By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – Feeding “our beloved poor” isn’t the primary goal. But neither is making them self-sufficient.
Half a year after a leadership transition and incorporation, founders of The Mustard Seed Catholic Worker are pondering how to go beyond offering their trademark free meals.
This house of hospitality at 93 Piedmont St. is open from about 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for socializing and coffee, said Michael Boover and Frank Kartheiser, who helped found The Mustard Seed in the 1970s. At about 5:40 p.m. volunteers serve between 70 and 200 people supper.
“I think we see ourselves primarily as a place of welcome,” Mr. Boover said. “We’re also a community that worships together.” People gather at 7 p.m. Fridays in The Mustard Seed chapel for prayer, and sometimes Mass.
The Mustard Seed had held “clarification of thought meetings,” a practice of the Catholic Worker movement in which people discuss important topics, Mr. Boover said. Under the new administration they have been resumed, with discussions of the movement’s principles.
For about 30 years, Donna Domiziano ran the soup kitchen, the founders said. She retired June 1 when the founders decided to form a non-profit corporation to run The Mustard Seed. But she still visits, they said.
“The ‘old timers’ came back, joined by some new people,” wanting to serve a meal as a group, said another founder, Geri DiNardo, who attends St. Anne Parish in Shrewsbury. Volunteer Richard Kozlowski learned the ropes from Miss Domiziano and “there was no break in the service.” Sitting quietly in the dining room Monday, Ms. DiNardo said she tries to be a presence there.
“The first six months have been about keeping it going, and now it’s about looking ahead,” said Mr. Kartheiser, noting that they’ve been focusing on meals, but their goal is broader. “There’s a lot of people who are still living outdoors. There’s a lot of families who are coming. It’s great to be able to share a meal, but families need more than that.”
Asked if they’re trying to help people become self-sufficient, he sought a more appropriate concept, and spoke about being interdependent and having a sense of community. He compared their efforts with the life of religious sisters and brothers. The vow of poverty is a vow of community; “they share with each other so that they’re all well off,” he said. “How do we be generous in a way that helps families move through their crisis?”
Mr. Boover said they are looking at how to help people make good choices that will help them in the long run. Social justice is needed to right wrongs, he said, citing racism, homelessness, illness and lack of opportunity. Catholic Worker theology calls for giving evidence of God’s providence and love, he said.
Asked how that dovetails with the Year of Mercy, he said, “It speaks to the need of conversion of heart for all of us.” He said societal and personal healing is needed, and the medicine is mercy.
A variety of people extend mercy in a variety of ways at The Mustard Seed.
Monday, 13-year-old DJ Ashton served meals with Mr. Kartheiser, and an assistant pastor and members of the Worcester congregation Christ Jubilee International. Afterwards, DJ ate.
“He’s been here since he was born,” said Theresa Spinola, a cousin whom he calls “Auntie.” “We normally make him work every day.… When he first learned how to talk, he’d stand up on the chair and yell, ‘Supper’s here; we need help.’”
She said she eats and volunteers, this year helping organize the Christmas party and turkey give-aways.
“I’m excited about the parishes that are stepping up,” Mr. Kartheiser said. New parish communities have begun serving meals since the corporation was formed. They include his parish, Blessed Sacrament; Mr. Boover’s parish, Sacred Heart-St. Catherine of Sweden, and St. John’s, which also serves its own free meal.
Now they have the nice problem of much support, Mr. Boover said, and expressed thanks for those who have helped. Meal servers, new and old, also come from non-Catholic churches, Knights of Columbus, Cursillo and Hindu groups, college students from Humanist and Newman clubs and a fraternity, and companies – AbbVie and Bay State Savings Bank.
Kim O’Konis, of Central MA Kibble Kitchen, brings food for people’s pets, Mr. Boover said.
He said knitters made 200 winter caps and The Mustard Seed is also collecting other winter outerwear.
“Father (Bernard) Gilgun used to talk about the miracle of the loaves and fishes,” he said of a Worcester priest and Catholic Worker spiritual leader who died in 2011. “When we started, we were heating soup on a radiator.” Now the work has been taken up by people from around the diocese and beyond, and the “young activists” who began it are seeking younger people to become involved, he said.
People are “incredibly generous,” Mr. Kartheiser said; “the whole operation runs with no paid staff.”
He said Robert Guthro comes daily, runs the kitchen and washes all the pans. Mr. Guthro said he worked with Mr. Boover in the 1970s, and with Miss Domiziano and came back to work with the “new” administration.
Despina Kiely, the Monday volunteer coordinator, said she’s been bringing her children and their friends from Dudley.
The Mustard Seed was always well-run, but now there’s “more of a community approach,” she said.
“It’s slowly becoming a family; we’re getting to know each other’s names.”
– Those interested in contributing can call 508-754-7098 or send checks payable to The Mustard Seed Catholic Worker to P.O. Box 2592, Worcester MA 01613.