By Jeffrey Li
St. John’s Church, one of the oldest churches in Worcester, has just opened its new addition, the Saint Francis Xavier Center, a food pantry, soup kitchen and food distribution center. The renovated, free-standing building is named after the devoted missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus.
Located on 20 Temple St., right next door to the church proper, this center was originally a vegetable and fruit store of Clem’s Italian Sausage. The church bought it one and half years ago and has just finished its total renovation. The newly renovated Saint Francis Xavier Center looks beautiful and spacious. The large glass windows and doors were shining under the bright sun of May and so was Father John Madden’s bright smile. Father Madden is the pastor of St John’s and the catalyst behind the church’s mission to feed the hungry – support poor people and working people in a tough economy.
Father Madden said the opening of new Saint Francis Xavier Center will provide a larger and more comfortable place for the church’s current food pantry and free meal service, where people in need can get free meals in the morning five days a week and can also take the free food, mostly canned and packaged foods, to home with them to prepare for themselves.
According to Father Madden, the church has served free meals every weekday morning in its kitchen at the lower level of the church ever since July 12, 2004, with the help of its family members, food donation from businesses like Wegmans Food Markets, and volunteers from other churches. Recently, some volunteers also come from Assumption College. At the very beginning, few people came for the food. However, as the word spread and the economy took a great downturn, more and more people walked in for the service, and it soon became obvious that the kitchen was just not big enough for the crowd.
When Clem’s Italian Sausage put the building on sale, the church immediately jumped on the opportunity to buy it. The church families went all out to raise funds to buy the property, and they finally succeeded in getting enough funds to cover the total cost – about $1.5 million, including the renovation. The grateful Father Madden thanked lots of people for their help and donation. He also mentioned the highest donor, Frank Carroll, president of the Small Business Service Bureau Inc. and a native of the Vernon Hill section of Worcester, for his donation and his tremendous help as a fund raiser.
The church wasted no time to start renovation after it bought the property. People just couldn’t wait to move to the new building. Now when the work is pretty much completed, Father Madden is still busy talking and arranging things with the contractors. People were so excited! After all, they have waited too long for a decent place like this for them to serve more and more people with due dignity and respect. The staff has tried their best to keep up with serving more than 100 people on daily, but they just couldn’t keep themselves from bumping into each other. They would set up two tables full of sweets and breads and try to arrange as many dining tables and chairs as possible, usually helped by Mr. O’Connor of the Wegmans, and Ryan and his men from Assumption College. Mr. O’Connor also brings in the donated food from the Wegmans four days a week. As there are no open windows in the kitchen, they have big ventilation fans set at the narrow doorways ready to help keep air flowing and keep the temperature down. To accommodate the limited kitchen utilities, the church’s chef Bob Kwiatkowski and his assistants have to get up very early and work long hours to prepare the soup and other foods for the service starting at 8:00 am. Christine, a volunteer from another church, comes every Wednesday morning to chop lots of celery, carrots, potatoes and meat for Bob. She loves her job. “It makes you feel good because you are helping people that need you,” said Christine.
People here believe whenever they feed the hungry or give the thirsty something to drink, they are in essence also giving food or drink to Jesus Christ and this is why when asked for the motivation, Father Madden’s answered without hesitation: “The Gospel says feed the hungry.”
With its history going back to 1834, St. John’s Church is said to be the oldest established Catholic religious institution in the city of Worcester. However, don’t be fooled by its age. The church currently has about 1,000 family members and is full of life and activities. The church has made great contributions to society and is looking forward to continuing its great work. For a long time to come!