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Our Lady of the Angels’ mission undeterred during the pandemic

Before the sun is fully up on Iowa Street in Chicago’s rough and tumble West Humboldt Park neighborhood, the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago are moving pallets, boxes and grocery carts from inside the former Our Lady of the Angels School out onto the sidewalk. They are getting ready for the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels‘ weekly Tuesday food giveaway.

Food pantry

Sr. Laura Soppet hands out numbers to patrons at the Our Lady of the Angels Food Pantry on Aug. 13, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Volunteers soon join the young women religious in setting up stations where people can drive or walk up to receive several boxes of food each week.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Chicago in March, food pantries across the city were forced to close, and the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels was one of the only food pantries that remained open. The mission quickly saw a rise in the number of people coming each week because of that, but also because so many people lost their jobs in the pandemic. They stepped up to meet the need, with some big changes, of course.

For example, prior to the pandemic, the pantry operated inside like a grocery store.

“We were all inside doing client choice. People came in and they had breakfast, and they were able to get their own food and choose whatever they wanted or didn’t want. Then once the pandemic hit, everything had to come outside,” said Sister Kate O’Leary, a Franciscan of the Eucharist of Chicago. “We were no longer able to have them come inside and have hospitality while they waited for their food. We had to serve them one at a time as they waited for it outside.”

food pantry

Patrons choose their food items in the Our Lady of the Angels Food Pantry on Aug. 13, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

They served about 250 families the first couple Tuesdays, much as they were doing normally inside.

“But then as the need increased as the pandemic was prolonged, we were serving 400 to 500 families a week,” she said. “We were very fortunate to have the staff here — our community, there’s 10 of us. Everything else shut down for us, so we were able to focus all of our efforts on getting the food out to the people.”

The weekly pantry is a well-oiled machine. Volunteers fill boxes with the items available at three stations, then other volunteers stock the tables where either a car drives up and the volunteers put the food in the car, or people walk up and carry the food away, often in bags and carts they brought.

Food Pantry

Sister Laura Toth visits with patrons at the Our Lady of the Angels Food Pantry on Aug. 13, 2019.
Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

 

Serving the community

Bishop-elect Bob Lombardo of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, the founder of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, can be found on the bullhorn directing traffic on Iowa Street keeping cars and people moving so regular neighborhood traffic on the street doesn’t bottleneck. He mans the bullhorn at the monthly Saturday food distribution as well.

On Nov. 13, Bishop-elect Lombardo will be ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

On Tuesdays, they serve between 500 to 700 families — about 300 are in cars, 100 walkers and another 200 they deliver to senior citizens’ homes.

Preparation for the pantry begins on Wednesdays.

“We have volunteers that come in and bag dried goods and nonperishables. Then on Monday, we have the produce bags,” Sister Kate said. “On the third Saturday of each month, we get an extra delivery of produce. That’s bagged on Saturday to go out the following Tuesday.”

Volunteers work in the Our Lady of the Angels Food Pantry on Aug. 13, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Food comes from many sources. The Greater Chicago Food Depository provides the staples each week, and more food comes in from restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Whole Foods and more.

The monthly Saturday food pantry is contained to what food comes in that morning from the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which supplies boxes of meat, dairy and produce. During the pandemic, the USDA has been providing food pantries across the country with extra boxes in addition to what they regularly provide.

The mission distributes 150,000 pounds of food per month through all of the pantries.

“Right now, we’re giving everybody a shopping cart full of food each week, which is basically sufficient for a family of four to six to get through the week in good shape,” Bishop-elect Lombardo said.

After the shutdown, the mission lost most of its volunteers because of COVID-19 restrictions, but they were lucky because there are 10 women and men in the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago who live on-site.

“Because of COVID, this is the first time that all of us have been at the pantry together, which has been really neat to see how our [religious] community can come together to assess the needs, to support each other, to support the community at large in a different way,” Sister Kate said. “Typically on Tuesdays we also have our senior citizens program, so that also had to stop.”

Eventually, as the city and state reopened, they brought back more volunteers.

block party

Sister Alicia Torres serves neighbors barbecue pork sandwiches during a Block party for neighborhood residents at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago on Aug. 17, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

 

History

sculpture

A sculpture by Corrado Parducci stands in memoriam to those killed in the Our Lady of Angels fire of 1958.

Our Lady of the Angels holds a special place in the heart of many Chicagoans, because on Dec. 1, 1958, 95 people — 92 students and three teaching nuns — died in a fire that rampaged through the second floor of the north wing of the school.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, but its memory hasn’t been forgotten by people who lived in Chicago at the time. The fire also resulted in sweeping changes to fire safety in schools across the country.

Because of changing demographics in the neighborhood and a decline in church attendance, Our Lady of the Angels Parish closed in 1990. The school followed in 1999. But that wasn’t the end of Our Lady of the Angels.

