Not everyone has the luxury of enjoying a hearty dinner surrounded with family on Christmas day. Many people locally have no family in town, or no family at all. Others are unable to afford a meal, especially for a family. Local meal providers such as Meals on Wheels and the Warming House are not open that day.
For all these reasons, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels holds an annual Christmas Dinner in its parish dining hall for the hungry, lonely, working police and firefighters and any others in need of a meal on Christmas day for any reason at all—no questions asked. It's something they've been doing for years, and parishioners and other volunteers from the community now think nothing of coming out on Christmas day to help out.
Jean Smith, a parishioner at the basilica, coordinates the annual dinner which can serve up to 1,000 meals. These meals are served in three ways: dine-in, take-out and home deliveries. With each complete ham dinner costing the parish roughly $5 to $6, monetary and food donations are vital.
Also important are the approximately 150 volunteers who take time out of their Christmas schedules to help others in need by preparing food, decorating the dining area, driving home deliveries to deliver literally hundreds of meals or cleaning up afterwards. The dinner typically takes four days of preparation, according to Jean Smith.
"Our goal is to simply feed those in need and provide companionship to anyone," she said. "There are truly many persons who think about where their next meal comes from every day in our area, and when you send them home with an extra meal 'to go' they are so grateful. It really gives me pause to be grateful that it is not a worry that I have ever known," she said.
Jean Smith's personal interaction with guests at the annual dinner have convinced her of the significant need of this service to the community. "I have literally sat with folks who have told me —with complete gratitude and sincerity— that when they take treat bags and an extra meal home, they know they'll get to the end of the month," she said.
But this special meal is not just for those who do not have the means to prepare a Christmas dinner at home. For some families, it is a blessing out of pure necessity due to circumstances out of their control that week. Some of their stories are shared with volunteers who make home deliveries.
A few years ago an elderly widow ordered eight meals and "actually apologized to us when my family delivered them," said Jennifer Kane, the basilica's communications director. "He said his wife recently passed away and the family was visiting for Christmas, just as they have always done, and he just couldn't cook for them all," she related. "We gave him a big hug and told him that's why we do this."
Guests who arrive for Christmas dinner at the basilica come from all walks of life including those who simply do not have any family around and they cannot travel. "There is no vetting of guests and no questions asked when anyone requests a dinner or sits at our table," said Kane. And there is no reason for anyone to eat alone on Christmas day.
"We have a lovely dining hall set up with beautifully decorated tables and lots of friendly people to dine with," said Mike Tominez, a parishioner who has worked for many years at the basilica's Christmas Dinner. Senior citizens, people who can't make it home for Christmas, even some of the event's volunteers are among those who come to dine at the parish's lower level dining hall (South First Street entrance), Tominez notes.
"We decorate tables using our best dishes with cups and saucers and serve restaurant style with volunteer wait staff," said Kane. "These are special guests, and we want them to know that."
The complete dinner includes: ham, potatoes, mixed vegetables, applesauce, pineapple, rolls, dessert, treat bag.
Reservation deadline for dine-in, home deliveries or take-out are due by Dec. 22. Reservations are made by calling St. Mary's parish office 716-372-4841
Monday thru Friday 9 AM to 2 PM. The Saturday reservation phone number is 814-598-0158 from 9 AM - Noon.
Online donations to help defray costs can be made through the basilica's web site at smaolean.org.