By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — After Brendan O’Neil heard they were ultimately closing the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry back in June, he felt the need to do something to carry on the more-than-10-year charitable effort.
“I cooked a few times for them while they were still at Sacred Heart Church last winter,” O’Neil said. “So after they closed that location, a group of us got together in the hopes of finding a way to keep it going.”
As if to prove that God works in mysterious ways, O’Neil seemed the ideal choice to carry on the soup kitchen, since he had more than 25 years of culinary training.
“I went to Johnson and Wales, I have a culinary degree from there, and I’ve been in the hospitality/restaurant business for 25 years,” O’Neil said. “I had a place of my own in Rhode Island from 1998 to 2004. The Mesa 21 was my restaurant before they bought it, so I’ve had a lot of experience in hotels and restaurants in big cities and small towns.”
And it was probably not a coincidence that O’Neil first learned of the closing of the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen while sitting in one of the pews at Holy Name Parish in Fall River from none other than Father Jay Maddock, pastor and also the dean of the Fall River Deanery, who would soon serve as liaison in finding a suitable site for the kitchen-pantry combo.
“Father Maddock was our liaison,” he said. “We went to him and we soon found out that St. Bernadette’s Parish was very open to having it here.”
With a permanent home parish to call its own, the soup kitchen resumed operations on September 14 at St. Bernadette Parish at 529 Eastern Avenue in Fall River, providing a hot meal without charge to those in need every Monday night, continuing the ministry that was offered at the former Sacred Heart Parish for so many years.
Its new name reflected its past and present: the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen/Food Pantry at St. Bernadette Parish.
O’Neil managed to recruit many of the same volunteers who had worked so diligently at Sacred Heart Parish for years, while adding a few new names to the roster: like his sister, Polly Feitelberg, who serves as coordinator at the new location.
“We have a lot more space here,” Feitelberg said. “We basically break it down into three parts: the kitchen cooks the meals; everyone enters through this area where they can pick up food pantry items; and then after they eat we provide clothing — we have a swap/drop area as you exit. We’re trying to tweak that a little bit, because we’ve been getting the same people every week and we’re not sure if we’re meeting the greatest need there.”
About two weeks after reopening the soup kitchen in September, the food pantry began providing groceries to those in need on a schedule that commenced with the second and fourth Monday of the month.
“We started just doing the second and fourth Monday of the month, but the donations have been great and the need is there, so we’ve been having it every week since,” Feitelberg said. “One gentleman tonight just told me he couldn’t make it without this — he just lost his job, and he said he basically gets his weekly groceries here. That’s nice to hear. And it’s all done with donations. When you ask, people tend to give.”
Another key recruit to help keep things running smoothly at the St. Bernadette location was Cindy Gamache, who previously organized and coordinated the food pantry at Sacred Heart Parish.
“We’ve received enough food donations that we’ve been able to open the food pantry for the time being every week — which is very unusual,” Gamache said. “We typically only did it every other week. But even if we go back to twice a month, that’s still a tremendous thing. Other food pantries are only open once per month per family.”
On the most recent Monday, Gamache noted that 63 people had come through the food pantry line, serving an estimated 141 people.
“It’s one person who comes through the line, but they could have a family of five, so that’s how we calculate that number,” she said.
Gamache said the food pantry operates on the same principles as the ones established at Sacred Heart — to treat everyone with respect and dignity.
“We let them choose what they want — we don’t just hand them a prepared bag,” she said. “It’s just a little way to show we care.”
Feitelberg said the soup kitchen has likewise seen some impressive early numbers, with a weekly average of 70 attendees.
“The highest turnout since we started was 122, the low — for the first few weeks while we were getting started — was about 50,” she said. “But it’s mostly through word of mouth. We did a few radio shows and a couple of newspaper articles, but I think the guests pretty much talk to each other and that’s how they find out about us. It’s basically just neighbor telling neighbor and if you get a break one night a week, how nice is that? We try to offer them a nice healthy, hearty meal.”
Longtime volunteer Bill Lynch, who began helping more than 10 years ago during the inception of the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen, is happy to see the ministry continue on.
“It was closed for about two or three months and then we reopened over here,” he said. “There’s a lot more room here compared to Sacred Heart, and the facilities are much better here, too.”
Janice Rosa, another recruit from the Sacred Heart site, admitted they still aren’t seeing the numbers they had there — which averaged about 150 people every week — but she said “it’s steadily growing.”
“Especially when you have a food pantry,” Rosa added. “People tend to come back. We get maybe around 70 people, on average, for the soup kitchen, but the pantry has been bringing in even more.”
For Destinee Audette, one of the student-volunteers with the community service program at Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, having volunteered at the soup kitchen and food pantry for the past five weeks has really helped her to appreciate all she has.
“It’s been like a wake-up call for me — to realize that there are those who aren’t as fortunate out there,” she said.
For O’Neil, he’s only too happy to be able to use his God-given talents for cooking to help provide a good, healthy meal to those who might otherwise go without.
“I love it — this is my favorite day of the week,” he said. “It just feels right, it feels good to me. It’s obvious the need is there and I love being able to cook for them.”
Anyone interested in volunteering at the soup kitchen, donating non-perishable food items or offering financial assistance is asked to call Polly at 508-677-0713.