In 2005, at the request of Cardinal Francis George, then-Father Bob Lombardo, moved into the rectory of Our Lady of the Angels and began what the Chicago Catholic newspaper has called “a miracle on Iowa Street.” Under his leadership and the strong partnerships he formed with trade unions, alumni of his alma mater the University of Notre Dame, local parishes and others, new life came to Our Lady of the Angels.

In 2007, the first members of what would become the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago moved in.

The food pantry existed at Our Lady of the Angels when Bishop-elect Lombardo arrived. The nearby parish ran it out of the rectory. As it expanded, it moved down the block to the mission’s Kelly Hall when renovations to the building were completed. In non-pandemic times, Kelly Hall is used for after-school, evening and summer programs in partnership with the YMCA of Metro Chicago, along with programs for seniors. The mission’s monthly large food giveaway takes place in Kelly Hall’s parking lot.

Our Lady of the Angels Mission

Volunteers sort through food in the parking lot of the YMCA near the Mission. Pouring down rain didn’t stop the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist lead volunteers in helping those in need during the monthly food give away at Our Lady of the Angels Mission in Chicago on Sept. 12, 2020. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Three years ago, after a charter school moved out of the school building, the pantry moved in.

“We didn’t want to have this building abandoned, and our work is expanding exponentially,” Bishop-elect Lombardo said. “It was a perfect fit at the perfect time. The Lord worked it all out. I’ve learned, get out of his way.”

The school building is being renovated to house other ministries of the mission, because there is a great need in West Humboldt Park for outreach and services.

“The neighborhood is a wonderful neighborhood in the sense that we have a lot of really wonderful, hard-working people. Tragically, we have an awful lot of gang, drug and violent activity that makes life very, very difficult for the people out here,” Bishop-elect Lombardo said.

The Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago and volunteers run the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels Food Pantry on Aug. 25, 2020, in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood. When the pandemic hit, the mission had to move its pantry outdoors. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

 

Amid COVID

The pandemic has exacerbated these struggles.

food drive

Volunteers sort through food in the parking lot of the YMCA near the Mission. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

“The neighborhood is pretty desolate, which is an understatement,” Sister Kate said. “I’ve been here 10 years, and I have seen over these past months how the pandemic, the social unrest, the riots, looting … how that has affected everyone here. Just the crime rates, the drugs, everything has just increased, and it’s sad to see and it’s hard to see. I just don’t know what it will take to alleviate the suffering and the pain that people are going through.”

Since the earliest days of Bishop-elect Lombardo’s time in Chicago, he and the religious community have built partnerships that benefit both the volunteers and the local community. Many times the volunteers are people, Catholic and non-Catholic, who would otherwise probably never step foot in the neighborhood.

“For me, building a Christian community is key. We have literally a huge group of people who come in — of all ages,” Bishop-elect Lombardo said. “They enjoy coming in. I think it helps to strengthen their faith. We’re equal opportunity seekers of volunteers.”

And miracles happen every day at the pantry.

food drive

Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist of Chicago Stephanie Baglia checks in with a driver picking up food for shut-ins during the drive. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

“In a practical particular way, one day we had a rough, rough morning at the pantry. It was really busy,” Sister Kate said. “An altercation happened. But that morning, I was out early setting up for the pantry. It was 6 a.m., and a neighbor had come up and asked if he could borrow a broom and a dustpan. And he said, ‘I want to go up on the church steps. There’s a lot of dirt and garbage and food. And there’s ants everywhere. I want to sweep that for you.’ I was so touched by that.”

She forgot about it later that morning when the altercation happened, but when she did remember, she appreciated the presence of God in her midst.

“There’s that every day. There’s people who come by and thank us for our service and efforts that we put into getting the food out to them. We can easily miss that if we focus on the difficulty and the challenges.”

Joyce Duriga writes from Chicago.

backpacks

Volunteers and members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist pass out backpacks filled with schools supplies to children on Aug. 15, 2020.

 

Celebrating the holidays
Every year the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels hosts Thanksgiving and Christmas parties for neighbors and those they serve. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, those celebrations are cancelled. But the mission will still offer something special so that the holidays don’t go without gifts and food for those in need.

In the week before Thanksgiving, neighbors and visitors to the pantry will receive all the fixings for a Thanksgiving feast including turkey and pies. The items will be distributed outside and socially distanced.

During the Christmas season, the mission will distribute presents to the neighbors including toys for kids, gifts for teens and adults, new winter coats, new blankets and new gloves and hats. It will all be outside and socially distanced.

Since COVID-19 has not just impacted the neighborhood but donors too, the mission is asking for more people to help purchase the food and gifts for this year’s giveaways. For information, visit https://missionola.com/.

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