Amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, the Sacred Heart Church in Lebanon offers a heartwarming reminder of what this season of giving is all about.
Each Thanksgiving, more than 100 volunteers gather at the Sacred Heart to serve a community Thanksgiving dinner, all free of charge and open to the public.
Offering both a full-course meal at the church as well as an extensive delivery service, this event serves 850 free meals to individuals, groups, and families every Thanksgiving Day.
Coordinating a meal of this size is a major undertaking. “It’s a good thing I have the whole week of Thanksgiving off work!” says Leonard Angelli, the coordinator of the annual dinner.
Angelli starts planning the overall logistics more than a month in advance, organizing food donations from a long list of local businesses, civic organizations, and individuals.
He also coordinates more than 100 volunteers who help the event run like a well-oiled machine. In addition to cooking, cleaning, and picking up donated supplies, these volunteers deliver meals and shuttle guests dining at the church to and from their homes on Thanksgiving Day.
The Sacred Heart hosts numerous other meals throughout the year, but the community Thanksgiving dinner is in a league of its own.
“The dinner is an opportunity for Sacred Heart, the City of Lebanon, and all the surrounding towns to come together and work as a unit to help others,” says Sacred Heart pastor Rev. Fr. Charles Pawlowski. “It’s truly inspiring that so many people are willing to give up time with their families on a holiday to be at the church and give back to their community.”
The community dinner attracts volunteers of all ages, including Edward Bieczszad, age 16, and his siblings Anna (14) and John (12). As members of Sacred Heart’s youth ministry, the Bieczszads have volunteered at the community Thanksgiving dinner for several years.
“The dinner is a really good community builder, especially for people who don’t have family to spend the holiday with or who can’t afford a big dinner,” says Edward.
When asked how these teenagers feel about volunteering on a holiday, they each showed genuine appreciation as well as enjoyment at being part of the event.
“I think it’s great,” Anna says. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun, too.”
Her brother John adds, “We really enjoy doing it and being there. And the food is great!”
Last year’s dinner included 650 pounds of turkey, more than 30 pans each of stuffing, mashed potatoes, squash, and other vegetables, and over 400 pies. Nearly all of this food was donated by individuals, businesses, and civic organizations in the Upper Valley.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the church is full of activity. Volunteers arrive early in the morning, joined each year by a group of international students from the Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan. They spend the morning peeling mountains of potatoes and slicing enough carrots to cover four dining tables.
The prepped vegetables are then taken to the Cardigan Mountain School, where Director of Dining Services Bob Spano cooks the food in the school’s commercial kitchen. The cooked side dishes are returned to the church later in the evening.
Many of the 82 turkeys served are cooked at home by volunteers the week before Thanksgiving. As the cooked turkeys are returned, volunteers gather in the church kitchen to carve the meat and cook stock.
The process has been greatly enhanced by a portable refrigerator truck and an oven truck, which are parked in the church parking lot a few days before Thanksgiving. Angelli’s volunteers use these donated pieces to store prepared food as it is brought to the church and then re-heat it all on Thanksgiving morning.
The meal itself takes place at 12 noon in the church hall on Thanksgiving Day. The doors open to the public at 11 a.m., at which point diners can help themselves to the soup station, salad bar, and full spread of bread and hors d’oeuvres.
The volunteers go to great lengths decorating the church hall. “I hate the institutional look,” notes Angelli, “so our goal is to make the hall into a restaurant for the day.”
Guests are seated at elegant covered tables featuring fresh flowers and complimentary donated goodie bags packaged by students at Lebanon High School. The meal itself is served on dishes with flatware.
Angelli is most proud of the family atmosphere in which guests from all walks of life sit together for a meal in fellowship. “When you’re sitting here, it’s not like being in a soup kitchen. It’s like dining with friends and family, with all the camaraderie and community of the people who show up.”
In keeping with the dinner’s focus on the community, Sacred Heart has coordinated options to make the dinner accessible to community members with limited transportation.
There are designated volunteers who run shuttles to pick up and drop off people who would like to dine at the church. In addition, “for families that would rather dine at home, we will deliver a full meal to their house,” says Angelli.
Last year the church’s call-in delivery service distributed a total of 575 meals—in addition to the 275 served at the church—to individuals throughout the Upper Valley. This service is open to the public and serves individuals and groups alike.
To-go meals include ample servings of the same fare served to those dining in the church: turkey, ham, squash, mashed potatoes, carrots, bread and butter, gravy, cranberry and applesauce, and a slice of pie or cake.
Orders are placed through a special hotline organized exclusively for the community Thanksgiving dinner.
Coordinated volunteers deliver the food on Thanksgiving Day to locations throughout the area. There are no limits to the geographic area served. Volunteers have delivered meals as far as Orford, Grantham, and far into Vermont.
In addition to home deliveries, the community dinner also brings Thanksgiving meals to local emergency responders and area businesses whose employees work on Thanksgiving Day.
No matter how large the community Thanksgiving dinner grows, the emphasis is always on the community.
“This event goes way beyond the walls of the church,” says Fr. Pawlowski. “It truly is a community undertaking.”
To order a meal, volunteer, donate, or learn more, call the community Thanksgiving dinner hotline at 1-800-711-8590.