Casseroles are fairly easy to prepare: bake a few ingredients in a deep dish and feed a bunch of people.
Parishioners across the archdiocese are making a big impact with their hotdishes by serving meals to more than 200 people daily through the St. Patrick Center’s casserole program. The project is reminiscent of the Gospel account of Jesus feeding the multitudes with just a few loaves and fish.
In early January, Mary Franklin of Annunciation Parish in Webster Groves showed how easy her task was to complete. The ground beef, green peppers and onions sizzled on her stovetop in her kitchen. Once the meat was browned, Franklin stirred in pepperoni and pizza and pasta sauces. Her kitchen soon had the aroma of an Italian restaurant.
Within minutes, she was layering the meat mixture in a foil pan with kluski noodles and cheddar and mozzarella cheese. She covered the pizza casserole, and it was ready for the freezer.
Annunciation Parish is one of 47 Catholic parishes supplying meals to St. Patrick Center. Franklin and her husband, Ken, have volunteered for several years. It’s a way of putting her faith into action, similar to previous efforts at their parish in coordinating the Christmas giving tree program and helping with the school lunch program. “I feel you need to put your faith out there, just tell people, ‘This is who we are,’” Franklin said.
The next day, Barbara Auberry, who has coordinated the effort at St. Gerard Majella Parish in Kirkwood for 26 years, backed her car up to a garage that serves as a food pantry at the parish office and opened a freezer. Inside were a stack of casseroles that she hauled to her trunk before making a quick trip Downtown for delivery to a dock in the back of St. Patrick Center.
Parishioners of St. Gerard Majella have faithfully fulfilled their obligation to provide casserole meals and have provided an extra 20 bag lunches for St. Patrick Center clients throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s such a small thing that helps so many people,” Auberry said. “It’s so easy. I’ve gotten more out of it than the work I’ve put in.”
Best of all for Auberry, her duties don’t require her to attend meetings. The parish splits the meal preparation between two teams, with about 65 people participating regularly and another 30 helping out occasionally. About 18 times a year, one of the teams makes Spanish rice, a recipe calling for ground beef, rice, tomatoes, green peppers and onions. Many of the preparers have told Auberry it’s so tasty that they make extra for their own families. A few parishioners also provide salads.
Auberry has involved her nine grandchildren in the effort through the years, making the trip with her Downtown. “They now understand what it’s like to be on the street, not have a place to go and that St. Patrick Center is a godsend in getting people off the street, a job and more,” she said.
The parishioners’ Catholic faith plays a role in the project. “We take care of each other. That is our role. Jesus Christ is in all of us. And it’s the least of our brothers — that’s who we take care of,” Auberry said.
It’s a way to fulfill what they hear about in the Gospels and homilies at Mass, she explained. “It makes you feel good inside that you’re doing God’s work.”
Auberry said it’s part of her identity as a Catholic. “The best thing in my life is this along with the Catholic Church. It’s been my way of life for so long.”
‘It touched my heart’
Marty Useted, a coordinator of the program at Annunciation Parish, was unsure of how things would continue when the pandemic first hit in March. It was about time for their parish’s scheduled drop off of casseroles and salads, so Useted called St. Patrick Center to make sure the program was continuing. Getting the OK and a promise by a center staffer to pick up the food from her home, Useted and her co-chair, Kristin Tegethoff, turned to parishioners to see how many of them would come through.
“Everybody stepped up,” Useted said. “We got every bit of food that first month. Everyone has been so generous.”
Annunciation parishioners do a hamburger and rice casserole and the pizza casserole.
Useted and her husband have been involved for about 20 years, starting out when their children were younger. It started with salads, and the casseroles were added later. She puts seven coolers out to collect the food prepared by parishioners.
Because she was self-employed, working from home, it fit with her schedule. She’s continued even though she now works outside the home. “It’s an opportunity to really help people who need a helping hand,” Useted said.
About 65 families bring food to her home each month. Feeding people in need “just feels good,” she said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be the person out on the street seeking food and shelter. St. Patrick Center just does a wonderful job of guiding people to resources to help them help themselves.”
Dropping off the food, she was helped by one of the clients who said he prays to God to thank Annunciation parishioners for the good things they do to help. “It touched my heart,” Useted recalled. “I always knew it was a good thing to do. But it helped to hear it from a recipient who was so grateful and wanting to do what he could to keep it going.”
Her husband often takes part in the food preparation, and he prays for the recipients while he cooks.
Nicki and Skip Batchelor coordinate the program at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis Parish. The parish got involved soon after it began in 1984.
The couple now have a contactless system in which they park their car on the parish lot and open the trunk for parishioners’ frozen casseroles and the back seat for items for the food pantry at St. Patrick Center. Thirty-two volunteers take part, ranging in age from their 20s to 80s.
They have made additional frozen casseroles since the pandemic and now “fill the back seat to the roof,” Nicki Batchelor said. Parishioners also now supply sandwiches.
“Whatever St. Patrick’s wants, we send that list to parishioners,” she explained. “The generosity of these people and their dedication is extraordinary.”
It’s faith in action. “This isn’t talking the talk, it’s walking the walk. It’s brothers and sisters helping each other out,” Nicki Batchelor said.
>> The Casserole program
In 37 years, St. Patrick Center, a Catholic Charities agency, has served 5.55 million hot meals to people in need, with almost no cost to the agency.
Patrick Center staff call it an incredible community collaboration — a
real “fishes and loaves” story — as it takes about 85 volunteer groups
to donate casseroles each month to feed more than 200 people daily.
Forty-seven Catholic parishes take part, some supplying food more than
one day a month.
St. Patrick Center founder Edith Cunnane
and early supporters recruited monthly volunteer teams. The agency
provided various recipes and aluminum pans, and assigned days of the
month. Casserole teams bought groceries, prepared, baked and froze the
casseroles. Volunteer drivers delivered them on their assigned days of
Today, the effort continues the same way. Casserole —
and salad and bread — teams consist mostly of Catholic parishes but also
other church ministries, individuals, companies and schools (as many as
2,500 volunteers). St. Patrick Center serves hot midday meals every day
of the week.
For information about supporting the Casserole program, visit bit.ly/38pARco. For information about volunteering at St. Patrick Center, visit bit.ly/2XlOdQP.
Inside, participants in the Shamrock Club at St. Patrick Center in Downtown St. Louis sat spaced out in a cafeteria area enjoying a hearty meal of beans and rice.
club is a day treatment program that assists homeless people who
experience mental illness and/or substance abuse and provides access to
the agency’s programs.
Outside, other people who are homeless
gathered in a heated tent eating their meals after receiving them
assembly-line style slid down from a table from staff members.
Robert Brown called the meal filling. “It gets me through the day,” he said.
favorite serving is a hamburger pie. He offered one word to the
volunteers from parishes and other groups who make the casseroles: