by Joe Bollig
“How’s the food?” he asks one patron.
“Are you enjoying your meal?” he says to another.
“How can we improve what we’re doing?” is his question to a third.
And finally, when people get ready to leave, Jerry is right there.
“We’re glad you came, and be sure to come back next month,” he says.
You could hardly find a more customer-friendly restaurant manager — except that Frietchen isn’t a restaurant manager, and Elijah’s Supper isn’t a restaurant.
Your money is no good there. The meals are free.
Elijah’s Supper is a community meals ministry of Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph Parish in Leavenworth — the obsolete term being “soup kitchen.” It’s open the first Thursday of each month.
Your money’s no good at Elijah’s Supper because the currency required here is love, and it’s paid for by diners, donors and volunteers alike.
Donations to keep the plates filled, however, are always gratefully accepted.
Not empty, not dry
The name of the place comes straight from Carmelite spirituality, said pastor Father David McEvoy, O.Carm.
“The prophet Elijah is one of our Carmelite patrons,” said Father David.
“The story in the Old Testament is that Elijah went to the widow of Zarephath and asked her to feed him,” he continued. “She told him she didn’t have enough to feed herself and her son. [Elijah] told her to do what she could, and said, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.’”
Although the ministry might bear the prophet’s name, the heart, soul and catalyst of Elijah’s Supper is Mitzie Frietchen, Jerry’s wife. She and Jerry had been volunteers at the Leavenworth Assistance Center.
“We saw all these people coming in for food, but they needed somewhere to have a hot meal,” said Mitzie. “A lot of them said, ‘I don’t have a stove,’ or, ‘I don’t have a microwave.’”
With this in the back of her mind, she talked with some of her family about the need for community meals in Leavenworth. Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal churches offered free community meals but only one Saturday a month, on a rotating basis.
Jerry thought this was the perfect year to do this.
“In the Year of Faith, with the concepts of ‘Love It, Learn It, Live It,’ we felt that we should live our faith beyond just going to church on Sundays,” he said.
Kinzler Hall, the social hall in the basement of St. Joseph Church, had been used as a school cafeteria. With the consolidation of Catholic schools a few years ago, however, it was no longer used.
It was a perfect venue. All Mitzie needed was a plan, donations and volunteers.
In December 2012, Jerry and Mitzi took the idea to Father David, who gave it his support and its name. Then, Mitzie began to study how a community meal site worked.
“We have some friends who belong to the Lutheran church,” she said. “We talked to them about their soup kitchen and we visited the others.”
She called for an organizational meeting in January and more than 80 people showed up — a much higher number than the typical call for volunteers yields.
“We have a healthy problem right now,” said Jerry. “We have more volunteers than we need. We have a waiting list.”
People began to donate dollars and food. One person donated 100 pounds of hamburger, and another gave seven turkeys. Others pledged smaller amounts of foodstuffs and ready-made desserts.
Since Saturdays were already covered by other churches, Mitzie decided Elijah’s Supper could help fill in the weekday gap and set the hours from 4 to 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month.
Indeed, the flour hasn’t run out or the oil run dry. Thanks to food donations, she’s only had to spend $40 or $50 for food or ingredients. So far, cash donations have been good, several the result of spontaneous giving.
“One guy asked me, ‘How’s the food kitchen doing?’ and I said, ‘We’re doing OK,’” said Jerry. “So he said, ‘Here’s $50 anyway.’”
People are generous, said Jerry. Also, they like to see the concrete results of their charity right before their eyes. They can see the people they have helped.
About 100 people were served during the first dinner service and about 150 were served at the latest.
Food for body and heart
As one would expect, many of Elijah’s Supper patrons live lives of economic difficulty.
Some are elderly, have health issues, or come from single-parent households.
Some are homeless. Some are families who have a parent — usually the father — in one of Leavenworth’s prisons, and they are trying to survive on public assistance.
Some come because of the greatest hunger: loneliness.
“I know of a couple that could afford a restaurant, but they just come for the company — to have someone to eat with and talk to,” said Mitzie.
The watch words at Elijah’s Supper are “comfort level.” Volunteers are encouraged to eat with the patrons, and sometimes parish youth sing songs.
Everyone gets a warm welcome.
“Our objective is for them not to feel embarrassed by coming here,” said Jerry.
The proof of their success is in the thanks that the patrons give.
“They do a really good job,” said Jerry Derringer, who brings his ailing in-laws. “They’re all nice, every one of them. When you go, they say, ‘Have a blessed day,’ and ‘God bless you.’ The [priest] says, ‘We’ll keep your family in our prayers.’”