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
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers