By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.” — Blessed Mother Teresa
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — It seemed appropriate that the hundreds who arrived hours early on the Thursday morning before Thanksgiving for the weekly food pantry at St. Anthony of Padua Parish formed a long line that stretched down Nye Street, around the block to Bullard Street, and literally encircled the towering church that dominates the New Bedford skyline.
It was as if the group had gathered there to embrace the building in a giant group hug.
But, in reality, it was the Church — led by the parishioners of St. Anthony of Padua — who were providing some much-needed love and support to the area’s needy by giving out turkeys or chickens and a variety of fixings that would guarantee a veritable Thanksgiving feast the following week.
“We have a beautiful church, but it’s just a building; this is the Church right here,” said parishioner Jose Amaral, gesturing to the people in line.
Amaral was alternately directing people to where they could pick up their food and handing out leaflets with directions on how to properly cook a turkey from in front of the rectory’s garage that had been temporarily converted into a makeshift pickup station.
“Blessed Mother Teresa used to tell her nuns that the greatest gift you can give someone is to make them feel welcomed,” Amaral said. “I hope that’s what we’re doing here today.”
It was estimated that a record number — close to 1,000 people — had turned out to collect one of 575 turkeys or 250 chickens, along with side dishes and fixings, at the annual Thanksgiving food pantry.
Although the parish runs a food pantry every Thursday, alternately serving those whose last names begin with the letters A to L one week and then M to Z the next, there are three exceptions to this routine during the year — on the weeks prior to Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
“On average we have at least 300 people, sometimes as many as 500,” Amaral said. “So we split them up into two groups, because if you had them come all at once every week, it would be like this, with a line going around the block.”
According to food pantry coordinator Stacie Hallal, the food comes from a variety of sources, but mostly it is either donated or purchased through money that her fellow parishioners raise.
“We got most of the turkeys and chickens from the Greater Boston Food Bank,” Hallal said. “We got 30 full meals donated from the Portuguese Madeira Feast committee, and we also picked up another 170 (meals) from the food bank.”
Those all-important pickups are done via the parish’s own box truck, which is emblazoned with “St. Anthony of Padua Food Pantry” on the sides of its cargo area.
On this particular Thursday, volunteers were busy unloading crates of poultry just before the 11:30 a.m. start time.
One was seminarian Gabby Murphy, who just moved to Wareham from Hawaii in September.
Murphy is a pre-novitiate with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and he has adopted the weekly St. Anthony of Padua food pantry as one of his service projects.
“I’ve been working here for a couple of weeks, but this is our first Thanksgiving meal,” Murphy told The Anchor. “I’m just in awe of how many people are here. When we pulled up, we thought we were late because all the people were already standing in line (in front of the church). But they told us everyone gets in line early to make sure they get a turkey or chicken.”
Although Murphy said the need is always there, it seems to escalate around this time of year.
“Throughout the year, it’s unfortunate that people go without, but on Thanksgiving everyone should have something to eat,” he said.
Another pre-novitiate with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, Bill Gural has only recently discerned his vocation after an established career as a teacher.
Having been drawn to the Sacred Hearts Fathers through their “apostolic ministry work,” Gural said he felt compelled to volunteer for the food pantry.
“It’s good to be here today and see so many volunteers helping out,” he said. “I know St. Anthony’s Parish is always so involved and even though it’s painful to see people in need who are suffering, it’s also encouraging to know there are places like this where they can come.”
Murphy and Gural joined a group of about 30 volunteers — many of them parishioners at St. Anthony’s, but others who come from parishes in Wareham and Dartmouth — to help organize and distribute the Thanksgiving groceries.
Hallal said there isn’t an application process — they only request that people sign up beforehand to request a turkey or chicken so they can know how many to order.
“People don’t have to qualify or meet any guidelines to get food,” she said. “We serve everyone and we have to trust that they have a real need.”
“Some people won’t need a big turkey, so they can get a chicken,” noted coordinator Fred Despres. “We had 478 people sign up for turkeys.”
For Despres, who retired 12 years ago and has been actively involved with the weekly food pantry for the past eight years, it’s gratifying to “give back a little.”
“I’ve been fortunate all my life — I’ve had good jobs,” he said. “So I like being able to help out now.”
Noting that this is one of the biggest turnouts she’s seen, Hallal is bracing to do it all over again next month.
“We’ll be doing it again the week before Christmas,” she said.
And Amaral will certainly be back to pitch in again, too.
“Pope Francis has said that the purpose of the Catholic Church is we’re here to serve,” he said. “That’s the most important part of our ministry — whether it’s giving out coats or blankets or money or food. We’re here to serve, but we’re also striving to bring them to the Church.”