As many as 500 people will make their way to St. Mary’s Parish Hall in downtown Calgary’s Mission District this coming Sunday afternoon. Drawn by the promise of a warm place to sit and a hot meal to eat, they’ll make their way in footwear ranging from sturdy winter boots to wet and worn-out running shoes. While most will arrive unaided, others will lean on canes or walkers and some will push strollers or wheelchairs. They’ll eat in shifts, alone or seated alongside family and friends and while all will leave with their physical hunger sated, the vast majority will also carry lighter hearts. For behind the bowls of salad, the hot coffee and the steaming plates of food breathes something truly magnificent: Love.
That love comes from the simple fact that for 49 Sundays of the year, Feed the Hungry (FTH) at St. Mary’s Parish Hall is the most popular place to eat in downtown Calgary and while most come to eat, some come to serve.
That awareness of the “something great” is what prompted a group of four Catholic high school chaplains to organize their schools to sponsor a FTH night on Sept 8, 2019. In hindsight, “the timing wasn’t ideal, since that was the first Sunday of the new school year,” says event coordinator Dawna Richardson. Even so, the chaplain at St. Mary’s High School says the event was a phenomenal experience and one she’d consider organizing again.
From idea to execution
The idea started with a comment by Theodoric Nowak, Director of Social Justice and Outreach Ministries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary. Nowak, who met with high school chaplains, parish priests and pastoral workers early in the year, noted FTH needed sponsors for three Sunday dinners. Sponsors pay $5,000 and commit to providing 100 volunteers.
Chaplains from St. Mary’s, Bishop O’Byrne, All Saints and Bishop Carroll came aboard after discussing the idea with administrators at their schools. “Each school agreed to find 25 volunteers and I divided up the shifts so each shift had a mix of schools represented,” explains Richardson. “This way, each school had their share of the jobs everyone wants to do (like serve meals) and jobs that are more difficult to arrange (like washing dishes).” The four chaplains and some staff members from the schools volunteered from start to finish.
To avoid the hubbub of the first week of school, organizers raised the money during Lent 2019 and handled the field trip permission slips before the summer break. When Richardson’s school had a few openings left in early September, Bella Nguyen was one of the new Grade 10 students who stepped up. “It was really wonderful being there where so many people were working together,” says Nguyen. Now a member of St. Mary’s Student Action Leadership Team, she’s grateful for opportunities to show her Catholic faith in action.
Service is a blessing
Bishop O’Byrne chaplain Deborah Eberle says the experience “was a blessing for each student that came forward. It was eye opening, especially for our first-time volunteers.” She credits the FTH experience, which she’s shared at school celebrations, for a rise in the number of new volunteers who participate in social justice projects, including one where students make sandwiches for the Mustard Seed.
Because the four high schools draw from different socio-economic demographics, each of the four chaplains worked with her own school to raise their share of the $5,000. St Mary’s held a number of fundraisers during Lent. At O’Byrne, students paid to “force” a social studies teacher to stay after school and play his least-favourite video game. “The more they gave, the longer he played.”
Eberle and Richardson say the experience drove home the fact that students in Calgary’s Catholic high schools are looking for ways to be of service. “I just knew it was a good idea and that we could work together to make this happen,” says Eberle.
“It’s not difficult to get students involved in projects like this. We’re just providing an opportunity for them to do what they want to do,” adds Richardson.
FTH is about more than helping people who are hungry, she adds. “It gives vulnerable people an opportunity to be taken care of by people who care about people. It’s great for our students to see this kind of love in action and to be part of it and to know that what you have is not only given to you, it’s given to you for the common good, for the good of all.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Photos submitted by Dawna Richardson
Tonight, as I was driving by a parking lot in the bleak and snowy weather, feeling downcast and discouraged by difficulties from recent weeks, I saw a guy dumpster-diving in a clothing donations bin in the dark. Pulling over to ask if there was anything I can do to help, I was shocked to see a guy probably in his 30's, not older than me.
