Maine parishes’ meals program builds community during pandemic and beyond

By Catholic News Service

SANFORD, Maine (CNS) – On July 13, teens from St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Sanford and Holy Spirit Parish in Kennebunk and Wells, Maine, did what they do on the second Tuesday of every month: serve a free meal and cheer to anyone in need of either.

Teens from St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Sanford, Maine, and Holy Spirit Parish in Kennebunk and Wells, Maine, serve food in this undated photo as part of the Matthew 25:35 Meals program in the Portland Diocese. (CNS photo/courtesy Dave Guthro, Diocese of Portland)

Now in its fourth year, the Matthew 25:35 Meals program has become a community staple, a place to be reminded of the kindness of strangers, the enthusiasm of Catholic youth and the power of service.

"We show our dedication to this service, and I think this is one way we can show people their community cares about them," said Colby White, a recent high school graduate and Holy Spirit parishioner.

The dinners were devised as a way to teach local teens about the importance of giving back, particularly the Bible verse Matthew 25:35 ("For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me...") They have become much more. They have built community, delivered delicious food and joy, and inspired generosity.

The hour-long dinners are held in front of the St. Ignatius Gym in Sanford. The meals, traditionally served inside the gym at carefully set tables, are still currently in pandemic mode with curbside service, which has its benefits.

"One of the best things about curbside, though, is there are almost no dishes and cleanup is faster!" joked Emma Houston, a teen from Holy Spirit.

The initiative has brought support from local businesses and organizations that are moved by its motivation.

"Over the past four years, the St. Mary's Ecumenical Food Pantry in Wells has provided food, Congdon's Doughnuts has provided our condiment containers and flatware packets. When they were trying to get us takeout containers, one of their vendors, Favorite Foods, decided to just donate hundreds of takeout containers to the project," said Carolyn Houston, Holy Spirit's director of faith formation.

"Parishioners donate gift cards, fruit cups, and cookie packages. After our first meal when it became apparent that we would need portable electric roaster ovens, the Springvale Knights of Columbus just went out and bought them for us. This has truly been a blessing," she added.

Like most programs, the Matthew 25:35 Meals program was temporarily halted by the pandemic, unable to operate for a few months in 2020. Under these conditions, to quickly return, the sit-down meal approach would need to be altered.

"Our team at Holy Spirit and St. Therese of Lisieux brainstormed about how we would tackle the COVID-19 dilemma and somehow get a hot meal to those in need," said Lisa White, a catechist at Holy Spirit. "What an amazing team effort it was."

Curbside service to cars and pedestrians was the answer. There was trepidation about how the new format would be received but those concerns were short-lived.

"We were very nervous about how it would go for our first meal since the pandemic began, but at the end of the night, we were thrilled with the turnout and how well our plans were implemented without incident," White said.

"With the teens standing outside taking orders, they were able to be more visible to the public and interact more with patrons," she added. "The teens did their jobs so well. It made me proud to see them at work, making an impact on the community and being the hands and feet of Christ."

"Even though things have been different as to how we are able to serve our community, the people are so appreciative and still look forward to the meal that is served," said Theresa Guillemette, a teen from St. Therese of Lisieux. "It's a beautiful thing."

Despite the temporary absence of the camaraderie and conversation inside the hall, connections continue to be made at the curb.

"I always look forward to talking to the people we serve and hearing the life experiences they share with me," Colby White said. "There is more to the lives of the most vulnerable than meets the eye, and I am usually taken aback by their deep wisdom.

"I usually hear something along the lines of: 'Don't make the same mistakes I made when I was your age.' The meal is truly a communal experience, in which we all can learn from each other."

Said Carolyn Houston, "I think the curbside meals may be teaching our youth that service isn't about convenience. If there is a need and an obstacle to addressing that need, we as a community should find a way to overcome the obstacle. We are so blessed with a caring community."

And those being served end up receiving more than a meal.

"In light of the pope's encyclical of brotherhood, “Fratelli Tutti,” I think the Matthew Meal plays a role in this fellowship," Colby White said. "I think that the meals have demonstrated what it means to be compassionate, to show understanding, and to stand in solidarity with all."