Denver parishes redouble efforts to provide food for those in need

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

Parishes in the Archdiocese of Denver haven’t kept their arms crossed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it be by collecting food or hosting food banks and sandwich lines, many of them have intensified and adapted their efforts to provide these services amid the current health risks and regulations.

Some parishes shared with us what they have done in the past few months to ensure no family goes to bed on an empty stomach.

Announcing the Gospel, one trunk at a time

Since 1974, Twin Parishes Food Bank has been helping Denver families facing financial difficulties. It is located just a block away from Annunciation Parish and it operates under the umbrella of the parish.

Although the current pandemic has brought about unexpected complications and an increased demand for food services, Kevin Holwerda-Hommes, director of the food bank, is grateful for the generosity he’s encountered.

“We’re seeing about 600 clients a month, which is up from about 450. We’re also doing a lot more deliveries to homebound people: about 100 boxes a month, when we used to deliver about 5,” he said. “I’m grateful we’ve had an outpouring support, both from the Catholic community in terms of funds and volunteer hours, but also from people in general… Clients are very happy that we’re still open in a time in which it would be easier for us to stay home and not risk getting sick.”

As people pull up to the Twin Parishes Food Bank to get food, volunteers load the food into their trunks to maintain social distancing. (Photo provided)

The food bank has had to limit the number of volunteers per session, provide its services outdoors and prepare boxes beforehand to load them in people’s trunks and maintain physical distancing. It has also partnered with many other parishes and non-profit and government institutions, such as the Food Bank of the Rockies and the Mental Health Center of Denver, to be able to provide these services.

“I want to thank many of those people who are donating to places like this,” said Father Charles Polifka, pastor of Annunciation Parish. “It would be impossible for us at Annunciation to pull this off without the help of other parishes and community organizations.”

Rising to the occasion

Many other charitable ministries have struggled staying open due to the added regulations or to the fact that they have recommended that volunteers over 65 years old stay home for their own safety.

This reality became worrisome at Risen Christ Parish in Denver, but the overwhelming response they received from parishioners allowed them to give more than they previously had. After many of their volunteers had to step away, the parish thought it might have to close the food bank temporarily. That’s when they decided to voice the need to their parishioners.

When Risen Christ Parish appealed to its parishioners for extra help at their food back, many volunteers stepped up without hesitation. (Photo provided).

“We got a resounding reply with around 30 volunteers a week who stepped in immediately, and we didn’t have to cancel anything, said Steve Furch, Outreach Coordinator at the parish. “There was no hesitation at all. People just started calling saying, ‘I’d like to help.’”

The parish serves over 200 families in its two monthly sessions in collaboration with Food Bank of the Rockies. But there’s more. Risen Christ Parish also collects non-perishable food items throughout the week from its parishioners and delivers that food to other inner-city food banks on Mondays and Fridays each week, a ministry that has been going on for about 20 years.

“Several people have told me, ‘I hadn’t had to call you for any other help. We get so much food that now I can afford to pay my bills,’” said Furch joyfully.

Heart-to-heart service

The personal interactions that come with providing such services have allowed many volunteers and staff at parishes to encounter first-hand the effects of the pandemic on many families.

“We’ve seen a lot of families who have had to go to the food bank for the very first time because of job layoffs,” said Melanie Rohr, Outreach Coordinator at Immaculate Heart of Mary. “We had a man in tears who had lost his job say to us: ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this. We’ve got kids at home, and I just don’t know how I’m going to do it… This is going to help us tremendously to get by while we find some temporary work.’”

This reality and need led volunteers at IHM to work harder to keep the food bank open when they experienced a volunteer shortage. But, serving an average of 750 households a month, the parish has committed to turning no one away. Instead, it has tried to bring a greater awareness to its services.

Such generosity is made possible by the support, partnership and donations from parishioners, religious organizations, local restaurants and businesses, the government, etc.

Furthermore, other than allowing clients to replenish once a week, IHM offers a monthly registration for people within its boundaries to receive a monthly food order.

“We’re open to anyone in need without restriction. We have a lot of food to give out because donations are abundant, and we hate when we have food that we can’t give away,” Rohr said.

Cathedral and Hungary, but not hungry

When it comes to serving those in need in the heart of Denver, two downtown parishes provide meals for over 80,000 people a year through their daily services. Both the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish have a long history of giving to the community.

While the sandwich line at the Cathedral started in the late 70s, St. Elizabeth’s at least goes back to 1910, when the Franciscans and Mother Cabrini used to give food from the back of a Denver & Rio Grande train. However, there are reports that the Franciscans were already doing it the current church building when it opened in 1896.

The Cathedral serves meals to over 80,000 people per year, and their outreach is especially valuable during the pandemic. (Photo provided)

The additional precautions taken due to the coronavirus have not kept either of these parishes from providing meals to hundreds of people every day. With many rotating volunteers, St. Elizabeth Parish is able to make homemade soup every day, and thanks to people’s generosity the Cathedral is able to offer well-balanced meals – not to mention the 20-30 loaves of homemade bread that one certified volunteer bakes every day for the sandwiches.

Father Ron Cattany, Pastor and Rector of the Cathedral and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, has been fascinated by people’s gratitude during this time.

