SPRINGFIELD — A Catholic aid organization here has turned an unused Episcopalian chapel into a food distribution site for the poor.
“We think it is a good repurposing of a place that was sacred,” says Tom Mulhern, executive director of Catholic Community Services in Lane County.
The agency provides more than 1.5 million pounds of food to more than 22,000 people each year at locations in Springfield and Eugene. It is the largest distributor of free nourishment in the county.
Archbishop Alexander Sample visited May 20 to bless Springfield’s new “Joe Softich Food and Resource Center.” The site, with vaulted ceilings and large cross on the wall, is named for the longtime employee who 20 years ago pioneered the shopping style of food pickup, which has become an industry standard. People in need are guided through food stocks and allowed to choose what they will use. That reduces waste and increases dignity, Mulhern says.
In his remarks at the dedication, Archbishop Sample focused on human dignity.
“What we’re celebrating today here is not just a Catholic Church endeavor and accomplishment, but this truly is the work and a project of a community coming together to meet the needs of people,” the archbishop said. “It’s about making a place that is comfortable, that is dignified, that imparts that great dignity and recognition of that great dignity to the poor and those in need who come to us here for help.”
The archbishop said the project reflects a spirituality in which we see the face of Jesus in the poor.
“We don’t do this to serve Catholics, we do this service because we are Catholic and it is our love for Jesus that really motivates us to serve those in need,” the archbishop said. “Jesus identified himself with those in need, the poor, so we see the face of Jesus in them as we serve them. We show them the love of the Lord in the care and the dignity with which we treat them.”
Catholic Community Services’ Springfield center has for more than a decade been located at the former Episcopalian/Presbyterian church. Until recently, people in need picked up food in a cramped space, with overflow outside. Check-in was confusing. The old chapel, with a high arched ceiling, was used for storage until officials decided on the new plan.
The newly renovated center includes a centralized intake and larger waiting area, two handicapped accessible restrooms larger storage and distribution zone.
“We think of this as a sacred activity,” Mulhern says. “We are part of the Catholic Church and part of being in the church is reaching out to people in service. We have this larger purpose. We are not just a bureaucracy or a do-gooder agency. We are doing this in the name of Christ.”
Major funders of the $150,000 renovation were the Murphy Family, City of Springfield, The Collins Foundation, The Oregon Community Foundation and Oregon Food Bank.
Christine Lundberg, mayor of Springfield, called Catholic Community Services an asset to the people of the city.
“This is an excellent addition to all you do and all we look to you to help with in our community,” Lundberg said.
During the recession, need for emergency food climbed in Lane County. Hardship has not dropped off. About 15,000 households per year are helped at each of the Catholic Community Services locations, some of them families asking for food for the first time.
The average household helped here comes for food three to four times per year, even though the rules allow them to come up to 20 times.
“People don’t like to ask for help,” Mulhern says.
Typical clients include a 30-something mother of three young children whose husband just died and a single mom who drove around the block three times before getting up the courage to stop. Neither had money for both rent and food.
The two centers also provide clothing, personal care items, bus passes, utility assistance, temporary shelter and short-term financial aid.
On a recent morning, Father David Cullings is working at the Eugene distribution center, letting clients know when their turn has come to pick supplies. Retired Marist chaplain and parish priest, he wanted to do something clearly in response to a call from the gospel. He has been volunteering every week for a couple of years.
“Catholic Community Services has people who have compassionate hearts for those who come here,” says Father Cullings, having just guided a woman to the start of the shopping line. “They are treated with care and respect and dignity, with no questions asked.”