SEATTLE – Every Sunday at 6 a.m., Ref Lindemark arrives at the Blessed Sacrament Parish hall in the University District to start getting ready for some 350 dinner guests expected at noon.
Blessed Sacrament’s Sunday Dinner, as it is known, has been prepared and served by a team of parish volunteers for the past 50 years, providing a hot meal and hospitality to anyone in need.
Volunteer Ken Anderl is one of those who found himself in need in the 1970s.
“I was new to Seattle, and not quite on the streets, but not far from the streets,” Anderl said. “I came down here to have a free meal, and I said, ‘If I’m going to have a meal, I might as well also do some work,’ so I volunteered to work,” he said.
That was 41 years ago, and Anderl has been volunteering ever since. He met his wife at the dinner (she was also volunteering) and their three children have been Sunday Dinner volunteers.
Lindemark, a retired King County Metro planner, has been volunteering for 28 years. He begins each Sunday by coordinating the volunteers who are cooking the afternoon meal.
About 9 a.m., while Mass is being celebrated in the church upstairs, Lindemark hands the reins to Del Catunao, a software engineer who has been volunteering since 1979. Catunao coordinates the afternoon shift, including the volunteers who serve the meal and clean up afterward.
“The biggest reward that I see here is working with the volunteers,” Catunao said. “There are some very generous, good people, and actually just being around them is the reward itself,” he said. “And then the fact that you get to help other people — the hungry.”
From ‘Feed-In’ to ‘Sunday Dinner’
At an average of 350 guests per week for 50 years, organizers say well over 900,000 meals have been served since the parish began the dinner ministry in 1969.
“Back in the late ’60s, there were a lot of ‘street people’ in the U-District,” said Luke Morgan, who was the president of Blessed Sacrament’s St. Vincent de Paul conference in 1969 and director of the dinner program from 1969-70 and 1995-2000.
It began as a sandwich-making program to feed and reach out to those on the streets, he said. Then Dominican Father Joseph Fulton, pastor of Blessed Sacrament in 1969, “came to me and said we should have a hot meal rather than make sandwiches,” Morgan recalled. “We did that for a few Sundays and then we decided it should be a full meal. It just got bigger and bigger.”
Long known as the “Feed-In,” the meal (administered by the parish’s SVdP conference) was renamed Sunday Dinner in the late 1990s.
Besides the meal, the SVdP conference provides toiletry items to those who need them, and Vincentians (SVdP members) are available to assist meal guests with other requests. The conference also holds a monthly shoe drive, staffs a food bank on Fridays and delivers meals to the homebound.
Many of the Sunday Dinner volunteers are local high school students, Lindemark said, adding that he has seen firsthand the effect the work has on them.
“They see someone standing by the side of the freeway, panhandling … when you serve them over a table, they’re a human being, and they’re God’s children, so we’re here to serve them,” Lindemark said.
On November 9, more than 80 past and present volunteers gathered for a meal in the parish’s St. Martin de Porres Hall — where they have served meals to so many people — to celebrate the dinner’s 50th anniversary.
“We feed our souls by how we treat and serve our patrons, and we feed their souls at the same time we serve them a meal,” Mark Sisk, former president of the parish’s SVdP conference and a longtime volunteer with the parish’s food programs, said in his remarks during the celebration.
The Sunday Dinner effort has been successful for so long, Sisk said in an interview, because of “the quality of our past and current leadership and our amazing volunteers.”
John Morford, program director from 2000-2018, recalled how volunteers and the late Pat Campbell (director from 1970-1999), created the logistics that have allowed the program to feed so many people.
“They had heart,” Morford said. “Everyone from the beginning has done this from their heart.”