“The people that come are some of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve seen in my life. Some will come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing. Can I pray over you?’ Those blessings are the best,” he said.

He has also witnessed people’s gratitude in their acts of kindness toward the Cathedral. During the outbursts of protests and vandalism downtown, a man pitched his tent in front of the Cathedral garage to protect it and let people know that someone was always watching.

“While we live in a world where the funding community wants to fund new things, the basic needs don’t go away, the lines don’t get any shorter,” he said. “When the government cannot provide it, the first place people go to is to the churches. That’s why the Catholic Church is one of the largest social service providers in the world.”

Twin Parishes (Annunciation)
Tues., Thurs. 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
3663 Humboldt Street, Denver, CO 80205

Risen Christ
2nd and 4th Thurs. of the month. 3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Immaculate Heart of Mary
MWF 9 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
(11426 Pearl St. Northglenn, CO 80233)

Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
8 a.m. Breakfast; 1 p.m. Pantry; 4 p.m. Snacks

St. Elizabeth of Hungary
11 a.m. Sandwich line

COMING UP: Franciscan food truck nourishes souls and bodies

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Last November, Capuchin Franciscan Friars serving in Denver joined the increasingly popular food truck trend, but with some key twists.

Like their food truck counterparts, they are drawing fans offering something special — in their case, fresh, healthy wraps loaded with lean meat and veggies. Unlike other culinary roadies, their food is free.

The main difference about the friars’ food truck? It’s not really about the food, but about presence.

“On the face of it our food truck is seeing to the physical need of people, but on a deeper level it serves a spiritual need and even an evangelical purpose,” said Father Joseph Mary Elder, O.F.M. Cap., head of the new ministry.

“Our charism is to be little brothers to people—friars minor,” he explained. “We want to use the food truck as an opportunity to enter into relationships with the poor.”

Painted Franciscan brown with colorful artwork depicting local friars engaged in ministry as well as Saints Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio, and Blessed Solanus Casey, the truck includes white text on the back acknowledging partnership with the Routzon Family Foundation, while messaging on the sides identifies it as belonging to the Capuchins and describing their mission as “Messengers of God’s mercy” and “Brothers to those in need.”

“It’s not only to feed the body, but to feed the soul, that’s what the food truck ministry is about,” said Cindy Routzon, secretary of the foundation and wife to its founder Ed Routzon.

The foundation bought the new F59 P700 14-foot Morgan Olson truck and, with additional aid from Regis University, has funded the food. Volunteers, including youth ministry groups, have helped put the lunches together. Some volunteers also help the friars distribute the food.

Two Sundays a month the truck heads to downtown sites where the homeless gather. There, friars and volunteers hand out sack lunches and beverages. They also give out seasonal items those living on the street may need such as hats, gloves and socks. Resources the poor can avail themselves of such as medical and mental health services are listed on the lunch bags.

“At first the people were hesitant because they saw a food truck and thought they had to pay,” said Capuchin Brother Jude Quinto, recalling the truck’s first run Nov. 25. “But when they saw friars in brown habits running around, then they knew what we were up to and a crowd started forming.”

That day the friars handed out 300 turkey wraps to some 200 people. They now distribute up to 350 wraps. One Sunday, they gave away wraps and tamales, which was also a hit.

It seems they can’t make a mistake.

“We did some vegetarian wraps by accident once, one guy in particular loved it,” Father Joseph said. “We try to keep the meals healthy. We don’t want to perpetuate the health problems many homeless have with diabetes and other medical issues.”

Annunciation Church parishioners Audrey Wakely, 25, and her husband Connor Wakeley, 24, are among the volunteers who have helped make and distribute the lunches.

“It was eye-opening to see what the homeless community is like,” Audrey Wakeley said. “They were so nice — and very grateful. We liked interacting with and putting a face to the homeless. I think a lot of times, many of us try not to talk to them.”

Like the homeless, the imprisoned and the elderly they minister to, the Capuchins themselves are largely invisible to the wider community even though they’ve been ministering in the archdiocese for 41 years.

“This ministry creates an opportunity to share our brotherhood with other people,” Father Joseph said. “It’s also a good way to let people know we’re here.”

In unveiling the new ministry at the orders’ benefit gala in October, Father Christopher Gama, O.F.M. Cap., said the food truck ministry aims to answer the new evangelization call of St. John Paul II to find innovative ways to spread the Gospel in the 21st century.

“This new initiative is about that,” Father Christopher said.  “To bring Christ into the world in a fresh new way.”

Those involved affirm that’s the case.

“I was thinking of Father Solanus Casey during the [first] trip,” Brother Jude said. “He and other friars had opened a soup kitchen and we’re doing that, only ours is mobile and it’s going to where the people are. It’s like a modern-day soup kitchen on wheels.

“The preaching we do is the love we show,” he added. “That’s the image of God we give: God who’s present.”

Among those accepting a lunch that day was a man identified only as Greg. He echoed the comments of other recipients who raved about the healthful, tasty meal — and he expressed hope to see the food truck again.

“I’m very happy to see the food truck and the Capuchin Franciscans out here,” he said. “It’s so needed. It’s wonderful that someone somewhere in the Catholic Church had this beautiful idea to do this. I hope to see more of this.”

Portions of this report originally appeared in the Capuchin Franciscans’ Winter 2018 publication The Porter.