And lighten many hearts – of servers and eaters.
By Tim Mekeel, Staff Writer
Mark Jones sat with a full plate and a full smile.
He and five relatives were around a table in the bustling gym of St. Anne Catholic Church, enjoying a free Christmas Day dinner.
“We wouldn’t have had this, except for this,” said Jones, referring to the dinner and church respectively.
“We were hungry when we came here. Now, when we go home, we won’t be,” said Jones, 58, of North Jefferson Street.
Added his 21-year-old daughter, Oshakee Zink: “We appreciate it all. We’re very thankful.”
The dinner at the Duke and Liberty streets church was among at least eight such Christmas Day and Christmas Eve events held across the county.
The 23rd annual dinner at St. Anne, where a whopping 600 lunchtime meals were served Wednesday, is one of the largest and most expansive.
Participants descended two flights of stairs to find the cozy basement gym transformed by holiday sights, sounds and smells.
Tables were cheerfully decorated with green or red tablecloths and hand-drawn Christmas cards made by St. Anne School’s students.
Servers brought the main course — turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, peas and corn, and a beverage — then returned with dessert.
As they ate, participants enjoyed holiday music playing from speakers flanked by Christmas trees.
Santa Claus contributed to the merry ambiance by giving small presents to children and offering candy canes to everyone.
When participants were done eating, though, they discovered they could take some gestures of generosity with them.
They could get a meal to go, and/or choose from tables of breads under one basketball backboard and a similar array of desserts under the other.
They also received a gift card worth $10 to $20 or a present.
“There’s a lot of hands in the soup, but it comes together,” said Ted Dzubinski, chairman of the eight-man St. Anne dinner committee.
Dzubinski estimated that, including 200 meals that were carried out plus 100 delivered to shut-ins, the volunteers prepared 900 meals.
Gratitude was a frequently expressed response.
A mother and son, who declined to identify themselves, commented on the high quality of the food and the welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s a great testimony to the long-standing tradition of charity in the Catholic church,” the 20-something young man said.
“We can’t afford to do this,” said Eli Lutz, 32, who moved from Columbia to Coatesville two weeks ago.
“This is really nice of them. They do such a great job.”
Lutz, joined by his wife and mother, was touched to see so many volunteers spending part of their Christmas Day lending a hand.
“They’re doing this out of the kindness of their heart. It’s awesome,” said Lutz, a full-time caregiver for his wife, who suffers from seizures.
The awesome feeling goes both ways.
Several of the 60 volunteers described the emotional impact on them of helping people in need.
“This is probably the greatest thing I’ve done in my entire life,” said kitchen volunteer Ray Hottenstein, owner of The Greenfield Restaurant & Bar.
Hottenstein was recruited about 10 years ago by Dave Stoltzfus, then manager of the equipment division of Clark Food Service.
The firm was renovating St. Anne’s kitchen at the time. Realizing it wouldn’t be ready for the annual dinner, Stoltzfus reached out to Hottenstein.
Hottenstein brought three portable ovens from his catering business, setting them up on the stage at one end of the gym.
Dinner was served.
Stoltzfus, now director of facilities for Clark Associates, said Hottenstein’s expertise has let St. Anne trim the food preparation from a four- or five-day task to two days.
It’s still a tall order, though.
Hottenstein gets the process rolling by cooking 40 turkeys, 150 pounds of potatoes and 25 gallons of gravy at his restaurant.
The 40 pans of stuffing, the veggies and other items are done at St. Anne.
St. Anne also benefits from having a host of volunteers, including 18 families with multiple volunteers.
The same word — multiple — describes the dinner’s benefactors.
Food, flowers and other items, worth a combined $5,000, were given by local companies.
“Just about everything is donated,” said Dzubinski, a St. Anne’s member and retired Goodyear salesman. “We buy the turkey, but that cost is offset by cash donations.”
Same goes for the gift cards. They were given by three local Catholic churches — St. Anne, St. Leo and St. John Neumann.
“I’m glad we came. This is beautiful,” said Jones, a cook at the Harrisburg Avenue Wendy’s.