He said what he needed most was a warm pair of gloves to make it through the cold night, as his was full of holes. Since all the stores were closed, I offered him mine, though they were rather worn. He hesitated, but I insisted that he tried them on – they fit. The look on his face was one of genuine happiness and gratitude, over just my old worn pair of gloves. My heart ached. We made a run to Tim’s to get some food, and I let him know about the Feed The Hungry program every Sunday at St. Mary’s. He shared with me that he went to a Catholic school growing up, so I asked him if there was anything I can help pray for. Looking away, he stood silent for what seemed like a minute, neither speaking or moving. Then, with tears in his eyes, he asked me to pray for his two kids whom he hasn’t seen in a long time. I promised I would pray for him, and in your charity, I ask that you please pray for Mike and his kids too. He was so grateful, but to me he was the real blessing tonight, as he snapped me out of focusing on myself and my own problems. God bless Mike, and may he receive all the graces and help needed to be reunited with his kids. #iamblessed
Shared by Dr. Thomas Fung, parishioner of Holy Spirit Parish in Calgary, Vice President of Calgary Catholic Medical Association. Photo credit: Dr. Thomas Fung
With her long blonde hair, sunglasses and a big smile, Jackie sat on her walker beside her friend, in line for dinner outside St. Mary’s Cathedral Hall in Calgary. She’s come for Sunday dinner at Feed the Hungry for a decade.
“The people are nice, the meals are good and sometimes I don’t like sitting at home by myself because I live alone,” said the mother of one grown son. The 59-year-old jokes that most people think she looks too young to have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Jackie lives in a downtown apartment, getting by with help from her disability payments. She uses a walker because of her unsteady balance due to Parkinson’s disease and tremors. And a history of being abused has left her with debilitating anxiety and stress.
Jackie was one of the 557 people served a warm meal on the last Sunday in May. On average, 500 people are served a four-course meal 48 Sundays per year. To keep the meal running smoothly, it takes about 100 volunteers, six part-time paid assistant coordinators and one full-time paid program manager. Anyone can sponsor a Sunday dinner for $5,000 — a parish, school, company, family or individual.
A group of parishioners piloted the idea on Easter Sunday 1993, and it has been running continuously ever since. This year marks their 25th anniversary. The outreach has been sustained simply through word of mouth, and all these years later word is still getting around.
“People are still walking through this door in what is supposed to be this rich, affluent city,” said Sartre Jean-Gilles, Feed the Hungry program manager. “We really don’t survey our guests, but most of them are definitely homeless or working poor. It’s just people trying to make ends meet.
“Anybody is welcome at Feed the Hungry. I would really like neighbours to come have a meal and see what’s going on in their neighbourhood. I think a lot of people shy away from it because it’s a validation of the situation they are in. I don’t think a lot of people would want to come if they didn’t have to.”
Lining the sidewalk between St. Mary’s Cathedral and Hall was a crowd diverse in age, sex and nationality. A separate section in St. Mary’s parking lot was reserved for women, families, people with mobility issues and the elderly.
Jessica, her boyfriend Chris, and her two children aged 7 and 8 found out about the dinner five years ago through word of mouth. They come when times are tight. The couple is on disability payments; Chris for bipolar and a brain injury and Jessica manages life with fetal alcohol syndrome.
“It’s hard for me to be reliable and stable, to be committed to work with my FAS. I have tried over the years. We just find it very useful when we do come (to Feed the Hungry). It’s good food and service. I feel safe here.”
Emily Kennedy, a social worker and Feed the Hungry assistant coordinator, said not to underestimate the value of a reliable meal, served with a smile in a safe and hospitable space.
“It’s so important to have a place to come together as a community and experience the dignity that might be missing in a shelter,” said Kennedy. “It’s not just about feeding someone, it’s about giving someone happiness and hope in their day.”
And it’s not just a meaningful outreach for the dinner guests. David Holy often makes time on a Sunday to volunteer with his family because serving with Feed the Hungry has been so enriching for him.
“You see the face of Christ here,” said Holy pausing a moment from his table service duty. “With these people, you are truly serving Christ. Selfishly, I probably get more out of this experience than the people I serve do. It feels good to serve and I feel like Christ showers me with blessings.”
Holy wanted his son-in-law Lewis Cutter to have the Feed the Hungry experience while he was in Calgary visiting from Spokane, Washington. And the timing worked out well since this particular meal was low on volunteers.
