At the St. Thomas of Canterbury Church in ‘Uptown’ Chicago, a parish and ministry site of the St. Bonaventure Province of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, we offer a banquet to the frail, the forgotten and lost souls around us. In a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted communities around the world, the Church has been no exception. With the help of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, our staff and volunteers, who come together twice a week in two different shifts, we strive to make this Gospel message a lived reality: “when you offer a banquet, do not invite the rich, for they may invite you back in return; invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…” (Luke 14:13) We are even now more intent on making sure that those who especially need our attention receive food, health supplements and enough to fill their hunger.
I was raised in the town of McHenry, Illinois, USA and attended Carmel High School, located next door to the Marytown shrine where I currently reside, in the expanse of property of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary University in Mundelein, Illinois, USA. I have been working at the St. Thomas of Canterbury, in Chicago ever since I was a Postulant in the Order as part of my ministry service in 1992. At the time, one of the original workers and director of Soup Kitchen, ever since it was started by the very work of Dorothy Day, was Mr. Jim Eder, who still volunteers once in a while at the Soup Kitchen today.
Along with food donations that come from all areas throughout Chicago and the Northwest suburbs, we are blessed with volunteers, staff, hosts of school groups and many others that make the Soup Kitchen work possible. They wash and prepare the vegetables and meats, put together a complete meal, as well as manage our food and clothing pantry. We are so grateful to other assistance programs such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Greater Foods Industry, and other companies and institutions that help out., benefactors and parishioners who are moved by the Holy Spirit. We really cannot say enough about God’s providence at work in the favors and assistance we receive, which we pass on directly to our guests.
Before the start of every meal service, first-time volunteers get to learn about the ministry and the history of our work, through stories pertaining to God’s miraculous providence made manifest by our works of charity to the poor. Then we all gather together and pray for our guests, for the intentions of our volunteers and in thanksgiving for the graces we receive. We hand out and serve as much food as God blesses us with, food prepared with the greatest care and sanitary procedures on site. We serve the guests from about 5:00PM to 6:30PM, and then clean up and prepare for the next time __days of operation are Tuesdays or Fridays __in time to be wrapped up by 7:00PM. We can serve up to 200 guests, which is normal these days. We used to serve hundreds more, before the area around the Uptown Chicago was gentrified, which made it less viable for the poor who lived in low-rent housing and those off-the-streets to access service and receive food for their families. We are still a hub for food, health, and funding services for the disenfranchised as they find other means to arrive.
Our guests are so special to us; they are such a blessing, for they are more familiar with the Poor Christ, who is truly with them, and they know what it means to live the “street” or itinerant life! Their countenance does not change whether they are cold, wet, exhausted, or reduced in means of health. They carry on, make good of what they have, and share with one and another! Their appreciation is itself our reward! We get to return to our comfortable lives, and yet they forgive us, as they return to their hovels and hardened existence, “…for the grace of God go I”! One cannot help but notice how the volunteers, especially the students that help out, are most edified and moved by their experience, which is beyond what words can tell.
Just as with St. Francis of Assisi and St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Holy Spirit continues to inspire young people to preach the Gospel, not just by words, but more importantly by their actions. “So when you hold a banquet, do not invite the rich or famous, the people who amount to something, but invite the poor, the blind and the lame, who cannot pay back, that your reward will be great in heaven!”
friar Donald Thielsen, OFM Conv.