History Project – Mashed Potatoes…

Thomas family memories of Thanksgiving dinner.

Joining St. Mary’s during Lent, 1977 was a no-brainer. One of my seminary professors in Chicago, upon hearing that we were moving to Fort Wayne, told me to look up the parish with the soup kitchen. “They’re doing some really good things there,” he said. He was right. I signed up after Mass one Sunday, and by the time I left the rectory I was on three committees. Well, the soup kitchen wasn’t exactly a committee, but it put me in touch with our neighborhood in a very special way and gave me a stronger foundation when I joined the pastoral staff the next year.

The first Christmas we were here, Father Tom decided that the soup kitchen needed to do something special for the neighborhood in honor of the Nativity, so he borrowed a meat slicer and cut up large portions of ham to pass out. This was the origin of the Christmas boxes. “Something special” kept getting bigger and bigger.

The next year, the decision was made to also do a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner for the community. That first time was chaotic. Many of the active parishioners crammed into the ancient kitchen in the basement of the old church—Thelma and Paul Shulte, Colleen and Jim Lee, Skip and Jim McBride, Jean Streicher, and others faulty memory has neglected to mention, dished up a full Thanksgiving menu for all who came. It was a huge success, in spite of our less-than-professional approach. We had, sadly, forgotten to plan for the leftovers, and cleanup in that less-than-ideal space was difficult. Hal and I pitched in, washing pans and filling soup containers with turkey and dressing.

The next year we were assigned to fix mashed potatoes, and the rest is Thomas history. The old beast of a mixer—industrial size and pretty scary—did its job, and while we followed the recipe on the restaurant-size cans (sort of), we always added a lot of extra butter, salt, and pepper. Topped with Streicher gravy, they were always a hit. After the fire, First Wayne Street United Methodist Church offered us their kitchen, and Thanksgiving Dinners continued uninterrupted. The “new” church, meant new equipment and a more professional approach to fixing the potatoes. It also meant more Thomas involvement. Daughter-in-law Jami and son Geoff joined the team while they were still engaged, and now grandson Dylan has his assigned duties too. I don’t mind passing along the Potato Lady title I held for many years. It’s time. Hal still manages the hot water in the kettles and carrying it to the modern mixer, and I keep busy adding in extra butter and writing POTS on the foil covering the pans. But the second and third generations are now in charge!

Andrea Thomas, August 2023

Dylan, Jami, and Geoff November 2017