St. Joseph/St. Patrick Church launches soup kitchen

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

UTICA — “It was the answer to our prayers,” said St. Joseph/St. Patrick Parishioner, Katie Koscinski. She was referring to the grand opening on March 17 of Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen, a soup kitchen serving the poor and homeless out of St. Joseph/St. Patrick Parish Center in West Utica.

Officiating at the ribbon-cutting ceremony were St. Joseph/St. Patrick parish administrator Father Richard Dellos and Deacon Gilbert Nadeau, Oneida County Legislator Rose Convertino, Utica Urban and Economic Development Commissioner Bob Sullivan and Linda Croghan and Michael Arthur from State Senator Joseph Griffo’s office.

The soup kitchen is named for Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, who grew up in the area and went on to devote the last 30 years of her life to the lepers of Hawaii’s Molokai.

The all-volunteer operation serves soup, sandwiches, beverages and desserts from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. In addition, they offer a bag lunch on Saturday. On Sunday, the parish sponsors a coffee hour that is open to the community after the 10:30 a.m. Mass. A week-long soft opening preceded the grand opening to facilitate the training of the many volunteers.

Katie Koscinski serves as the training coordinator for the 80 volunteers who work there. The volunteers include members of the Secular Franciscan Order. As a secular Franciscan, Koscinski said her group had been looking for some special way to serve. Every Wednesday, 15 Franciscans can be found working in the soup kitchen. In addition to preparing sandwiches, the volunteers prepare coffee and beverages, serve as greeters and clean the tables and chairs. “It’s been a wonderful experience and I’m happy to be a part of it,” said Koscinski. “Everyone that has volunteered has come away with a sense of joy. We’re trying to live the Gospel — we look forward to seeing them and we like to make them feel wanted and welcome. We’re on a first-name basis with them and we laugh and joke with them quite a bit. We feel that each person that comes into the kitchen is an image of God.”

Koscinski said the team of volunteers is not limited to St. Joseph/St. Patrick Parishioners. Holy Family Church in Vernon is represented as well as people from various other denominations throughout the community. “We’d like to make it ecumenical,” said Koscinski.

Koscinski said the volunteers have also benefited from the special ministry. Volunteering has brought them closer together. “Right before we open the kitchen, Deacon Gil leads us in reflection and prayers,” said Koscinski. “We’re developing friendships among us and there is a definite bonding.”

In addition to receiving a hearty meal at the kitchen when they arrive, those in need are also able to choose three personal hygiene items to take with them.

“It’s fun,” commented St. Joseph/St. Patrick Parishioner Donna Oderkirk. She, along with her husband Bob and four to six others, volunteer their time one or two evenings weekly to prepare the soups. They cook enough soup and freeze it so that it is ready to serve the needy throughout the week.

When Donna heard Deacon Gil speak about the possibility of serving the needy in a recent homily, she was inspired to help out. “I thought it was a great idea,” said Donna. “I wanted to get more involved and make a difference. There was nothing in West Utica to help the poor.”

Deacon Gil said that hundreds of families, including the working poor and homeless, visit his parish campus weekly for assistance from the food pantry and clothing outlet at the Thea Bowman House. While there are other facilities, such as Hope House, the Rescue Mission and The Salvation Army that offer this assistance, they are a significant distance away from the needy in West Utica who have no transportation.

According to a recent report by the Children’s Defense Fund-New York, nearly one in four people in Utica live in poverty and one in two people are classified as low-income.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Donna. “It’s nice to see that a couple hours of my time is helping people.”

The number of people served at the soup kitchen has steadily increased over the last few weeks. During the first week of operation, 130 were fed, the second, 215 and close to 300 the third week.

A coordinating committee, led by Deacon Gil, organized the soup kitchen operation. “Father Dellos and I have been praying about this for quite a while,” said Deacon Gil. “There was a tremendous response — right away, 20 people volunteered.”

Deacon Gil believes the Holy Spirit is behind the success of the soup kitchen. “We put it together in 18 days,” he said. Preparation for the opening included remodeling and reorganizing the parish’s kitchen. It was also inspected by the health department.

Bishop James Moynihan has sent the parish several letters congratulating them on the success of the soup kitchen. Bishop Moynihan stated in one of his letters, “I know that those who will benefit from the services offered are extremely indebted to you.”

Deacon Gil said that even though the project has relied on donations, the parish will be applying for a FEMA grant for assistance. He said they have to prove that the project can make it on its own for six months before it is eligible for any kind of aid. Deacon Gil has appealed to churches of all denominations to spread the word on the need for supplies and for volunteers willing to donate one day a month. “We can always use volunteers and donations of food,” said Deacon Gil.