Maine Parishes Exemplify Mission to Feed the Hungry

When sister parishes, St. Rose of Lima and St. Joseph, in Jay and Farmington, Maine, respectively, participated in the Disciple Maker Index (DMI) survey three years ago, they had no way of knowing or anticipating the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing socio-economic impact. The two churches, sprinkled about 20 minutes apart in rural western Maine, were part of a diocesan-wide decision in the northeastern-most state in America to work with CLI to revive and rebuild the Catholic Church in Maine with a three-year strategic plan.

The strategy, which CLI helped present, apply, and implement, began with Ss. Rose and Joseph parishes taking the DMI survey in 2018. The survey gave church leaders, including pastor Fr. Paul Dumais, a clear and quantitative idea of the most pressing needs among his parishioners. Fr. Paul said of this critical step, “The DMI as a part of the larger process was very helpful to us because it allowed us to get feedback from parishioners and develop a plan based on the survey’s feedback.”

After completing the survey and analyzing its results, Fr. Paul and his staff, with the coaching and guidance of a CLI leadership consultant, articulated three basic priorities for the parishes: one, liturgy and devotions; two, faith formation for all ages; and three, parish social ministry.

The third priority, parish social ministry, was developed before COVID broke out and nationwide shutdowns began. But despite the significant effects of the pandemic on social and communal life, this priority focused on the Corporal Works of Mercy and took off as early as March 2020. This meant, among other things, the hiring of a new staff member dedicated to pursuing the success of parish social ministry, with a special emphasis on feeding the hungry. “When the pandemic struck here in Maine in March (2020),” Fr. Paul recalled, “we were able to pivot almost seamlessly, and within two weeks, we were making meals available both inside and outside. This was due in part to the direction the plan was offering us.”

Fr. Paul believes the specific strategic influence of the DMI data and the guidance of their CLI leadership consultant was instrumental to the success of this and other initiatives. “We were already engaged in community meals and already had the conceptual framework,” he said, adding that CLI helped bring this vision and these efforts to life, even in the midst of the pandemic.

One initiative for feeding the hungry, known as the “Blessing Box,” took off during COVID. This cupboard with food next to the road on parish property not only survived the pandemic but expanded. Fr. Paul “attribute(s) that to having the plan in place.”

As with each parish CLI works with, much of the proposed three-year strategy involves practical adaptations to make the parish run more efficiently and effectively to address the needs of all parishioners. Fr. Paul recalled the decision made during COVID to both feed the increasing number of poor and needy people and also streamline the parish’s finances. While many grocery stores had bare shelves, restaurant food supply stores had food in surplus. As Ss. Rose and Joseph began to require more food to keep up with hungry demands, they made the decision to establish commercial accounts with companies that supplied restaurants. This ensured all those who needed food would be fed, and it saved the parishes money by allowing them to purchase the food at wholesale and have it delivered to the parishes.

Fr. Paul discussed yet another food initiative that, in addition to feeding the hungry, also served to help fund the parishes’ social ministry. The initiative is called “Ora Breads,” and as it sounds, involves bread-making both for consumption and sale. Volunteers and parish staff bake the bread twice a week and sell it at venues like farmers' markets. According to Father, the name, “Ora Breads,” is “inspired by the Benedictine motto: ora et labora,” tying in the social and the spiritual, the work and the prayer.

One encounter with a recipient of the parishes’ outreach impacted Fr. Paul deeply. He recalls a woman who would come often during the pandemic to get a meal for herself and to bring some back for her neighbors. Father remembers one day when she turned to him and said, “You know, when I lived in another town I was Baptist, but now I’m a Catholic.” He said of the woman, “In a certain sense she expressed and experienced what we were going for with all this, which is that we were showing a practical demonstration of the Church’s charity.” He humbly ended the antidote saying, “I was delighted to hear that.”

As the days and weeks passed and the plan’s various components were implemented (both in spite of and in some cases because of the pandemic), programs and offerings that had success at one parish were applied at the other. “We initiated the meal strategy at the other parish,” Fr. Paul said, “and in Jay, we were turning out 140 meals every Friday through the pandemic until this past June.”

As Ss. Rose and Joseph parishes near the end of their DMI-based three-year plan, the fruits of the strategy are countless. Thank you notes from some of the people whose souls and stomachs have been filled with the parishes’ ministries speak to the unquantifiable value of the parishes’ work for bodies and souls. One woman wrote a poem. It reads:

Just a little note to say

That Tuesday has just made our day

You’re such good cooks, and it tastes so good

But what else is new, I knew it would

You folks have done a darn good job

I love it, love it and thank the Lord

Just wanted you to know, we appreciate it so

This is all I have to say

Have a happy, happy day

Another recipient left a short message on a sticky note: “Such a lovely gift for the community. Thank you. :)”

No one on the parishes’ planning teams could have ever anticipated how the DMI and their three-year plan would become the backbone of the pandemic response. All things in God’s perfect time!

by Mike School

November 18, 2021

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