“People are nicer, kinder than how they come across or you may build up in your head,” said Cutter, a first time volunteer. “It puts your own gifts from God in perspective; things you have afforded in your everyday, like a hot meal. One positive experience like this and it makes me want to do it more. It’s a life-giving experience.”
When a dinner is short staffed, Dana Colborne comes to the rescue. For over a decade, this mother of four has been on the call-out list, coming in last minute to ensure there are enough volunteers. For the last two months, she’s served every Sunday.
“I love to cook. I love feeding people. I thoroughly enjoy visiting with the people that come here and find out their story. And I feel good that they are getting a good meal at least once a week.”
Jean-Gilles encourages anyone interested in a meal, volunteering or sponsorship to check out the website feedthehungrycalgary.ca. This program depends on funds from our Together In Action, annual appeal.
“We are always looking for sponsors and volunteers, especially in the summer. This is a year-round thing,” said Jean-Gilles. “I see these people leaving the hall and I know they are going to be hungry in eight hours. It’s just such a basic need.”
Written by Sara Francis
Rob moved into his new apartment on Feb. 13, 2018. After six years of sleeping in a room that held up to eight men a night, he was eager to wake up in his own space. Since Valentine’s Day 2018 marked the day Rob would be able to get up when he wanted, he went to bed excited by the promise of the next day. After six years of not having a home to call his own, he looked forward to being able to make himself a cup of coffee he could drink while watching the morning news. He planned to sit at the table given to him by a new neighbour and watch a TV donated by another resident of his new apartment building. Life, finally, looked good.
But sleep was difficult.
“For the first week and a half, it was tough,” remembers Rob. He’d slept on the floor before, so the fact that he didn’t yet have a bed was the least of his worries. The real issue was the wall-to-wall silence. “At the DI (Drop In), there was always noise. Here, it was so quiet.”
Walking for change
Hundreds of people will participate in the Downtown location of four Coldest Night of the Year (CNOY) walks being held in Calgary on Saturday, Feb. 23. Money raised at the CNOY Downtown event funds two of the Calgary Catholic Diocese’s biggest social justice projects, says Samantha Jones, Event Coordinator, on staff with the Diocese. “This is a fun and family-friendly fundraiser and we really encourage Catholics to come out with their families and friends. You can walk two, five or 10 kilometres and the money supports Feed the Hungry and KAIROS Calgary.”
KAIROS is an ecumenical group of churches focused on Social Justice issues in Calgary. Its share of the money raised at CNOY Downtown goes to HomeSpace, a charitable real estate developer that owns 521 units of rental housing in 27 properties across Calgary. KAIROS used CNOY funds to help pay off the mortgage on an affordable housing project in Acadia. Money from the 2019 walk will help pay the mortgage on Bankview Apartments, the building where Rob rents one of 27 units rented to single people, couples and small families.
Affordable, safe, supported -- and quiet
HomeSpace properties are operated in cooperation with other community agencies, including The Alex, CUPS and Alberta Health Services, explains Rina McDermott, who works with HomeSpace. “It’s important to help people find a place to live. But people who have been homeless often need additional support. They may need help preparing meals or learning how to clean their units. At Bankview, CUPS provides that wrap-around service to our residents. We want them to be successful.”
This year, McDermott will walk the downtown route with her work colleagues and a group of Vincentians from St. Peter’s parish in the northwest Calgary. “St. Bonaventure, St. Patrick’s and the youth group from St. James in Okotoks are regular contributors, too,” says Jones, who’d like to see more Catholic churches and church-based groups support the walk.
“We typically get about 400 walkers—but there is room for 900. One of the best things about this event is that kids are welcome and the route we take often gives people an opportunity to meet and visit with some of our homeless neighbours.”
As an added bonus, the Saturday-night event includes a rest stop with hot chocolate and it ends with a chili supper sponsored by Boardwalk Rental Communities, one of the city’s largest housing rental property managers. Boardwalk also funds a Feed the Hungry dinner once a year.
Peace, at last
A year after moving into his apartment, Rob spends his days helping out around the building and working on cross-stitch pictures he sometimes sells. He looks forward to being able to use his balcony when the weather warms up—and he treasures its view of the city where he’s lived most of his life.
