and your soup. Things get kinda slim after you pay your bills. If this wasn’t here, I’d be doing without milk for a few days.”

Several others who left with their food didn’t want their names in the paper.

“A lot of them are real private,” Gordon says. “A lot of the people talk very softly when they come to the window because they’re ashamed that they have to come to the soup kitchen to get their food. It’s humbling. And I try to put myself in their position, the best I can.”

Like the people it serves, St. Mary’s has also endured its hard times.

It was 20 years ago this past September when a bolt of lightning struck one of the Gothic spires, setting off a blaze that burned the historic landmark Catholic church to the ground.

Later, as he looked into the smoldering remains, Rev. O’Connor vowed, “We shall rebuild.”

And rebuild St. Mary’s did – on the same, familiar corner of Lafayette Street and Jefferson Boulevard.

“I was in tears. It was like losing a relative,” says Miller, who watched helplessly as the fire consumed the church’s roof. And then the steeple fell.

“So often, blessings come in awkward disguises,” Miller added. “This building serves the community so much better.”

Beginning at 6 a.m., the legion of volunteers arrives to begin preparing the day’s soup. Fresh vegetables are cleaned and cut and added into two 60-gallon stainless steel vats. Loaves of bread are separated. The soup (Day has at least a dozen different recipes, with the most popular being ham and bean, chili and potato) is poured into the 16-ounce containers with lids.

If it’s either Tuesday or Thursday, something sweet – a cookie or doughnut donated by a local bakery – is added to the sack. Milk is provided on Mondays and Fridays. And by 10 a.m., the steady line begins to form.

“When you’re at the window, you get a lot of ‘God bless yous.’ ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ ‘What would we do if you weren’t here?’ ” says Gordon. “And they’re not talking to me; they’re talking to the overall operation of the soup kitchen.

“You see the same faces. And you see all ages. You see kids. You see young mothers, with children. A lot of people ride bikes. A lot of people walk long distances to get here. It may be the only hot meal they get.”

Since he has been a volunteer for more than four years, distributing sacks of food through the same window, Gordon knows many by their first name. He smiles at them; has watched some of their children grow; hears their stories; senses their hurt.

There is a man from New Haven, Gordon says. His name is John.

“He writes music, and he can sing the music that he writes,” Gordon says. “He’s been coming in for years. And one day he brought in songs that he had written, and there were like a half a dozen of them on a sheet of paper – all the lyrics. He didn’t have the notes, but it’s the music he composed. But he sometimes would actually sing it to us at the window, if he didn’t have a long line.”