When Pope Francis called for the current Holy Year of Mercy, parishioners of St. Ambrose Church in Bristol and their pastor, Father Yvon Royer, cooked up ways not only to contemplate mercy but to be agents of mercy within the community.
One result was a community dinner, to be served monthly in the parish hall.
The first meal took place March 13 with homemade macaroni and cheese, ham, salad, rolls and dessert prepared and served by parishioners.
"In Bristol I see people all the time who are struggling," said Rebecca Boyle, a member of the parish Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program who helped with the meal.
She sees her effort as a work of mercy. "You have to show other people the kindness you want to have," she said.
But the community meals are not just about food.
Sandra Rhodes of Lincoln and Roy Hutchins of Bristol – who are not parishioners – decided to attend the community meal after hearing about it from a friend. He has been to the parish's Lenten fish fries, so he knew the food would be good. Not having to pay for the meal was helpful – especially in a month when taxes are due – but the icing on the cake was the camaraderie.
"It makes you feel good to come and meet people, and they do such a good job cooking," Hutchins said. "It's a big help to us seniors."
Boyle, who was baptized as a baby at St. Ambrose, had fallen away from the Church but has gotten involved again and was pleased to make her "Grandma Toot Bushey's" macaroni and cheese for the first community meal. Instead of mixing the cheese sauce and macaroni, she layers them and tops the casserole with crushed Saltines. There's also a secret ingredient in the mixture.
"I'm constantly inspired by the other people here [in the parish] and how much they do," she said as the macaroni and cheese baked.
St. Ambrose has eight teams of eight people to serve the monthly meals. That's 64 people who have volunteered for this work of mercy, not all of them the usual parish volunteers.
Father Royer was not surprised. "We talked about the works of mercy and that we have been blessed," he said. "You have to have a community that wants to give of themselves. I've been blessed to have two communities that want to get involved."
He is also pastor of St. Peter Church in Vergennes where a monthly community meal is being served also. There are six teams of 10 people involved there.
Wilma and Clarence Hallock of Lincoln attended the Bristol meal. "We had a busy day and thought it would be nice to get out and have no cooking or dishes," she said. "When you get up in your eighties, you like a little help with the cooking and dishes. And it's nice to get out with other people."
The non-parishioner also appreciated not having to pay for the meal. "When you're on Social Security you don't have a lot of money, and with everything going up [in price] and all, a free meal is nice."
Chauncy and Carol Eldridge – who attend another church – appreciated the opportunity to meet new people and socialize. "The fact that the people [of St. Ambrose Parish] are doing this is just great," he said.
Parishioner Erin Lathrop was the volunteer leader for the first community dinner. "We're trying to live the Christian faith," she said. "Father Yvon is amazing for giving you every opportunity to do good. He makes you own your response as a Christian."
"We need to give people more opportunities to be of service," the pastor said.
Fifteen-year-old Caleb Hamilton, a newly baptized member of the Church, said it feels good to volunteer. "Jesus would want me to volunteer," he said, standing near the word "love" spelled in large red letters on the wall next to the serving counter.
Besides addressing a corporal work of mercy – feeding the hungry – the community meal is a way to share the Good News of Jesus. "It's a way to let people experience God's love," Father Royer said. "The word of God is not a dead word. It continues to bear fruit in our lives."
At one point during the meal – paid for by the parish – he counted 26 people seated at long tables; a dozen were not parishioners.
Asked what he had to say to the parish, Hutchins was quick with his reply: "A great big thank you. It makes you feel good to come and meet people, and they do such a good job cooking."
Article and photos by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer.