Lisa Porter was thrilled to learn that she could get help paying utility bills at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry in St. Louis. Laid off temporarily from a construction job, her bills went unpaid.
With the help of Father Bob’s Outreach, the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry has funding each year to help more than 2,000 families. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, through the Most Holy Trinity Parish conference, also provides funds to assist people with utility payments.
“This place means so much to me,” Porter said. “It’s a blessing that Father Bob is able to help in a time of crisis. You never know when you’re going to get in a situation. Thank God we have people like Father Bob and the St. Vincent de Paul to help us.”
Msgr. Robert J. Gettinger, known as “Father Bob,” has ministered to the needs of the poor for about 50 years. Through Father Bob’s Outreach, he blesses many with prayer and monetary assistance. This includes programs that focus on assistance with utility bills, Christmas gifts and funeral assistance.
On a recent weekday, wearing a hat with the logo FBI (Firm Believer in Jesus), Msgr. Gettinger greeted people outside St. Augustine Parish rectory who registered for utility assistance. He prayed with them, asking especially to remember the victims of a Dec. 10 tornado that extended through Missouri and on into Kentucky. He knew many of the people, asking one woman about her recent hospitalization and listening to her credit Jesus for keeping her alive.
Msgr. Gettinger said a Christmas program through Father Bob’s Outreach that provides gift cards and funds for utility assistance through Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry “means so much to people. We have a great group of volunteers who help, too.” Once the program began, he said, “it just went beautifully.”
The motivation to help, he said, “is because of Jesus. Jesus loves them.”
The Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry operates as a conference under St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Louis. A member of Operation Food Search and the Food Bank, it’s run by volunteers and is funded through donations of time and money. Its mission is to welcome and serve people with dignity, respect and hope in the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Making a difference
Patricia Roberts is coordinator of the match program, which provides $75 matched by $25 from clients paid directly to utility companies. Clients can come twice a year for help.
“To me, this is God’s work. All I’m doing is being a servant of God,” said Roberts, a parishioner of St. Ferdinand in Florissant.
Roberts and her former co-worker at the Army Reserve, Gwen Pearson, retired at the same time. They were looking for something to do — something besides shopping — and got hooked on volunteering at the pantry.
One Thanksgiving, Roberts delivered dinners to homes in a program of the pantry for the holiday. “We knocked on a door,” Roberts said, “and a little boy answered. I said, ‘Are your parents here? I’m from OLPH and we have your Thanksgiving dinner.’ And the little boy just broke out, crying and laughing, saying ‘We are going to have Thanksgiving dinner. We are going to have Thanksgiving dinner.’ So of course, you know I cried all the way to my other destinations. That was so exciting to me.”
It shows that the efforts do make a difference, Roberts said. “We always think about what we got, what we got. But you never think about somebody that has less than you. Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful. And I was really thankful that God let me do that, to let me help people.”
Lucretia McCoy came to the pantry to get help with a utility bill. “If you have a hard time paying bills, you’re able to stay above ground and keep your utilities on with this assistance,” she said. “It’s especially helpful for seniors and people wth disabilities. It keeps the community going.”
McCoy lives with her son who works as a janitor. She pays $652 a month in rent and struggles to meet it with her son’s pay and her income from disability payments due to her medical condition. Two other children live with her. “It’s very difficult keeping food on the table every day,” she said. “The food pantry and utility assistance are very helpful at times when I need it. And I take medicine every day.”
Josie Booth, who has Parkinson’s Disease, said she’s thankful for the utility assistance and also the food from the pantry. “God is good every day,” she said.
Holy Spirit at work
Pam Dagestad, a parishioner of St. Clare of Assisi in Ellisville and Boeing retiree, oversees the pantry with help from many others, including her husband, Mark, who worked in the grocery business many years for Schnucks. Dagestad said her aim is to treat everyone the same. About 400 people a month are served by the pantry.
The pantry has a large capacity for fresh food and nonperishables, and it’s located in the middle of a low-income area, with many clients walking to it. Dagestad touted the variety of help she receives from the Catholic community, mentioning a recent donation of food from St. Gabriel Parish and a visit from parishioners of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood who did maintenance inside and outside the building.
“The Holy Spirit is at work in this building,” Dagestad said, adding that whenever there’s a need someone shows up to fill that need.
While some of the volunteers are from Catholic parishes, many others are neighborhood residents. Alvin Baker, who lives in the neighborhood, has volunteered for 11 years. “I like the people coming in here,” he said. “Giving is one of my things. I love it so much.”
Debbie Ramza is a faith community nurse with Deaconess Faith Ministry. She focuses on the guests’ health and well-being and provides referrals to other community resources. “We see where they are and do our best to try and help them,” she said. “They open up and tell me what their needs are.”
Other programs at the pantry include a substance abuse support group.
>> Food pantry
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry exists due to the efforts of a number of people who refused to let it go away after the parish that sponsored it closed.
Bill Patty was especially important, funding the purchase and rehab of the building that houses the pantry. Patty died Sept. 17 at age 93. He and his wife, Ruth, of St. Patrick Parish in Wentzville, faithfully traveled to pick up food for the pantry. They and a group called “God’s Gang” also provided a meal each Thanksgiving cooked on site by volunteers, though that was suspended the last two years due to COVID pandemic concerns.
Patty volunteered to do some construction work at the former Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish when he met Myrtle Howell, a member of the parish who was operating the food pantry from the parish gym. He soon became immersed in volunteer work for the pantry.
After Howell died in 2000, Sharon Morrow took over as pantry director. She was a single mother with seven children when she lost her shoe factory job in 1978, struggling until being referred to Our Lady of Perpetual help Food Pantry.
Another volunteer revered at the pantry is the late Beatrice Hudson, a Most Holy Trinity parishioner who served as Pam Dagestad’s mentor. “She had the best smile and the best laugh. She would say ‘This place will suck you in.’ And she was right,” Dagestad said.
For more information, to volunteer or donate to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry, visit helpstlouis.org. Checks also may be sent to the pantry at 4335 Warne Ave., St. Louis, MO 63107.
>> Father Bob’s Outreach
Msgr. Robert Gettinger, the pastor of St. Augustine Parish in St. Louis known in the community as Father Bob, is more than happy to help people in need, especially at Christmas.
He’s only been doing it — formally anyway — for 49 years.
His Father Bob’s Outreach program, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, helped some of St. Louis neediest families through a distribution of food, toys, clothing and blankets in the gym at Covenant House in the Kingsway West neighborhood of north St. Louis, an event Msgr. Gettinger called “Christmas sharing.” It was coordinated by St. Augustine Parish in collaboration with neighboring St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Parish and volunteers throughout the archdiocese.
The building isn’t available anymore, so a volunteer listed the addresses of all the people to be helped on a spreadsheet, and Father Bob’s Outreach is sending them a $25 food voucher and $25 clothing certificate. He’s expecting to help up to 2,500 people if his fund-raising goal is met. A donor is paying for postage. Volunteers from Christ Prince of Peace Parish are completing the mailing.
In another program, Father Bob’s Outreach helps 30 families a day with gas or electric bills, paid directly to the utilities. Father Bob’s Outreach also provides funds to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry to help people with utility bill payments.
In all the outreach, he said, “we tell people we’re praying for you.”
He also helps people with funeral expenses, paid directly to the providers of those services. On a recent day, he met with families mourning several young people who died, including someone who died from carbon monoxide poisoning after falling asleep in a car, a murder victim and a person who died from cancer. The aim is to assist with prayers, counseling and the stipend to assist funeral/burial arrangements.
Msgr. Gettinger’s outreach began after he went on a trip to India to observe the work of Catholic Relief Services and he met St. Teresa of Kolkata. The saint, then known as Mother Teresa, inspired him. “It’s been a blessing. Mother Teresa, you did it, I’ll try it, and it worked. I’m on a roll,” he said in summing up the project that grew each year.
He’s going strong despite the many years of ministry, explaining that “while the headlights are on, keep sparking.”
All contributions, big and small, help. “Every time I get $50 I can help a family,” Msgr. Gettinger said.
For information or to assist the ministry, visit FatherBobsOutreach.com or send a check made out to Father Bob’s Outreach, c/o St. Augustine Church, 1371 Hamilton Ave., St. Louis, MO 63112.