by Dean Backes
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jesus’ command to feed the hungry didn’t fall on deaf ears when Wilhelmina Gill set out to pitch her inspiration to serve casseroles to the hungry in Kansas City, Kansas, four decades ago.
Instead, Gill’s vision whet the spiritual appetite of the city’s churches and congregations to lend a helping hand to those in need.
“You have this command from Jesus to feed the hungry,” said Holy Name, Kansas City, Kansas, parishioner Mike Dye as he and the many volunteers, past and present, prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Gill’s ministry Feb. 11. “Sure, I can make a couple of sandwiches, take them to somebody sitting on a street corner, and hand them to them.
“But coming together, as our parish and every other parish that goes to the kitchen does, we can guarantee that anybody that’s hungry in our part of Kansas City will have at least one, good, hot meal a day.”
Shortly after attending a conference in the early 1980s, Gill approached former executive director of Catholic Social Services, Louis Finocchario, to discuss pursuing a ministry of both nourishment and fellowship in Kansas City, Kansas.
Gill, who along with St. Peter Cathedral, Holy Name, Our Lady & St. Rose and Blessed Sacrament parishes made up the Social Concerns Group, then called on Father Raymond Davern and Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker to explore the idea of working from the basement of St. Mary Church, located at 5th and Ann Ave. in Kansas City, Kansas.
A deal was struck. And as long as Gill and the Social Concerns Group could pay the utilities, the rent at St. Mary was free. The food kitchen served its first meal on Feb. 11, 1982, feeding 11 hungry people.
Forty years later, with the help of nearly 40 Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal and Christian churches and synagogues, St. Mary’s Food Kitchen is still making a difference in the lives of the local hungry population. Instead of serving fewer than a dozen people, the kitchen now feeds as many as 250 to 1,300 hungry residents on any given day. (Although it is now located in the Wilhelmina Gill Multi-Service Center, it is still referred to as St. Mary’s Food Kitchen.)
“We’re doing something that can be done that individuals couldn’t do on their own,” Dye explained. “I’m sure glad we can do this together. It’s good for our parish and for the people in the parish that contribute to and physically volunteer at the food kitchen to be able to fill Christ’s command that we feed the hungry.”
In the early going, Dye said, everything was kind of hit-and-miss. Without a set menu, volunteers made casseroles or whatever they felt like throwing together and brought it to St. Mary’s. For Dye, fried chicken was usually on the menu.
The food kitchen’s volunteer group was consistently the same people early on. Once the food kitchen became more organized, everybody had a job. Dye’s time was usually spent handing out the tickets and, of course, helping with the cleanup afterwards. Through his many conversations with the food kitchen’s clients, Dye has made some friends.
“One gentleman” Dye said, “came up to me and said, ‘You know, I have enough money to eat on my own. I don’t have a lot of money, but I don’t have trouble eating. The reason I come over here, is it’s the only time I get to talk to anybody.’ And you know, to this day, that kind of makes me think that there are other needs being met.”
Eventually, Dye’s work schedule interfered with his ability to volunteer. But his wife Evelyn, who is Holy Name’s parish administrator, is down there every fourth Thursday pitching in. The couple also helps out financially.
“On our day, we serve chili dogs,” said Evelyn who puts in the orders for the food. “I make sure that I get the good hot dogs. All beef. Just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean that you have to eat poor. That’s why our day is very well visited. They get some really good food.”
365 days a year
Evelyn said that St. Mary’s ministry is important to the Kansas City community and that no one church should get credit over the others. The band of parishes, churches and synagogues work together to serve Kansas City’s hungry population 365 days a year.
During the pandemic, as many as 1,300 sandwiches were made daily so that those in need of a meal were not turned away.
“We all made sack lunches and then when it was our turn, we’d take a caravan of cars with all of these sack lunches and give them to the volunteers at the food kitchen,” Evelyn said of Holy Name’s runs during the pandemic. “It was the board of trustees that volunteered then, and they physically handed the lunches to the people that would come around to the back door.
“[The board] has to be commended. They run it and I can’t give them enough kudos on how they are doing it.”
Along with the chili dogs, Holy Name’s menu consists of chips, and coffee and juice. Jello and other sweets and desserts are part of the deal as well. Volunteers like Edie Adams, 93, provide the sweeter side of the menu.
‘I never worried’
Adams has a long history of helping out at the food kitchen. After arriving on that first day, Adams’ career didn’t allow her to volunteer at the kitchen until her retirement in 1989. She showed up like clockwork on the fourth Thursday of each month until a fall in 2017 forced her to give up volunteering.
Adams, who still makes the jello for St. Mary’s, served as Holy Name’s coordinator for about 15 years.
“If you see that there is a need, then you take care of it,” Adams said of how she led as coordinator. “I never worried about people showing up at the food kitchen. If they came, they came. We always had more than enough people coming and helping us. If someone needed help with something, two people got together and got it done.”
Adams recalled the first time St. Mary’s Food Kitchen opened its doors. There weren’t a lot of people, she said, but soon attendance kept going up and up and up. Hot dogs weren’t always on the menu for Holy Name, but once the parish was able to get them at a discount, they stayed.
Another parish joined Holy Name on the fourth Thursday, briefly, and brought deviled eggs along with other snacks.
“You see the situations they are in,” Adams said of the food kitchen’s clients. “You see why they’re there. You don’t give them much. But at least you give them something to eat on the day that you’re there. We are there to serve them. We are there to give them nourishment. Hopefully, they like the food.”
Jacqueline Elbert jumped on board with the food kitchen about four years ago when she accepted a role as coordinator for Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. Following the advice of a friend to take the position, Elbert sat down with Curé pastor Father Richard Storey and then prayed and reflected on the position before saying yes.
Then, St. Mary’s board member Heidi Fox persuaded Elbert to fill a position on the board.
“I feel like this is where God has called me to be,” Elbert said of playing a role with the food kitchen. “I get up in the morning and I look forward to coming here and being a part of it. I look forward to coming and being with the parishes. Being with the people.”
‘We ask no questions’
The food kitchen, which receives regular donations of unsold goods from HyVee and Panera Bread, has been without a manager since last April, leaving Elbert and fellow board members Fox and Mike Amos to run the show at least twice a week each.
“I believe that we are energized when we are doing what God has called us to do,” Elbert said. “If it’s not something that comes from your heart, then it drives you down and makes you tired.”
Each of the parishes is assigned one day of the month and typically serves the same menu every time its day comes up.
“We ask no questions,” Elbert said. “I don’t care how you’re dressed. I don’t care what your situation is. It’s one of the things that we have on our website: ‘Without question, we feed.’ That’s really what the corporal works of mercy are. Give them food. Give them drink.”
Operating as a 501(c)(3), St. Mary’s Food Kitchen changed its name to Hot Lunch Services, Inc., some years back in order to keep its nonprofit status. Besides offering clients a great meal, job leads and resume services, the Gill Center also provides more than a dozen other services. Go online to: www.stmaryfoodkitchen.org or call (913) 281-5638 to donate, volunteer or see the list of services.
Evelyn, thank you for all you do!