When Sister Barbara Kuhn, SSJ, died in January 2008, she left behind heavy hearts — and a sizable hole in the ministry that was near and dear to her.
She and Sister of St. Joseph Mary Jean Smith had become well-known all over Holy Family Parish for their Kitchen Table Ministry that was begun in 2004. Yet based on their largely rural setting, the territory was too vast for one person to cover effectively.
More than two months went by before Sister Smith received encouraging news from Sister Myra Monaghan, SSJ, who had learned a replacement was being sought by her religious community.
"I was thrilled when Myra came up to me on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) and said, ‘I’m thinking about Cohocton,’" Sister Smith recalled.
From there, Sister Monaghan joined Sister Smith over the summer to live in the former rectory at St. Pius V Church in Cohocton. Sister Monaghan comes to the Southern Tier after many years as a director and founding member of Daystar, a Rochester-area ministry providing child care and family support for vulnerable infants.
Thus continues the unique Kitchen Table Ministry, which connects the sisters with folks struggling to meet the basic needs of food and health care. They offer such aid as emergency financial support, referrals to social-service agencies, transportation, school supplies and food. In many instances, Sisters Smith and Monaghan simply extend their friendship — thus, the title "Kitchen Table Ministry" — for people who are lonely and/or going through tough times.
"Our point is trying to really build a relationship — spending time and listening to them. We do what little bit we can, step by step," Sister Smith said.
Sisters Smith and Monaghan are sponsored by their religious order and perform the ministry in conjunction with Holy Family Parish in northern Steuben and southern Livingston counties. The parish has four faith communities — St. Pius V along with Sacred Heart of Jesus, Perkinsville; St. Mary, Dansville; and St. Joseph, Wayland. Many of the sisters’ stops are at trailers and houses badly in need of repair, well out of sight of main highways.
"One of the biggest challenges is not getting lost in the hills," Sister Monaghan remarked, adding that she considers her work to be deeply fulfilling: "It’s a grace to be here; I’m very happy with what I see happening here and what I’m able to do."
Sisters Smith and Monaghan serve all, regardless of religious affiliation. Through their input with a local ecumenical coalition, a food-distribution truck from Food Bank of the Southern Tier, a Catholic Charities agency, has begun making monthly trips to Cohocton and Wayland. Sister Monaghan recalled a recent stop when numerous families stood outside in line for many minutes on "a very, very cold day."
That scene was a signal that poverty is intensifying in their area, as the shaky economy takes its toll on job availability and amount of available support by social-service agencies.
"We’re finding a whole lot more people coming forward for help," Sister Smith said.
Sister Monaghan received another gripping reminder of these struggles when she visited one family and noticed that "in order to keep warm, they had all the burners going on the stove. It just spoke to me that this is the level it gets to — the times when you’re cold and you’re afraid your utilities are going to be turned off."
But she also encounters many uplifting stories, such as the woman they’d helped who showed her gratitude by baking and donating a cake for the ministry’s annual penny-social fundraiser on Nov. 15. That event, incidentally, brought in some $1,470, reflecting the strong parish support of the Kitchen Table Ministry. In addition, Sisters Smith and Monaghan cited the special collection held by the SSJs of Rochester over the summer that netted them nearly $3,000; folks who make and donate quilts, hats, mittens and other clothing; others who give Thanksgiving baskets, Christmas stockings and Easter baskets; and residents who grow and deliver fresh produce.
All this support inspires the sisters to carry on — as does the spiritual guidance of Sister Kuhn.
"She’s alive in the hearts of people. People speak of her, share memories of her," Sister Smith said.
"I feel her presence, and I’m sure Mary Jean does," Sister Monaghan said. "I pray to Barbara on those days I feel I need some direction — ‘Hey, Barb, help me make this work.’ Literally, I’m on the road and I’ve missed my turn, and will say, ‘Barb, direct me to where I’m supposed to go.’"
EDITOR’S NOTE: To receive support from the Kitchen Table Ministry, or to make a donation, call 585-384-9679.