When a ministry covers a heavily rural area, folks in the greatest need don’t surface in churches or other village hubs.
"You have to get off the path," remarked Sister Barbara Kuhn, SSJ.
For her and Sister Mary Jean Smith, SSJ, that means driving on roads considerably less paved than Route 390 — if they’re paved at all. In these out-of-the way locations their "Kitchen Table Ministry" connects them with residents who lack money and transportation for such basic needs as food and health care. Or, those folks may be lonely and simply crave human contact.
"We don’t bring in a bag of groceries (to church) on Sunday and drop them off. We are sitting, literally, at kitchen tables," Sister Kuhn said.
The ministry has operated since 2004, when the women religious moved from the Rochester area to their native turf: Sister Smith is from Cohocton, and Sister Kuhn grew up in Wayland. They were joined until 2006 by another Sister of St. Joseph, Mary Ann Brunett.
Among the sisters’ offerings are groups for Scripture reflection; for women; for the bereaved; and for those who are divorced, widowed or separated. Many meetings are held at the extensively renovated Kennedy House, which is located at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Perkinsville.
Yet the Kitchen Table Ministry mostly lives up to its name through visits by Sisters Smith and Kuhn all over southern Livingston and northern Steuben counties, as they reach out to people who cannot come to them. They find many folks living in decrepit conditions such as worn-out trailers. Though residents may initially balk at revealing their poverty, Sister Kuhn said they gradually realize "how very much we want to be their friend. There is somebody there to advocate for them, to get what they need. Or, it’s just sitting there being with them."
Sisters Smith and Kuhn reside in the former rectory next to St. Pius V Church in Cohocton. They are sponsored by their religious order and perform much of their ministry in conjunction with Holy Family Parish (St. Pius V and Sacred Heart of Jesus along with St. Mary Church, Dansville, and St. Joseph Church, Wayland.) But since they’re not actual parish staff members, they are free to serve the entire community, both Catholic and non-Catholic.
Both sisters acknowledged that their current roles are quite a departure from their lengthy backgrounds in school and parish ministry.
"Here, any day is different — you don’t know what it’s going to bring. You’re free to respond and you’ve got an hour or two," Sister Smith said.
Sister Smith, 75, and Sister Kuhn, 66, are of retirement age by many standards, but they said they’re as busy as ever. Both expressed gratitude for getting to know the people they serve.
"They help me; I’ve learned so much from them. I cannot imagine facing some of the problems and difficulties they do with acceptance and courage. It’s humbling, very humbling," Sister Smith said.
"I see what beautiful people there are, working through their struggles faithfully," added Sister Kuhn, who also is the former director of St. Peter’s Kitchen, an inner-city outreach in Rochester.
For example, they tell of people who either can’t find work or are saddled in low-paying jobs to support entire families; come from tough family backgrounds; have minimal education; and don’t have dental care. Sisters Kuhn and Smith acknowledged that such people often are given the derogatory label "white trash" but are extremely caring to their children and neighbors.
"We tend to label people when we don’t know them," Sister Smith remarked, saying that the Kitchen Table Ministry seeks to "get to know them, build trust, build relationships, hear their stories."
"We have the privilege of meeting the people. Then you don’t see white trash," Sister Kuhn agreed.
The sisters also emphasized that many folks strongly back the ministry.
"There are a lot of people who want to help, but they don’t know the people who need the help," Sister Smith explained.
She cited, for instance, some women from a country club in Victor who "prepared 16 of the most beautiful Thanksgiving baskets you ever saw" and assisted in transporting the baskets back to Cohocton when they wouldn’t all fit in the sisters’ vehicle. Other folks have made Christmas stockings and Easter baskets, and one local woman grew enough fresh produce to provide 18 car loads.
"Those people were so thrilled to get something fresh like that," Sister Smith said.
A more recent show of public support was on April 28, when a large crowd turned out to Cohocton Elementary School for a penny-social fundraiser. Many donated items were raffled off and a grand total of $1,338 was raised for the Kitchen Table Ministry. Sister Smith chuckled that the rainy, gray weather boosted attendance "because people couldn’t work in their yards." She and Sister Kuhn cooked hot dogs for the penny social and said they had a wonderful time, with lots of parishioners pitching in to help.
Yet when they returned home later that day, they got a sobering reminder of exactly why they do their ministry.
They found a voice-mail message from a man who had discovered his wife dead the previous day, just one day after Sisters Smith and Kuhn brought emergency food to the couple. The woman had been in poor health and had been transported to many doctor appointments by Sisters Smith and Kuhn.
Sister Smith said that during a recent visit the couple was interested in applying to be on a home-makeover television show, and hoped the sisters would help out because they didn’t have a computer. Sisters Smith and Kuhn also had brought the woman a cake for her 52nd birthday the week before she died.
"She had never had a cake," Sister Kuhn said. "She cried when we took a picture of her with it. That was her first and last cake."