Cardboard boxes were neatly stacked around the old gymnasium. Like bees in a hive, parishioners from St. Joseph in Cottleville meandered among the honeycomb of containers, stopping at tables along the peripheries of the gym and filling them with canned vegetables, cereal and other nonperishables.
This week, some of St. Louis neediest families will visit the gym at Covenant House in the Kingsway West neighborhood of north St. Louis to pick up those boxes of food. They’ll also find there toys for their children, clothing and blankets — but most of all, a Christmas blessing evidenced through the generosity of others.
Valerie Frei of St. Joseph and her family last year started a tradition of coming to help pack boxes several weekends before the distribution. The annual Christmas program is part of Father Bob’s Outreach at St. Augustine Parish in north St. Louis, in collaboration with neighboring St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Parish.
Frei brought four of her seven children this year to help with the packing. “They love being on the assembly line,” she said. “We pray for every single one of those boxes for those families. If they do (service) when they’re young, hopefully they will feel called as they grow. Hopefully it gives them appreciation and thankfulness for what they have, and how even at a young age they can help others.”
For the past 27 years, St. Joseph parishioners have taken over the first of two weekends of packing items in the gym at Covenant House. This year, about 200 parishioners showed up for the packing efforts Dec. 1, according to parishioner Kathy O’Brien, who started promoting Father Bob’s Outreach 27 years ago among parishioners in Cottleville. Msgr. Robert (“Father Bob”) Gettinger, who turned 80 this year, started the outreach 47 years ago. It also includes Thanksgiving program as well as year-round assistance with utilities and funeral expenses for people in need.
O’Brien, whose husband John, is a second cousin to Msgr. Gettinger, said the priest has instilled in her family the importance of service. She recalled a story of a young man who volunteered years ago. “He was dabbling in drugs and did not want to come,” she said. “The next week, he wanted to come back because he felt the spirit of giving. It was life-changing for him.”
“I know people really want to see people in need receive this,” Kathy O’Brien said. “Father Bob really makes people feel welcome and loved.”
Blessings in a bag
About midway through their work, several parishioners from St. Joseph walked a few blocks down the street to Northview Village nursing home, where they surprised resident Sheila Sykes with a bag filled with toiletries and other goodies. Several seniors who are friends of Father Bob’s are usually bestowed with these blessings before Christmas.
“We’re with Father Bob,” Vince Burke announced to staff, arriving at Sykes’ room. “Father Bob sends over a Christmas gift for you. We’ve got a whole crowd here,” he said.
Sykes, 60, has known Msgr. Gettinger since she was a child. She shared how she recently fell and was instructed by her doctor to stay off her feet. “I want to thank y’all very much for coming,” she said. Before the group left, they joined Sykes in praying the Our Father.
Carrying on a legacy
Every winter, Jennifer Wilbanks flies to St. Louis from Phoenix to volunteer for a month coordinating the Thanksgiving and Christmas programs that are part of the outreach. She follows in the footsteps of her now-deceased aunt, Shirley Bedford, who began helping Father Bob when he started the ministry at the former Blessed Sacrament Parish on the grounds of what is now Covenant House.
“I keep everything straight. I try to keep Father Bob straight. Everybody in the world has my telephone number,” she said with a grin.
Wilbanks continues to help because of the need to help others. “We believe in service and taking care of those in need,” she said. “We’re just trying to keep this going.”
At the packing event, Msgr. Gettinger was full of cheer as he greeted volunteers who worked their way around the gym. At one point, he stopped everyone and had them gather at the foot of the stage, thanking them for coming.
Leading them in prayer, he said, “Gracious God, this is the day that you have made. Let us rejoice and be glad. Certainly Lord we have a good spirit. We want to keep that spirit of love and charity all the days of our lives. Whether we’re real young or old like Father Bob. It’s OK to keep going. So keep blessing all of us. And Lord we promise to be a blessing to your people.”
Father Bob’s Outreach has a goal of raising $140,000 this year to help the poor, with 3,000 boxes given to families, as well as additional gift certificates for shoes and winter clothes. A letter from Msgr. Gettinger noted that a gift of $125 will cover a Christmas basket as well as a certificate for shoes and winter clothing. Individuals also are invited to prepare food baskets. Suggested items include canned food, spaghetti, bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, potatoes, cereal, milk and a turkey or a $25 gift certificate for a grocery store. New and gently used toys, candy, stockings, winter clothing, blankets and gloves also are appreciated.
In addition to providing assistance through the two parishes, the outreach also helps through the Wellston Center, St. Vincent de Paul at St. Augustine and the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry at Most Holy Trinity in the Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis.
“We always act on the principle ‘it’s not just what you give, but it’s how you make people feel,’” Msgr. Gettinger wrote in a recent letter to donors.
>> How to donate
For debit or credit card donations, visit fatherbobsoutreach.com. Donations go toward year-round efforts, including a utility assistance program and a funeral assistance program. Funds also go toward the Thanksgiving and Christmas programs. Donations also can be mailed to Father Bob’s Outreach 1371 Hamilton Ave. St. Louis, MO 63122