History Project – Soup Kitchen Memories

The February 19th installment of the history project was written by long-time parishioner Jim Berghoff. Jim supervised the Soup Kitchen operation during the transition from a four-burner stove in the Rectory to larger space in the church basement.

My start at the St. Mary’s soup kitchen was more fate than something I had planned. I had just left my position as a social worker with Easter Seals ARC and had not yet secured another job. I was planning to take a little time off and then begin a new job.

On a Sunday in late summer of 1981, I was lector at Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s. After Mass Fr. Tom O’Connor, knowing that I had just left the Easter Seals ARC job asked me if I could fill in at the soup kitchen while Skip McBride, who was currently running the soup kitchen, was on vacation. She was to be back in two weeks. I agreed to that proposal and started the next morning at the soup kitchen with Fr. Tom giving me as much direction as I needed to keep the soup on schedule. Unfortunately, Skip became quite ill on vacation and passed away before ever returning to Fort Wayne. I now had a permanent position as soup kitchen director.

At the time the soup kitchen operated out of the rectory kitchen with patrons coming up on the porch to the back door of the rectory to get their soup. We worked off a four-burner electric stove like most of us have in our home kitchen. We would use 5-gallon pots, four pots on at a time. As soon as one was taken off to serve, another pot would replace it on the stove. At that time, we were serving twenty-five to thirty gallons of soup per day. The operation continued on in this manner for about another year. As the need for more people to be served grew, the decision was made to move the soup kitchen operation to the church basement so it could be expanded. With the move was the installation of two thirty-gallon cookers to replace the stove and 5-gallon pots.

My two-week job ended up lasting more than 2 years. The joy for me in that happenstance situation was being able to work with Fr. Tom almost every day. We had some great conversations and lots of laughter and camaraderie. Because of the position, I became well acquainted with the day-to-day operation not only of the soup kitchen but the entire parish. I saw firsthand all the good works that were happening because of St. Mary’s and Fr. Tom’s dedication to serving the disadvantaged and working for justice.

I have never regretted those years. The job was a blessing in my life along with getting to know Thelma Schulte, Andrea Thomas, and Susie Pierce who were all on staff and also working out of the rectory. Once we moved to the church basement to expand the operation, we also needed more volunteers. Working with all those dedicated to the mission of the soup kitchen was also a great joy.

Fr. Tom was an exceptional man. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to work side by side with him and thus got to know him as a good friend.

Jim Berghoff