Living alone — unable to buy or cook a meal — differs sharply from the ideal of sitting at a Christmas feast surrounded by loved ones. Yet numerous residents of Tioga County face this sad reality.
Fortunately, several people from Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes recognize and act on that need, volunteering annually to spend part of their day on Christmas providing food and fellowship for those less fortunate.
Parishioners delivered 23 complete dinners to homes on Dec. 25. Later that afternoon, they also hosted a meal for nearly 50 more people in the hall of Newark Valley’s St. John the Evangelist Church.
The dinners consisted of ham, turkey, dressing, vegetables, salad, and homemade pies and cookies. Meals went out to several Tioga communities, with some volunteers traveling more than 10 miles to make deliveries. Although volunteers must be ready for all kinds of weather — one year the effort was thwarted because police had closed the roads due to snow — Christmas 2004 brought sunny skies and smooth travel.
Al Gillow, who organized the recent project with his wife, Flo, said most of the recipients are beset by poverty and/or immobility.
“One of the ladies said, “It’s so hard to fix a big dinner anymore,’” he remarked. “Quite often they’re restricted to their homes. They don’t get around really well, and don’t get a chance to go out and shop for bargains and that kind of thing.”
Many times, the visits are just as vital as the food. It’s “just the fact that somebody shows up at the door, just somebody to say Merry Christmas,” Gillow said. “To give you an idea of what the personal contact must mean, a couple in their 90s in Waverly requested that the same people come back this year.” The request was granted, he added.
Gillow said recipients often mention other needs, such as doctor visits. Volunteers then pass the information on to such agencies as Tioga County Rural Ministry. Flo Gillow recalled that one Christmas, timely assistance was provided by deliverers for “a lady whose dog had knocked her oxygen tank loose. She was alone.”
Home-meal deliveries this Christmas took place around noon. Then came the dinner at St. John the Evangelist for guests from the community as well as volunteers. Al Gillow said the dinner is always open to the public, and that guests are mostly non-parishioners. Whereas home deliveries are mostly to elderly singles or couples, people of all ages come to the church event. Young guests at this year’s dinner had a special treat: Volunteer Marie Calandra became “Mrs. Santa Claus,” passing out gifts for kids.
Nearly 20 volunteers took part this Christmas by buying and preparing food, delivering dinners, and setting up in the church hall. This extensive effort requires food purchasing and other preparations several weeks in advance. Flo Gillow, for instance, roasted three whole turkeys earlier in December.
Parishioners donate not only their time, but also food and money. Al Gillow said this year’s response was so strong that surplus funds were put toward a funeral dinner program at Blessed Trinity. In addition, an abundance of leftover food was brought to the Open Door Mission in Owego later on Christmas.
This tradition was begun at St. John the Evangelist in 1999 by Betty D’Arcy, former pastoral associate. She also coordinated a similar effort for Thanksgiving before retiring from her position last year. The torch was then passed to the Gillows, who had volunteered for past holiday dinners. Due to the transition, a Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t offered in 2004, but the Gallows said they plan to recruit more volunteers so they can offer dinner for both holidays in the future.
St. John the Evangelist remains the focal point for the Christmas celebration, yet volunteers also come from other worship sites of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick. For instance, the youth group at St. Francis, Catatonk, provided cookies and brownies this Christmas.
In many cases, volunteers must adjust their Mass attendance and family plans in order to be available for duty on Christmas. But there’s a satisfying reward — the gratitude that virtually every dinner recipient expresses.
“It’s pretty universal. They’re always saying, ‘I can’t really thank you enough for this,'” Al Gillow said.