For a few hours each month, Schrader Hall is the hottest Italian restaurant in Auburn.
The hall, which is located on the grounds of St. Mary Parish, serves up more than 200 pasta dinners on the second Tuesday evening of each month between September and May. This pasta dinner has been a fixture in the Auburn community for nearly 20 years, according to Michele Muldoon, who coordinates the dinner with her husband, Pat.
The Muldoons visit Schrader Hall’s kitchen the week before each dinner to inventory their supplies and order more. The couple makes sure the volunteers who work the dinner will have everything they need in order to cook and dish out between 100 and 125 pounds of pasta.
“People look forward to coming to it because they know they get enough pasta and meatballs to have for lunch and dinner the next day. They’re ample portions,” noted Sandy Lent, who has been volunteering at the dinner for 17 years.
Besides pasta and meatballs, each dinner — which may be purchased for $7 — also includes a salad, bread and a brownie. Those who dine in Schrader Hall as opposed to picking up take-out meals also are offered drinks — milk or coffee for adults and juice boxes for children — and ice cream.
The dinner draws people from as far away as Rochester and as near as the senior living complex across the street from St. Mary Church and Schrader Hall.
“We don’t get just Catholics. We get all walks of life coming in there, which is great,” Lent said. “For a lot of the people in our community (the dinner) is a social thing for them. They come down and they sit and they see different people.”
That social aspect has been a key component since the pasta dinner’s inception in the mid-1990s, noted Bob Steigerwald, who’s been volunteering at the dinner for more than a dozen years. Steigerwald remembers when Father Robert Schrader, who was pastor at St. Mary from 1992-2004, decided the parish should host a monthly pasta dinner. Not only did the priest think it would be a good way to utilize the newly renovated parish hall, but he also thought it would help foster friendships between the teams of volunteers working at such dinners, as well as among the people who came to eat.
“He thought it was a good way to bring the parish together,” Steigerwald said. “That was the original concept behind it, and that really hasn’t changed.”
The pasta dinner was a “wonderful community builder” for the parish, said Father Schrader, who currently is pastor at Peace of Christ Parish in Rochester.
“I’m glad we put it into effect back then and I’m glad it’s still going now,” Father Schrader told the Catholic Courier.
The success and longevity of St. Mary’s pasta dinner can be attributed to a large group of dedicated volunteers, according to Muldoon. The dinner runs smoothly each month, fueled by the efforts of approximately 40 volunteers, who work together in smaller teams to accomplish specific tasks, she said.
Crews of volunteers set up the tables and cook the pasta ahead of time. Different crews prepare and serve the salad, serve the meals, bus the tables, wrap the take-out orders and wash the dishes.
“Our volunteers are amazing. Every last person knows their job. It just runs very smoothly,” Muldoon said.
Many of the volunteers have been helping with the pasta dinner since its earliest days, and many of the volunteers are in their 70s.
“The oldest person working right now is 94 years old. She’s our hostess. She assigns tables to the people who are going to wait tables,” Muldoon added.
It’s not uncommon for young people to volunteer at the dinners as well, she said, especially teens who need to complete a certain number of community-service hours in order to meet the requirements of the National Honor Society, for example. Students from St. Joseph School in Auburn also frequently volunteer, Lent noted.
“It gives them a good example of how to treat people, so that’s nice,” Lent added.
Volunteering at the pasta dinner also provides a good way for St. Mary parishioners to get to know each other, noted longtime volunteer Joanne Romano.
“You might see them in church but you didn’t know who they were. Volunteering is a good way to get to know people,” she said.
The pasta dinner volunteers have developed a camaraderie that allows them to do their jobs efficiently while also enjoying their work, said Steigerwald, who takes any leftover food to Auburn’s Ss. Peter and John Soup Kitchen the morning after each dinner.
“The people that have taken the job on really put their hearts into it. Everybody just pulls together to get it done,” he said.