People started arriving at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish Hall more than an hour before the 10:30 a.m. opening, crowding an indoor hallway with much excitement and anticipation.
As opening time approached, the volunteers inside counted, “one, two, three,” and thrust open the doors. Music blared, and in poured the masses, checking in at a line of tables with volunteers exclaiming, “Good morning,” “Merry Christmas” and “Welcome.”
It’s just lunch.
But it’s a lot more.
Laughing with her tablemates, including one with a flickering Christmas-light headband appropriate for the holiday party theme, Connie Zurawski noted that “everyone is so friendly. Where else can you go and have fun like this?”
Zurawski, a St. Robert parishioner, exchanged gifts with a friend at the table, giving her a rosary and receiving an angel bracelet. Another woman at the table, Pat Davis, who attends North Road Community Church in St. Charles, said “Fellowship is important to people our age. This is a great place to come.”
Deacon Phil King, parish life coordinator at St. Robert, served in a ministry of presence at the hall, greeting people and talking with them. “We never expected it to be so popular,” he said.
The large hall was filled with 240 people attending the Dec. 4 Christmas lunch.
The aim is to serve the broader community. “We see it as an outreach and evangelization kind of thing,” Deacon King said. “I go around and chat with people. They love coming here, getting a decent meal for not a whole lot of money. At the same time, they do activities, they have fun, network with each other. Everybody just seems to have a good time.”
St. Robert is a parish of 750 households in St. Charles. Besides Deacon King, the parish has a part-time senior associate pastor, Father Mark Whitman, who lives at St. Cletus Parish; Msgr. Raymond Hampe, a retired priest who is in residence; two other deacons, Deacon Noli Ribera and Deacon Joe Meiergerd; and pastoral associate Jan McArthur, among other staff. St. Elizabeth Adult Day Care Center and St. John Paul II Preparatory School also are on the parish campus. Its mission statement proclaims that the parish aims to teach the message of Jesus, form a community, actively engage in prayer and worship, reach out in service and encourage moral formation.
Jim Ardolino, who guides the luncheon effort with his wife, Donna, said the idea for a luncheon began at a parish men’s club meeting in a discussion about adding a Christian outreach effort. “We have a lot of organizations within St. Robert’s,” but needed something open to the public, Catholic or not, he said.
“We didn’t figure it would be as popular as it has been, never thought we’d have as many volunteers or guests. We average roughly 250 guests each month, every month except January and July” when no luncheon is held, Ardolino said.
The key to getting the luncheon program off the ground and sustainable was the volunteer turnout. They have 89 volunteers, most split into two groups alternating months. Their duties include providing desserts, salads and sides, assisting with the guests, working in the kitchen, purchasing needed items, setting up the night before and more. The meat for the meal is provided by a caterer, but parishioners donate and prepare the rest of the food.
Rita Edwards, busy coordinating the meal preparation in the kitchen, said she appreciates that “the ladies and gentlemen who come to have lunch with us are enjoying it. It’s a little hectic, but when it’s time to serve we’ll be ready.”
Edwards, who’s been in the role since the senior citizen luncheon began two years ago, praised the other volunteers in the kitchen. “It couldn’t be done without all these ladies.”
Karen Schaffner, who volunteers with her husband, Larry, and friends including Mary DeKeuster, worked at the front door checking in the guests. She also helps with the bingo game that sometimes follows the meal and assists in the clean-up. Larry assists with attendance prizes and more.
“It’s so fun to meet all the people coming in,” she said. “They get dressed up for the different themes we have. And then when you ask, ‘Are you coming back?’ they go, ‘Of course.”
It’s nice being with other parishioners who are volunteers, said Schaffner, who taught for 32 years at St. Elizabeth/St. Robert School and Duchesne High School. As a parishioner for more than 40 years, she’s proud of its efforts.
Volunteer Lisa Gagnepain comes monthly, and on Dec. 4 brought her children, Emma, Caitlyn and Alex to assist in serving lunch, clearing dishes and more. “I enjoy helping, seeing how happy it makes the seniors,” Lisa said. Emma agreed with her mom, saying she enjoys it simply because “you get to help people.”
Another parishioner, Mark Gisi, began volunteering two years ago, just after the program began. He called the volunteer effort “a great opportunity to serve the older people who don’t get out very much. It makes me feel good to see them enjoy themselves.”
The Dec. 4 luncheon was attended by a volunteer Santa Claus and an elf, parishioners Sid and Debbie Boyer, and a professional disc jockey leading the music. February has a Valentine’s theme, March celebrates St. Patrick’s Day, April is St. Louis Cardinals day and so on.
A raffle is split 50/50 with four guests splitting half and the other half designated for a cause. In 2018, the funds were donated one month to Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Charles after its roof was destroyed in a storm. In November, attendees were told that if they brought a canned good they’d get an additional attendance ticket, and the food and proceeds from the raffle were donated to the food pantry at Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service. Other beneficiaries of various months were veterans service organizations, flood restoration efforts and more.
Deacon King starts each luncheon with a prayer. The December menu included sliced ham, green beans and au gratin potatoes. Next year’s menus already are planned with items such as mostaccioli with meatballs, Italian chicken, roast beef, Hawaiian pulled pork and meatloaf.
“We just wanted to give back to the community,” said Ardolino, who is retired from Boeing Corp. and volunteers with his wife in other parish and nonparish efforts. “We are a Catholic Church, we don’t hide that, but it is meant to be a Christian outreach. It turned out to be a success that just boggles our mind.”
>> Parish outreach
Deacon John Schiffer, who retired
earlier this year as parish life coordinator at St. Robert Bellarmine
Parish, said he liked the idea of an activity for seniors when it was
first discussed. “We had no idea where it would go. The first
speculation was that maybe we’d start out with 50 or 60 seniors. “
were available, so they decided to go for it. The first luncheon was
attended by more than 200 guests — a big success. “This parish needed to
reach out to the people around St. Charles (and beyond). It has become
an extremely ecumenical and evangelical affair,” Deacon Schiffer said.
half of the people who attend are not Catholic, he said. “We are
Catholic and aren’t hiding it. But it’s an open Christian activity, and
that’s what’s made it so successful. The parish reaches out, and it’s a
very strong parish.”