Longtime head of Rochester parish’s supper program to retire - Catholic Courier
A woman cuts food on a cutting board in an industrial kitchen.

Mary Jo Lightholder works in the Blessed Sacrament Supper Program kitchen in Rochester Feb. 21. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

Longtime head of Rochester parish’s supper program to retire

In 1999, Father Bruce Ammering asked Mary Jo Lightholder to take charge of the soup kitchen at Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Church, where he was pastor.

“I told Father Ammering at the time, ‘I’ll come for two years.’ It’s funny how a job kind of pulls you in, especially this job,” remarked Lightholder, who on April 26 will retire after 24 years as director of the Blessed Sacrament Supper Program.

Catholic church started supper program to meet community’s needs

Lightholder had been involved with the supper program since it began in 1992. A Rochester native, Lightholder had worked in restaurants outside the area for 10 years before moving back to Monroe County in 1990. Blessed Sacrament had run a homeless shelter for men in the 1980s, and after the shelter closed, parishioners sought another way to meet their community’s needs, she said.

“We came up with a nighttime meal program because there were several kitchens doing lunch and breakfast meals, but only one or maybe two in the whole city serving dinner,” Lightholder explained.

Lightholder and two other volunteers scheduled the cooks and planned the menus for the fledgling supper program.

“We were busy right from the start,” she recalled.

By 1999, the parish’s supper program had grown so much that it required a paid director, and Lightholder accepted the job.

Volunteers provide guests with food and fellowship, even during the pandemic

Since its inception, the supper program has served hot meals in the basement of Blessed Sacrament Church, which is located at 534 Oxford St. and is part of the Southeast Rochester Catholic Community. The doors open at 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and meals are served from 6 to 6:30 p.m., Lightholder explained. In July and August, meals are served on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only.

Wegmans donates a load of food to the supper program every Monday morning, and the weekly menus are developed accordingly, she said. Another large portion of the food comes from Foodlink, and the rest is either donated by local bakeries and businesses or purchased using donated funds, she said.

In the days before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, the supper program served between 80 and 100 meals a day, she said. When the pandemic made it unsafe for guests to gather inside, volunteers transformed the initiative overnight, Lightholder noted.

“In March of 2020, when everything was closing, we somehow switched overnight into a take-out program. We never even lost a day of service,” she said.

Although they continued to provide food, Lightholder and her volunteers missed being able to chat with their guests in the dining room, she said. After a guest mentioned he missed the communal prayer before each meal, volunteers began putting prayers or inspirational notes in with each take-out bag.

“It let them know we were thinking of them. Some people saved every single one,” Lightholder said.

After providing take-out meals for more than two years, the dining room reopened in October 2022, and the supper program currently serves between 50 and 75 meals each weeknight, she said. Lightholder oversees two part-time employees as well as teams of volunteers who cook and serve the food and interact with guests.

Program’s outgoing director will miss friendships she cultivated with volunteers, guests

In late February, Lightholder began training her successor, Anne Bowes. The program is in good hands, Lightholder said, as Bowes has been a volunteer for several years.

“When you put your heart into a job as much as you do (at) this job, you just want to make sure it’s in good hands, and I feel good about that,” she said.

Still, it will be hard for Lightholder to step away from a ministry that’s meant so much to her over the years, and she will miss the friendships she’s developed with both volunteers and guests. Many of the guests remind her of one of her older brothers, who struggled with addiction and mental-health issues for many years before his death in 2022, she said.

“My hope (before he died) was that he would find people that would help him. I just wanted people to be kind to him. That kind of propelled my whole vision,” Lightholder explained. “I see him in people’s faces all the time.”

Every once in a while a former guest will come back and tell Lightholder how the supper program changed his or her life. One such young man brought her to tears recently when he told her he had turned his life around and was in college.

“He said, ‘I knew I could get food at other places, but you helped enrich my spirit,’” she recalled.

Tags: Faith in Action, Monroe County East
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