While attending her mother’s funeral in 1990 in Friendsville, Pa., Ann Ziomek and other parishioners from St. Patrick’s in Owego were impressed by the meal that followed — compliments of the hosting parish, St. Francis Xavier.
“They had done that down there for years. It’s a very rural community, and when someone passes away they automatically say, ‘Well, we have a dinner,'” Ziomek said.
Inspired by that experience, St. Patrick’s instituted its own funeral-meal ministry in 1993, and it’s been going strong ever since. Originally called the Bereavement Committee, this outreach is now known as the Martha Ministry to reflect the spirit of Martha, who welcomed Jesus into her home with acts of hospitality.
The Owego group offers to make lunch for any funeral held at St. Patrick’s Church. According to Mary Rose Eschler, Martha Ministry chairperson, six luncheons had been served in 2005 through early June.
Volunteers usually prepare a ham meal “unless a family prefers something else. One family wanted Polish sausage, which was fine,” Eschler said with a laugh. Organizers gauge the amount of food needed from attendance estimates by the bereaved family. It’s a potentially tricky situation since funerals are generally scheduled only two or three days in advance.
“Somehow or other, we pull it off. We’ve had as few as 17 at a luncheon and as much as 150,” said Ziomek, who serves as a Martha Ministry co-chair.
Eschler said the operation runs quite smoothly, thanks to an existing list of approximately 40 parishioners available for cooking the ham and preparing other dishes. Volunteers also come in on the day of the luncheon to do set up, serving and clean up.
“The people we call are very enthused,” Eschler said. “I don’t hear people saying, ‘I’m too tired to do that.’ As far as giving excuses, no. They’re very good about it. And they come through with wonderful dishes; the family is always very grateful.”
“They’re thrilled to have this done and taken care of for them,” Ziomek agreed. “They always have very favorable comments, and are actually amazed at the quantity and quality of the food.”
Ziomek noted that even though no fee is sought — the parish always offers to cover expenses — most families end up making free-will donations that more than offset the costs. This is a good indicator of how deeply the Martha Ministry is appreciated.
“I tell you, they think it’s wonderful. We do make them feel at home. They can stay in the church hall as long as they want to visit; they’re welcome to stay,” Eschler said.
According to Father William Moorby, bereavement luncheons are offered at all six Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick’s worship sites for which he is pastor. Martha Ministry organizers said St. Patrick’s gets the most traffic because it has the largest parish population, and that the St. Patrick’s hall is also used for funeral luncheons involving smaller Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick worship sites.
The St. Patrick’s ministry was led for several years by parishioner Sue Munroe. Whereas Ziomek and Eschler have been with the outreach since it began, Sue Ballard came on board in 2002 after being a recipient of Martha Ministry when her mother died two years earlier.
“It was a big funeral. It was just a wonderful thing, you know, not to even think about having to pour somebody a cup of coffee. They were right there to do it,” recalled Ballard, who is the other Martha Ministry co-chair.
Ziomek said it’s often through personal experience, such as Ballard’s, that volunteers appreciate the meaningfulness of this ministry.
“I think every one of us on the committee has been through this. Once you have, you certainly realize the importance of having someone take care of these details when you’re already involved with everything else with the passing of a loved one,” Ziomek said. “If (the committee) can do this for the family, it starts the healing process.”