By Sister Kathleen Kull
Forty years – 1982 – a long time ago! Think of what’s occurred in your own life, that of your family and community, the congregation, the church and world – throughout society.
Pierre Trudeau was the Canadian Prime Minister, Ronald Reagan the U.S. President, and John Paul II the Pope. Movies of the year ranged from E.T. to Gandhi! Over 1200 of us, spread throughout 6 provinces and 2 retirement vice-provinces, embraced the 1980 General Chapter’s call to solidarity with the economically poor. The pilot Associate program was still 7 years in the future.
Back to the future! 2022 year marks the 40th anniversary since St. John’s Bread and Life (SJBL) was begun by the Daughters of Charity, Vincentians and St. John the Baptist parish. For these 40 years – pandemic included – Bread and Life has met the needs of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant community. What an accomplishment!
Since the early 2000’s, 12 of us have been present at Bread and Life. Its mission and ours resonate. Here, we each found a store of grace waiting for us (Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton) and a place to express our love of God with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows (Saint Vincent de Paul). Our contributions enflesh these words: But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. (1 Cor. 7:7) Our combined gifts add up to well over the 40 years now being celebrated!!
St. John’s Bread and Life Mobile Soup Kitchen image © St. John’s Bread and Life
First volunteer S. Susan Dean says: “What I remember most of my Fridays on the van was the respect and dignity given to each guest and worker. The home cooked meals were delicious, nutritious and reflected the clients’ cultures. Many places provide food – SJBL provides services for the whole person.”
Chaplain from 2010-2014 and volunteer until 2017, S. Judy Park speaks of SJBL as “a very real and sacred place. Vincent de Paul would be very much at home among staff and guests. The needs of body, mind and spirit were addressed daily and a great river of spirituality ran through the place. I think of Vincent’s words: “Grace has its moments.” Easy to see why Jesus became bread broken and shared. SJBL has always been a safe harbor in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood.”
Executive Director Caroline Tweedy, RSM and Associate Executive Director S. Marie Sorenson: Their leadership is marked by a life-giving blend of mercy and charity.
S. Marie Sorenson followed S. Judy as Chaplain and is now the Associate Executive Director. S. Marie speaks of “good news-bad news”. “We have been a consistent presence for 40 years; food insecurity continues to plague this community, especially its senior citizens.”
Back row: Sisters Judith Park, Margaret Mary Fitzpatrick, Virginia Blend
Front row: Sisters Frances Gritte, Fran Fahey, Josephine D’Agostino and Barbara Buxton
S. Margaret Mary Fitzpatrick, honored to serve on the Board of Directors (Member 2004-2015; Chair 2007-2012), speaks of SJBL’s guests: “They are my heroes who have courage and show mercy every day.”
S. Fran Fahey initially volunteered with the “Sponsor-a-Family” Christmas event. “After retirement, I worked out of the chaplain’s office – offering a reflection, grace and conversation at lunch. I helped with food and clothing distribution and special projects such as voter registration. My favorite time was interacting with our guests one-to-one. SJBL is a special place of hospitality and hope for guests.”
Mobile Soup Kitchen (MSK) Volunteers in 2009: Sisters Virginia Blend and Barbara Buxton
Today, the MSK is a customized, energy-efficient food truck serving nutritious hot meals and providing outreach services 5 days a week to NYC’s most impoverished communities in Williamsburg, Coney Island, Brownsville, East New York, Woodside, and The Rockaways.
S. Virginia Blend led a prayer group, showed movies and worked on the van. “My 12 years at SJBL were a precious gift.I worked on the Mobile Soup Kitchen with Sisters Barbara Buxton, Josephine D’Agostino or Frances Gritte. There was rarely a dull moment.”
Sisters Frances and Barbara echo S. Virginia: “What a great experience it was for us and how grateful we are to have met, helped, work with and serve so many wonderful people. May SJBL continue to grow!”
As for many of us, S. Liz Bickar began volunteering at SJBL once she retired 10 years ago. “I fell in love with the place and its people from the very first day. My work consisted of signing in clients for mail pickup and social services. We got to know one another; I looked forward to meeting them each week.”
S. Maureen Murphy led singing as guests gathered for lunch, sharing the mike and encouraging all to join in. She led prayer before the meal, and then visited with guests. “I was touched by the respect shown to guests who sang – both those who sang beautifully, and those not as gifted.”
I was introduced to SJBL in 2002. As Director of the Vincentian Service Corps I visited volunteers there. In 2014 Judy invited me to teach a weekly crocheting and knitting group. Of her experience in this “Bread and Thread” group, several years ago Judy wrote: “ An atmosphere of tranquility is being spun and a safe space is being knit into the good souls who find beauty tumbling from their fingers and crochet hooks. When did a class, a group, begin taking on the gleaming characteristics of community? This is a peace the street cannot give. How nourishing this hospitality is.” The wall hanging shown above concretizes S. Judy’s thoughts. A member of the “Bread and Thread” group initiated and oversaw this 2018 group project. After teaching each person to crochet granny squares, she joined the squares together for this beautiful wall hanging. S. Marie hung it in a place of honor in our meeting room with her “trusty hammer”!
In 2014 monthly gatherings began for sisters to visit, pray and do handiwork for the needy at SJBL. This 2016 photo shows some of the group – Sisters Kathleen Kull, Barbara Lynch, Judy Park – and visitor Elaine Biollo. At various times over the years Sisters Mary Louise Brink, Susan Dean, Aileen Halleran, Joan Holmberg, Mary Kelnhofer McMahon (former member), Maureen Murphy, Eileen Schulenburg and Rose Annina Stehle joined the group. Though now on a “pandemic hiatus” the hope is to resume gathering in the fall.
S. Liz is the only one of us who continued volunteering during the pandemic. Since guests cannot come into the building her work has been “behind-the-scenes.” “It’s not very exciting, but it’s something that can be done to help the poor. I look forward to the work I loved when clients return.” Once it is possible, S. Maureen and I will again volunteer – agreeing SJBL is a highlight of the week!
Yes, we 12 volunteers each had a particular gift from God that found a home at SJBL. Along with staff and other volunteers, we were honored at the 2022 Johnny’s Angels Dinner, with the founding Daughter of Charity “Sister Bernadette Award” for outstanding work during the pandemic, ensuring that no one in the community went hungry.
S. Marie is truly grateful for the donations often received from individual sisters, local communities and associates. Our congregation has also generously gifted SJBL. S. Marie thanks the congregation for providing consistent financial support through the Ministry Fund. “These funds have supported writing workshops, crochet groups, staff retreats, the annual Johnny’s Angels dinner and recently funds to offset the cost of food during the pandemic. This funding is crucial as we are on target to serve 4 million meals during the current fiscal year!”
It bears repeating: what an accomplishment!