It’s been several months since Sue Wolniak’s mother passed away in August, but the pain of that loss is still strong. That’s why Wolniak and her family were so touched when they answered a knock on their door Dec. 18 and found themselves face-to-face with a volunteer from Sacred Heart Parish in Auburn who’d come bearing a white poinsettia plant and a package of Christmas cookies.
“It was such a hard loss, and it’s good to know people remember us. I was very surprised and pleased,” Wolniak told the Catholic Courier.
Wolniak’s family is one of about 100 families who received cookies, poinsettias or both on Dec. 18, according to Jackie Whatman, parish secretary at Sacred Heart. Each December parish volunteers bake hundreds of cookies and then gather at the hall toward the middle of the month to package the cookies for distribution to the parish’s homebound, elderly or ill. They also pack cookies and white poinsettias for parishioners who’ve lost loved ones during the past year before setting out to deliver their holiday goodies to parishioners’ homes.
“I’ve delivered so I’ve seen the reactions,” Whatman said, noting that most cookie and plant recipients are incredibly grateful. “It’s overwhelming. Most all of them have asked me to come in and sit down and visit with them. That was nice so I could put a face with a name. We get a lot of thank-you notes from people.”
Whatman came to Sacred Heart in 2001, but the parish was doing this annual holiday project long before that, according to Pat Messina, who has volunteered with the project every year since her children — now in their 30s — were little girls.
“I’ve done it probably since the beginning. It’s a nice family activity because you can make the cookies with your children at home and then you take them and pack them, and then I used to take my girls with me to deliver them,” Messina said.
Volunteers actually are encouraged to get their children involved with the program, too, and children in the parish’s faith-formation program can earn service credit by participating, said Whatman, whose own 6-year-old granddaughter participates each year.
“She started doing it four years ago, just packing the cookies, and for the last two years she’s delivered. She loves it,” Whatman said.
Participating in the holiday project helps children realize how important the outreach is to the homebound, the elderly and those who have lost loved ones, and how much the recipients appreciate the cookies and plants as well as the human contact and visible display of love and concern, she said.
“And to see it’s about giving. It’s not all about receiving,” she added. “It’s been a great thing. I just wish that more families did it with their kids.”
Messina no longer has young children in her house, but she still enjoys baking holiday cookies, and Sacred Heart’s project gives her a perfect opportunity to bake to her heart’s content without having dozens of cookies hanging around her house for the next several weeks.
“It also was a chance to try new cookie recipes. This year I made four different varieties and I brought them all to church. I probably had over 12 dozen cookies. I did a different batch each day,” she remarked.
Messina was one of about 20 people who packed up the cookies and plants Dec. 18.
“We put at least a couple dozen in each package and we do at least 100 packages,” Whatman explained.
Each year she panics a little bit before the packing begins and wonders if she’ll have enough cookies, but each year Sacred Heart’s parishioners have come through with an abundance of cookies.
“The parishioners have been fantastic, especially some of the elderly people that can’t come out and deliver, but they can stay home and bake,” she said. “As far as delivering, we’ll probably get about 15 to 30 (volunteers), depending on what the weather is like. We’ve had some times when the snow was horrible but people still came.”
Messina said many of the people on her delivery route this year invited her into their homes, and she promised to come back in January and spend more time with them. She said she enjoyed meeting fellow parishioners who aren’t able to come to church, and this annual project has become an important part of her holiday season.
“It’s just being part of the Sacred Heart community and giving back to my church,” she explained.
Christmas isn’t the only time Sacred Heart’s volunteers and staff reach out to the homebound and bereaved, Whatman noted. Sister Chris Treichel, pastoral administrator, Deacon Nick Valvo and several volunteers regularly visit the homebound, bring them Communion and ask them if they need anything, and people from the parish also regularly call and check in with the homebound. The women in the parish’s prayer-shawl ministry also knit and crochet prayer shawls and lap robes for the sick, homebound and bereaved, as well as those who have recently married, had a baby or graduated from high school, added Messina, a member of the ministry.
“Since January 2008 we’ve given over 300 shawls and lap robes out. We send along a little tag that tells them we’re thinking of them,” she said.