By Patricia O’Connell
ATHOL – “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven … ”
Father Krzysztof Korcz recited the first half of the Lord’s Prayer.
A roomful of people from the community, who had come to St. Francis Parish for dinner, finished the second half.
Jean Partridge told this story as she explained how Sharing Our Father’s Bread seems to feed both body and soul.
“Father comes in and says an ‘Our Father,’” she said, recalling one of the recent dinners at St. Francis in downtown Athol. “Tonight he stopped in the middle, and everyone continued.”
The program, sponsored by the four parishes in the Athol/Petersham cluster, serves free meals to those in need each Wednesday night.
Father Korcz, associate pastor at Our Lady of Immaculate and St. Francis parishes, said he asked pastor Father Richard Jakubauskas if he could implement this weekly dinner in response to the need he noticed in the western reaches of the Worcester Diocese.
“I asked him to let me do this because I saw much poverty here,” Father Korcz explained.
Sharing Our Father’s Bread is run by volunteers. It serves about 55 people at each sitting, during the months of November through May. Some of the 20 or so volunteers are retired. Others are teenagers from the parish confirmation class.
Similarly, the guests span a wide age range. Volunteer Jean Partridge, who is also program treasurer, describes the cross-section of diners as “babies in high chairs to men in walkers.”
“We have a whole spectrum of people who come,” she said, noting the program is open to people of all faiths and no one is questioned about their religious affiliation when they walk in the door.
“We don’t ask them much,” she said.
“We say all are welcome,” she added. “No one abuses it.”
Partridge said guests are served full-course meals that include soup, salad, fresh fruit, dinner rolls, an entrée, dessert, coffee and tea. Ice cream is always available because it is so popular, she explained.
“It’s a meal you’d pay $10 to $15 dollars for (in a restaurant),” she added.
Mrs. Partridge had just returned from one of the dinners when we spoke. The guests had eaten Swedish meatballs with egg noodles. Dessert included cake, cupcakes and ice cream.
The meals run the gamut from spaghetti and meatballs to traditional Polish dishes, as Father Korcz dons the chef’s hat once a month. Father Jakubauskas also spends time cooking at St. Francis, according to Father Korcz.
Although the dinners technically start promptly at 5 p.m., Mrs. Partridge noticed some of the guests arrive more than an hour beforehand. So the volunteers now offer appetizers.
Mrs. Partridge said food is just part of the attraction. The guests also enjoy one another’s company, as well as the chance to speak with the volunteers and with Father Korcz, who visits each table.
She’s noticed friendships forming, as the people who come tend to sit at the same tables week after week. As they swap stories, she said they realize they’re not the only ones suffering hardships.
Mrs. Partridge said, in the beginning, there was a need to approach corporate donors to underwrite the program. Now, she noted, it is entirely self sufficient, and fully funded by donations from parishioners from the cluster of parishes.
A special basket for donations is placed in the back of the churches. Some of the guests at Sharing Our Father’s Bread also donate a bit, Mrs. Partridge said.
Costs run about $2 to $2.57 per meal because of shrewd shopping and the ability to buy from wholesalers, she said. “The people (volunteers) who shop are really good at it,” she said.
The feedback from the dinner guests has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Mrs. Partridge.
“One woman said to me, ‘You’re the only place that makes me feel really welcome,’ “ Mrs. Partridge explained. “They seem to like it very much,” she said of the program.
Although no one from the parish verbally invites the guests to church, a stack of current bulletins are placed on the tables in front of each place.
Lately, Mrs. Partridge has noticed several of the people who come to the dinners now also attend Mass.