ROCHESTER — Each day, St. Peter’s Kitchen has its own modern-day miracle, similar to how Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes.
Though there are no reservations for the free lunch, the staff doesn’t worry. There’s always enough food to feed a crowd of at least 160 from about noon to 1:15 on weekdays.
And when, on one recent Tuesday, a box of fresh iceberg lettuce is delivered a half an hour before lunch is served, the staff celebrates the fact that it can now offer a green salad alongside the fruit cup, hot dogs and potato chips it had planned to serve.
“We never know what we are going to get, and what we are going to give,” said Patty Lorenzen, program director, who began working with St. Peter’s Kitchen when it was a ministry of the former Ss. Peter and Paul Church.
She cited the example of a donation of strawberries awhile back, which got the staff wishing it could serve strawberry shortcake. About a half an hour later, a donor brought shortcakes to the kitchen, she said.
It’s important to get the meal right, Lorenzen said.
“For some people, that will be their only meal for the day,” she observed, noting that she has seen a big increase in demand for lunches this year.
Donated food for the kitchen is collected during food drives, including the annual postal service food drive and the annual Boy Scout collection. The kitchen also receives a Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program grant from the nonprofit hunger-fighting organization Foodlink. The grants are used for expenses such as buying food, paper products and utility costs, Lorenzen said.
Though the Foodlink grants are very important, they are a small portion of the agency’s annual $120,000 budget. The majority of the agency’s revenue comes from cash and food donations from individuals and tithing from organizations. The ministry also raises funds through one annual mailing in the fall.
Although the kitchen is probably best know for the meals it serves, it also offers several other services, such as the thrift store St. Peter’s Closet, which is open from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Thursday mornings; free phone, fax and copy services; and referrals for emergency food deliveries and to Unity Health’s St. Mary’s campus for medical needs.
The kitchen — which is celebrating its 25th anniversary with an open house from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4. — dates back to 1982 when the late Father Richard Czerwien, a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, also known as the Picpus Fathers, started it in the basement of the former Ss. Peter and Paul School, which closed in 1972. The ministry is still located in the three-story school and shares the 681 Brown St. building with Fairchild Place, which provides supportive housing for homeless women and children. The kitchen separately incorporated in 2005 due to the uncertain future of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish, which closed in 2006, Lorenzen said. Though parishioners were consolidated into St. Monica Parish, many still return to the kitchen to continue helping out, she noted.
And former staff members say St. Peter’s Kitchen has always been special to them.
In about 1984, Edmund Gennarino was recuperating from a stroke when friend Joe Angi brought him to the kitchen. Gennarino became a greeter and later director for several years. He said one of his main roles was getting food and donations.
“I went to one of the factories on West Avenue and said instead of buying Christmas cards, they should let everybody pitch in what they spent on cards,” he said.
The factory agreed to do this, he said, and gave the kitchen a sizable donation. He also is proud of his letter of commendation from Mother Teresa and the four kitchen guests he met who became a teacher, security guard, nurse and barber.
He was at the kitchen nearly every day including holidays, said his wife, Joan.
“It made him feel like he was still worth something after a stroke,” she said.
Other former directors include Walter DeCremieux , the late Picpus Brother Robert Dimano and Sister of St. Joseph Barbara Kuhn, who worked as a director and codirector of the kitchen for eight years.
Sister Kuhn said she remembers the year that they started giving each guest a gift and a cake to take home for their birthday. The tradition continues and is often the only celebration the guest will have, Lorenzen said.
To begin the tradition, Sister Kuhn collected birth dates from the guests just after President’s Day. When several asked what she was doing, she explained that they celebrate Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays, so why not celebrate theirs. She recalled one man’s reply.
“You mean us little guys?” he had asked.
The kitchen supports its guests and the community in several other ways as well.
During Christmas, staff members allow parents to pick out presents for their children.
“We served 157 kids last year,” Lorenzen said.
All adults also receive an item. Last year, the kitchen gave out 360 blankets.
Once every three years, the kitchen offers a free portrait photo session for families in need. Many don’t have pictures of themselves, and they are able to give the portraits as gifts, Lorenzen said.
Lorenzen said the thing that makes the kitchen special is its core of volunteers, which she said has shrunk due to illness and age.
Although Lois Topolski of Bushnell’s Basin has an arm in a sling due to a broken should, she keeps on volunteering. She has helped out at the kitchne since 2003, and her husband, Dan, has volunteerd for about two decades. She says it’s the community building they do at the kitchen that keeps them coming back.
“The sharing of love between the staff and our guests is probably the most meaningful experience,” Topolski said.
Frances Murphy of Rochester, who used to live upstairs in the Fairchild Place apartments, said someone once mentioned to her that lunch was served each day downstairs. She’s been a guest, and later a kitchen volunteer, ever since.
In between husking ears of corn, Pat Fisher of Ontario, a member of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, said each day the kitchen estimates how many people it will have by the number that showed up the day before and then cooks a little bit extra.
“The good Lord takes care of it,” Fisher said.
Sister Kuhn agreed there is a spiritual power in a shared meal, whether it’s the Eucharist or lunch.
“The way we provide nourishment of people’s body and spirit is not just with the sacramental Eucharist, but with the sharing of food,” she said.