Feb. 20-26, 2003
Food for Body and Soul
By Kristen Fox / SUN contributing writers
For nearly two decades, Marie Cullen has not only kept the shelves of the food pantry at St. Charles Borremeo Church full, but also has been a constant example that a little bit of love can go a long way.
“Marie, through her work for those who have the least, is an example to us all of grace, love and generosity,” said friend and St. Charles parishioner Maureen O’Sullivan. “She is proof that angels do roam the earth.” Cullen helped to form St. Charles Food Pantry seventeen years ago in response to the growing number of hungry people in the community. Responding to her tireless leadership, parishioners began donating food, clothing, furniture and money on an ongoing basis. As coordinator of the pantry, Cullen collects and distributes food and household items to those in need. However, she frequently takes the extra step to help these individuals, often going above and beyond what people expect.
Anne Murray, who has known Cullen for over 30 years, recalled one example: “Marie was told of a home where there were six young children, very little food, no beds, no toys and a father with a terminal illness. Within two days, Marie and her volunteers arrived with a hospital bed, toys for the children, beds and mattresses for all, clothes and food. She continued to support this family for many, many months. When the father passed away, Marie arranged the funeral service,” Murray said.
“There are hundreds of examples like this,” she added, “but most times they go unnoticed because Marie is a very humble woman.” According to Cullen, she is simply trying to help people in the best way possible. Often, she said, this means doing more than handing out a bag of groceries, but rather determing how the pantry can best serve each individual.
“Most pantries hand out frozen turkeys to people,” Cullen noted. “But these people might not know how to cook a turkey, or might not even have a stove to cook it in. So we give them a certificate to go and purchase what they need. Everyone has a different story and different needs. We try to help them the best way for them –– sometimes this means doing more than handing them a bag of groceries.”
Over the years, St. Charles Food Pantry has grown into an “outreach ministry” which responds to situations of all kinds –– be it a family who needs a place to sleep, or a mother who needs shoes for her children –– 24 hours a day. Cullen, seeing the tremendous needs in other areas of the city, also expanded the services. St. Lucy’s, The Brady Center, Unity Acres, Dorothy Day, Vera House and other food pantries throughout the city are just some of the regular beneficiaries of St. Charles Food Pantry.
Father James Mathews, of St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse, said that he is amazed by just how many people have been blessed by Cullen’s warm heart. “I have known personally so many nameless families from all parts of the city whose Christmas has been made brighter, families who have been helped in times of crisis and the countless number of children whose lives have been made a little brighter because Marie cared,” said Father Mathews.
O’Sullivan met Cullen last Christmas while working together on St. Charles’ giving tree. While she knew of Cullen’s dedication to helping those in need, she was in awe of how much Cullen –– a mother of five, a grandmother and a widow –– has extended herself. “I have known Marie for several years now, but was unaware myself just how devoted she is to those in need until this past Christmas. I do not think that people recognize the scope of what she does. She is somehow able to provide the most to those with the least among us. How she accomplishes all she does is truly miraculous.”
It is the overwhelming support of the parishioners, said Cullen, that enables the food pantry to meet the needs of so many people continually. “People have come to depend on the pantry; St. Charles must be doing something right because there is never a day when the box is without food,” Cullen noted, pointing to the wooden “drop-box” in the back of the church where parishioners can leave food. “People have come to depend on the pantry and it would not exist without the outstanding generosity of the parishioners, especially the senior citizens.”
As O’Sullivan pointed out, hundreds of people in the Syracuse community have been touched by her generosity and do not know it, but this is just fine with Marie. She does what she does, not for the recognition, but because there is a need. “People will call her in the middle of the night and ask her for something; Marie will not hesitate to help, without ever taking credit. She truly is an unsung hero,” O’Sullivan stated.
True to form, Cullen will not take all the credit for the amazing work done at the pantry. Although hers is the face people associate with pantry, there are a handful of volunteers who contribute to its success, she said.
“I could never do all of this work without the volunteers. The men who drive the trucks to pick up and deliver food, all I have to do is call them up and ask them. They are here all of the time when I need them. That’s what makes us so successful –– that and God’s grace. When you do God’s work, the means to do it will be provided,” she added. Above the food box, Cullen hung a picture of “Christ in the Breadline.” She said she hopes that it reminds everyone “when you do something for the least of my brothers, then you are doing it for me.
” “The moment I saw the picture, I knew where it belonged,” Cullen said. “We are to look at everyone like they are Christ –– embrace them, touch them, smell them –– no matter what they look like. If we are able to do this, then we are truly doing the work of Christ.”