Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Genevieve Fox, front, leads a team of funeral luncheon volunteers that includes parish care ministry coordinator Melanie vanderVeen, Margaret Dupree, Virginia Feininger, Rita Thomas, Helen Quirino, Bert London, Phillis Farrelly, Pat Gomm, Carol Stenberg and Maureen Sheridan.
Ed LangloisWhen someone from Ascension Parish in Southeast Portland dies, it's an alarm for a group of experienced volunteers. They show compassion by preparing a large funeral luncheon.
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The team wants the meal to feed people, but also to give a message of welcome and a strong statement of shared grief. It's a common observance that mourners walk into the parish hall quiet and tentative, but leave smiling and laughing because of good stories told over good food.
"When I get a call, I go into action," says Genevieve Fox, who coordinates the Ascension funeral lunch crew. She starts by phoning the 25 volunteers to see who's available on funeral day. Usually, a dozen or more can come, including the intrepid few who show up every time.
Fox, 90, insists that she is only part of the team. But everyone else thinks of her as the inspirational leader. She and Rita Thomas were among the originals more than 30 years ago.
For Fox, each luncheon is a three-day project. Once she calculates roughly how many people will come, she goes shopping. Despite her fixed income, she pays for the food, considering it her tithing. Then comes set-up day, followed by preparation and the funeral itself. Other team members contribute here and there with flowers, baked goods and other touches. They are a smooth running machine of mercy.
A typical funeral lunch draws about 100 people. Once, a meal for a prominent parishioner was set up for 300. About 600 came.
"It somehow all comes together," says Fox.
Though it's nothing fancy — sandwiches, salads, fruit, desserts and drinks — the food often prompts diners to ask who catered. One local funeral director tells the women that he considers their funeral luncheons the best in town.
The crew stays until every last table is wipes and every dish washed. They once used paper plates, but pulled out the china in an effort to go green.
Why keep it up? "I love doing it because of the people and the smiles it brings to their faces when they have been grieving," says Phillis Farrelly, who has been a parishioner since the late 1950s.
"It takes a burden off people's backs. They can come have a good time," says Virginia Feininger, who also admits that the team enjoys one another.
Though it's fun, it's also hard work. Once, there were three funerals in one day. More recently, three came on consecutive days.
Melanie vanderVeen, coordinator of care ministry at Ascension, got her start as a funeral luncheon volunteer. Now, she oversees all kinds of ministry. Because of the reliable team, funeral luncheons are never on vanderVeen's worry list.
"It's easy for me," she says. "I just call Genevieve."
The project began in the 1980s when Fox was president of the women's club. She knew she wanted to do something for mourners. The desire goes way back and is deep in her bones.
One day when she was 12-year-old girl in Chicago, she and her 9-year-old sister were walking to school. They stepped into a street and a car was coming on fast. Genevieve stepped back in time, but her sister did not and was killed. The wake took place at her home. She recalls the nuns from the parish school marching students double file down the sidewalk to come for the viewing. That act of compassion and attention burned itself on her memory.
"I knew at Ascension that we needed to do something special and reach out to people," says Fox, whose life goal is to leave the world better than she found it. "I just am doing what I want to do."
The post-funeral meals began as potlucks and then became hosted luncheons. Even after the women's club folded, Fox continued the ministry.
"I really think of this as a continuation of the Mass upstairs," she says. Mourners tell tales, meet old friends and leave feeling full in more ways than one.
"God is part of this," Fox says with a chuckle. "I tell him I'll keep it up, but he needs to back me up."