WILKES-BARRE — Sister Lucille Brislin said a remarkable group of area residents recognized in the fall of 1982 there was a need for a program to feed the hungry and began to hold meetings.
Out of those meetings was born the St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen on East Jackson Street, where the mantra is this: “If you’re hungry, you eat.”
The kitchen opened in 1983 and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. It has never missed a day of serving meals to the hungry.
Members of the founding committee included Monsignor Donald McAndrews, Stan Hamilton, the Rev. Jule Ayers, Rabbi Arnold Shovlin, the Rev. Ken Carpenter, Monsignor Thomas Bannick, the Rev. Charles Gommer, Sister Mary Eleanor Thorton, the Rev. Anita Ambrose of the Council of Churches and others. They were determined to establish a kitchen where people in need could get a warm meal.
Brislin was named the kitchen’s first on-site coordinator in 1983.
“(The late) Stan Hamilton was operating his Shepherds of the Streets program and he said he was going to start giving out soup and sandwiches at a downtown church,” Brislin said. “He told us he would keep it simple, but something had to be provided.”
That was the impetus that drove the committee; Catholic Social Services took the lead and the kitchen was established. “They wanted to be able to sustain the needs of people over the long haul,” Brislin said.
400 meals daily
Monsignor Joseph Kelly, executive director of Catholic Social Services, said more than 400 meals are being served at lunchtime seven days a week and 200-plus dinners are served on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. During the holidays, hundreds of meals are delivered to people in need.
From the beginning, all patrons were referred to as “guests,” and volunteers were trained to always have eye contact and to treat them with dignity, Brislin said.
“And we always wanted to offer our guests choices,” said Brislin. “The poor don’t have choices. I always wondered what it would be like to have to stand in a bread line and wait for a handout. I wanted our kitchen to be about interaction with the guests — to offer a homey atmosphere.”
The building that houses the kitchen was formerly Rudolph’s Electric Service. After purchasing the building, a lot of work had to be done — cleaning the site and constructing a kitchen and storage area. All of it was done through volunteers in the middle of the winter of 1982-83 with no heat in the building.
“But through the grace of God, we got it done,” Brislin said. “Thanks to so many volunteers and the trade unions who helped so much to get it ready.”
McAndrews, 84, said the kitchen couldn’t have opened or operated without volunteers. The building was purchased at a U.S. Marshal’s auction for $62,500 — slightly more than the committee had hoped to pay.
“We thought the kitchen might be needed for six or seven years until the economy improved,” McAndrews said. “And here we are 30 years later and serving more people than ever before. Times have changed, but not for the better. Too many people just can’t afford to buy food.”
McAndrews said the kitchen fulfills a critical need in the community.
“If the kitchen wasn’t here, where would these people eat?” he asked. “There are no other programs like this available (in the Wyoming Valley). The food banks are wonderful, but you have to be able to cook your meals. Most of our clients don’t have homes.”
Joe Boyle, a retired postal worker, has been volunteering at the kitchen every Thursday for the past two years.
“It’s good to give something back,” he said. “People need help and it’s good that I can help my fellow man.”
Kathy Miller, of the city’s Parsons neighborhood, said she volunteers because she feels fortunate that she is able to offer her time and service. “You know the old saying, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ I’m happy to be able to help,” she said.
Lien Do, 19, a sophomore at California University of Pennsylvania, and her cousin, Randy Nguyen, 15, a student at Holy Redeemer High School, were making sandwiches recently at the kitchen.
Asked why she was volunteering, Do said, “Because I am grateful.”
Mike Cianciotta has been the director at the kitchen for one year, taking over for the late Anne Marie McCawley, who ran the kitchen for 25 years. “It’s unfortunate that there is such a great need for the kitchen,” he said. “But we are fortunate that we’re able to meet the needs of our community.”
Joe Frank has been involved with the kitchen from the beginning. He has helped secure donations and he is one of the kitchen’s biggest donors. “The numbers keep increasing,” he said. “Men, women and children — some living in automobiles — would not have anything to eat without the kitchen.”
Kelly said besides the kitchen, the center serves other needs. Nearly 600 backpacks filled with back-to-school supplies recently were distributed to children. Many families come to its clothes closet to get clothing for their children to wear to school.
McCawley’s spirit lives on at the kitchen through the volunteers who she taught by example, he said. “Everybody at the kitchen has a sincere desire to help others,” he said. “And our clients are so appreciative.”
On June 2, 1983, the kitchen’s first meal was served to 66 people. One day not long ago, the doors, as always, opened at 11 a.m. and the crowd started shuffling in for the mid-day meal. On this day, more than 400 walked through the door and another 200 would return for dinner.
Brislin said visitors always were impressed with the tablecloths and flowers on each table and ruffled curtains on the windows.
A tantalizing aroma often fills the air as guests greet each other and wait their turn. No money is exchanged —the meals are free. And there are no forms to fill out —nobody has to justify their need.
What Brislin once wrote seemingly remains true to this day: “We all know that there are no easy or quick solutions to hunger and homelessness.”