Unable to work but determined to stay busy, he sometimes goes back to the DI to help prepare and serve lunch and to visit friends. Having struggled with addiction, he never invites those friends back to his apartment; that would be too risky. Rob knows what it’s like to be evicted and he doesn’t want to live that pain again, especially not when he has it so good at Bankview. While he doesn’t know all of his neighbours, Rob volunteers to help cook when they gather for communal suppers. “I really like cooking. I did a lot of that at the DI and I like doing it here, too.”
These days, he also treasures the night-time silence at Bankview Apartments. The peace and quiet used to hinder his ability to fall asleep. A year later, that’s what “home” sounds like to Rob.
Written by: Joy Gregory
The lineup for a free hot meal organized by the Diocese of Calgary often begins an hour before the doors to St. Mary’s Parish Hall open at 3:30 p.m. Rain or shine, wind or snow, people come by the hundreds. Most arrive on foot, some aided by canes or walkers. Others come alone. The adults will all take a seat beside others gathered at the long communal tables, but some will never speak.
Those with children walk around to the hall’s back entrance. Pushing strollers, carrying toddlers, holding the hands of shy children and smiling at the antics of tweens and teens, they will be seated in the family section of the weekly supper known as Feed the Hungry (FTH). At one dinner held this past summer, a young mother travelled 90 minutes—taking three city buses—for the opportunity to take her three boys out for a meal. Illness keeps her from working. Her boys keep her from giving into despair.
Faith, hope and charity
A modern-day version of the Christmas story plays out near St. Mary’s Cathedral nearly every Sunday night of the year. Here, the menu includes a hot meal served alongside a good helping of faith, hope and charity.
A downtown Calgary institution since 1994, FTH welcomes as many as 500 people to its Sunday suppers. The event gives many of its guests temporary respite from emergency shelters. They are joined by parents with low income who welcome a break from meals made with items found in emergency food hampers; seniors parenting grandchildren; single people, couples and families couch-surfing through their wait for affordable housing; working parents for whom a couple of days off work to nurse a sick child means the month’s pay cheque no longer covers rent and food. Other guests may like to sleep “rough,” but welcome a tasty hot meal made and served by kind people.
Across the room from the family tables sit the less-than-sober. Every guest, regardless of age or situation, will receive table-side service of salad, a hot meal, beverages and desserts. Guests are welcome to ask for seconds and it’s not uncommon for the volunteer servers to step in when they see a young eater who’s not happy about the night’s fare. “Your little boy doesn’t like tonight’s entrée? Let me check with the chef. We’ll find him something.”
For a few hours once a week, there is always room at this inn.
It takes a village
Every FTH meal is sponsored by a parish, company or community group, says Program Manager Sartre Jean-Gilles. Sponsors donate $5,000 and agree to supply up to 100 volunteers. To keep everything running smoothly, another set of regular volunteers serve as Team Leads and oversee specific stations. The menu is managed by other rotating teams of volunteer cooks. Some cooking teams are organized around parish links. Others are staffed by groups of friends.
Bishop William McGrattan likes the way FTH garners widespread community support. While many of its benefactors are Catholic, others participate simply because they seek to serve the less fortunate. The Bishop is also a fan of how FTH enables children to serve alongside their parents.
On Dec. 16, an anonymous sponsor will treat dinner guests to live entertainment. Each of the diners will also receive a $10 gift card for a fast food restaurant. Those cards were donated by parishioners, FTH sponsors, vendors and volunteers.
Watching the first group of diners enter the hall, one of the Dec. 9 volunteers smiles. He’s been here before and he’s pleased to be back. “I’ve learned not to judge.” He doesn’t need to know why his guests are there. He’s just grateful they have a place to come.
Written by: Joy Gregory
Do you know that last year Feed the Hungry Garden grew 4000 lbs of produce for the food bank? We are planting again this year! See pictures below from Linnea Ferguson, our Feed the Hungry Garden Coordinator.
A sampling of photos from a very successful morning of planting potatoes, which started with a special blessing by Bishop McGrattan and ended with a delicious meal together. Thank you everyone!
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers