Mass was the first order of the day in the dining hall of the Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen. At the conclusion of Mass, the altar was moved back into the small chapel, and the dining area placed back in order.
By mid-morning, the food was set out on a serving line. The menu that day included fried chicken, fresh zucchini and cheese sauce, rice and gravy, cookies, water and cans of soda — all of which had been donated to feed a community in need.
Spiritual nourishment, followed by the physical. It’s been the mission of the Missionaries of Charity since they began serving the poorest of the poor in St. Louis nearly 40 years ago.
On this particular day, it also was the first meal served at the sisters’ new soup kitchen, which was blessed at a Mass the day prior on Aug. 16. The building officially opened to the community Aug. 17, and replaced the previous soup kitchen building, which had operated at the corner of Cottage Avenue and North Spring Avenue in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood of north St. Louis for decades.
Ground broke last November on the 7,100-square-foot facility and was completed in about 10 months. The building’s construction and design was overseen by BSI Constructors and Lawrence Group. During a period of several weeks earlier this month when the old building was knocked down and the new one not yet opened, the sisters continued to hand out meals on the grounds outside.
“Oh yes, we were doing sandwiches, hot food,” said Sister M. Stellinda, who runs the soup kitchen. “We never stopped.”
The sisters, joined by countless volunteers, always seek Jesus as they do this work. “We are called to hear His cry of thirst,” said Sister M. Dominga, a former superior of the St. Louis community, who was visiting from her community in Atlanta. “People are thirsting with loneliness, rejection, all kinds of things. When you are in extreme pain, the simplest kindness means a very great deal. All we ask is to be present to the person. I tell the sisters, just learn one name a day and do something simple, like, ‘Hi, Joe.’ It means a great deal.”
The sisters’ work is rooted in the Eucharist, explained Sister Stellinda. They see their lives as seamless, with four hours of prayer woven into each day, along with an apostolate of service. Beyond the soup kitchen, the community has an emergency shelter for women and their children, with accommodations for 11. Other ministries include an after-school program and summer camp for children, as well as catechesis. The sisters frequently visit with people and walk the streets to meet others in the community, and learn how they can best serve them.
“I get so much when I serve Jesus, and I know this is my call,” Sister Stellinda said. “We are so busy, but nobody ever says they’re tired.” To the many volunteers who help at the soup kitchen, she said, “thank you for coming, and for sharing their humble works of love. I learn so much from them. Each thing we do we are saving souls … it’s all an offering. It’s a grace. We do little things with great love.”
Sept. 5 marks the 21st anniversary of St. Teresa of Kolkata’s death and feast day. The Yugoslavian-born woman religious founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 in Kolkata, India. In 1979, Mother Teresa visited St. Louis with three Missionaries of Charity to start a community here. It was the second community the religious order established in the United States — the first was in New York. (See related story.)
The sisters have remained in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood of north St. Louis, just a few blocks north of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish. St. Louis has since become a hub for the Missionaries of Charity in the Midwest, which extends from Canada to Louisiana.
On the day of the new soup kitchen’s opening, Ildron, who visited in search of a hot meal, described how the Missionaries of Charity helped her at her lowest point. Facing a drug addiction and mental illness, Ildron came to the emergency shelter for a while. “They took me in when I didn’t have anything. … They prayed with me, they helped me.” When she finally landed her own place, “they helped me get a little furniture and stuff. I had no food, so I came back and they gave me food.”
The sisters, she said, are like spiritual mothers. “They’re like mothers with their children and they help you, as long as you stay focused,” she said.
Sue Jochens of St. Joan of Arc Parish in south St. Louis has been volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity for 12 years. This is the place where the works of mercy come to life, she said.
“The Lord said, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick — we do it all here,” she said. “I used to come because I want to help the sisters. But I have found that they come to help me. I am in awe when I am here. The next place higher is heaven. What more can I say?”
Feast day Mass
A Mass in celebration of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s feast day will be celebrated at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5, at Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish, 3636 N. Market St. at Grand Blvd. in north St. Louis.
History of Missionaries of Charity in St. Louis
Cardinal John J. Carberry requested that Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Kolkata) send some members of her order to work in St. Louis. During a meeting for inner-city priests at a forum in Minnesota in 1976, Cardinal Carberry said he invited Mother Teresa to visit St. Louis and “if she could see a way for it, to establish a convent of her sisters in the north St. Louis area.”
In April 1978, Mother Teresa visited St. Louis to participate in the Congress of the Institute on Religious Life. At the time, she took a tour of north St. Louis with Cardinal Carberry, searching for what she described as “the poorest of the poor.”
Cardinal Carberry repeated his request to her at that time, and the tour was intended to convince the nun that the sisters were needed in St. Louis. The Yugoslavian-born saint worked in Kolkata among the poor, lepers, homeless and starving. Her work was recognized worldwide, including a nomination for the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize.
As of 2015, there were 5,150 active and contemplative sisters serving in 758 houses in 139 countries, according to information from the Missionaries of Charity website. There are 17 houses in the Midwest.
Lay Missionaries of Charity
The first group of Lay Missionaries of Charity made private vows in the presence of Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Kolkata) in 1984. The movement was approved by Rome in 1987. A chapter was started in St. Louis in 1991.
The group is open to single and married people. Members make a private act of consecration by vowing to live lives of poverty, chastity, obedience and service of the poorest of the poor. Vows are renewed yearly. Lay missionaries take on a personal responsibility to their families and Church first, and their patron is the Holy Family of Nazareth, a model of life and source of inspiration. The group also is contemplative in nature, with a focus on prayer.
Along with the sisters, “our mission is to quench the infinite thirst of Jesus on the cross,” said lay missionary Ada Cross. Lay missionaries also have a “total abandonment to God’s holy will. Our mission as lay missionaries is for the salvation and sanctification of the members of our own family and then the poorest of the poor.”
There are currently 16 lay Missionaries of Charity in St. Louis. Father John Paul Hopping is spiritual director of the group, which meets twice a month for a Holy Hour on the first Monday of the month, followed by Mass and spiritual direction on the third Monday of the month.
For more information on the Lay Missionaries of Charity in St. Louis, contact Ada Cross at (314) 481-5789.