Holiday outreach at parishes looks a little different this year

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in Local
Parishioners at Bellevue’s St. Louise de Marillac Parish will distribute food on December 23 to families in need at three churches, though the federal Farmers to Families food program. Photo: Courtesy Katie O’Neill Parishioners at Bellevue’s St. Louise de Marillac Parish will distribute food on December 23 to families in need at three churches, though the federal Farmers to Families food program. Photo: Courtesy Katie O’Neill

SEATTLE – Giving trees, holiday meal programs and overnight shelters are seeing some changes because of COVID-19 this Advent at parishes around the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Instead of a big gift distribution event with breakfast and a visit with Santa, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference in Vancouver is having its first drive-up food and gift distribution, according to executive director Carolyn Palmer.

On December 19, about 400 families in need will receive food boxes at St. Vincent de Paul, then pick up gifts at Seton Catholic College Preparatory School in Vancouver.

“This is a huge undertaking, and it requires the support of our donors,” Palmer said.

She thanked parishioners at the conference’s four Vancouver parishes — St. Joseph, Holy Redeemer, Our Lady of Lourdes and the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater — and the efforts of local toy drives to provide gifts for families in need.

“With all this community support, I hope to have a couple thousand toys to distribute,” Palmer said.

Other parishes have simplified their giving trees, asking parishioners to donate gift cards this year instead of taking paper tags off a tree and purchasing gifts. Some have digital sign-ups for specific gifts that can be shipped directly to the parish. At St. James Cathedral, a virtual giving tree is supporting migrant farmworkers in Skagit County, juveniles in detention and other ministries, said Patrick Barredo, St. James’ director of social outreach and advocacy.

At St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Bellevue, the giving tree is emphasizing gift cards to help groups such as the New Bethlehem Project family shelter and the Congregation for Homeless, said Katie O’Neill, the parish’s evangelization director. The parish and its school are also gathering supplies for the New Bethlehem shelter.

At Holy Rosary Parish in West Seattle, administrative assistant Libby Pickthorn expects the need to be greater this year. The parish is coordinating with the St. Vincent de Paul Society to provide gift cards and food donations.

Feeding families in need

Feeding hungry families is a ministry that often ramps up at parishes for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Families in need at St. Louise, St. John the Baptist Parish in Covington and a Methodist church in White Center will be helped December 23 by St. Louise parishioners working with Catholic Community Services to deliver fresh food through the federal Farmers to Families program.

“Not only are we feeding families, we are keeping farms in business and truck drivers in business,” O’Neill said.

When St. Louise last participated in Farmers to Families, about 1,000 families received food as part of a drive-through pickup, she said.

At St. Leo the Great Parish in Tacoma, its food bank serves around 150 clients each week, 70 percent of them families, said Rick Samyn, St. Leo’s pastoral assistant for social ministry. At Thanksgiving, St. Leo’s handed out 363 turkeys, and they are planning to distribute more for Christmas.

Parishioners at St. Anne Parish in Seattle prepared Thanksgiving meals for residents at the Aloha Inn, a transitional housing program for homeless adults, said Judy Vitzthum, St. Anne’s pastoral assistant for community involvement. Holy Rosary parishioners are helping homeless shelters and making shelf-stable lunches, Pickthorn said.

Outreach to elders, plus shoe and sock drives

Since the pandemic began, volunteers at St. Michael Parish in Olympia have been staying in touch with parishioners over age 70 to make sure they’re OK.

During the holidays, the parish is remembering them with gifts — at Thanksgiving, a personal note and single-decade rosary assembled by a brother at nearby St. Martin’s Abbey; during Advent, gifts including a miraculous medal on a chain, a battery-operated candle and Christmas cards written by students at the parish school, said Benedetta Reece, St. Michael’s steward for pastoral care.

“The little things are making a big difference,” Reece said. “It’s a tangible sign that someone is thinking of them.”

In addition, the parish’s eucharistic visitors, who bring Communion to the homebound, are contacting nursing homes and assisted living facilities to provide enough packages for Catholic residents there, Reece said.

Other ways parishes are helping this holiday season include a shoe drive at St. Anne to help people using the Queen Anne Food Bank at Sacred Heart Parish. Several men have been showing up barefoot at the food bank, Vitzthum said.

Socks are being collected at St. James Cathedral, with a goal of collecting 2,021 pairs of socks, Barredo said.

While other parishes aren’t able to host overnight shelters this winter, St. Michael Parish and neighboring Sacred Heart Parish in Lacey are continuing to house men nightly, November through March. St. Michael’s hosts 20 men Monday through Thursday nights and Sacred Heart hosts 14 men Friday through Sunday nights.

To meet COVID protocols, the men sleep 10 feet apart and “they’re instructed to keep a mask on the entire time they are here,” said Kim Kondrat, St. Michael’s steward for community outreach.

At St. Leo’s, the parish’s emergency services program is seeing more people seeking rental assistance, Samyn said. The program also steps in to help people resolve impediments to finding housing and jobs.

“We’re really positively affecting a lot of families and individuals,” he said. “It’s really the spirit of our parishioners and the bedrock of Catholic social teaching that tells us what to do.”