By David Karas | Correspondent and Lois Rogers | Features Editor
Promptly at 9 a.m. on Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption, the doors of the auditorium of Visitation Parish, Brick, opened to the first of dozens of volunteers who would soon transform the place into a warm and welcoming setting for a communal meal.
In a scenario that has been repeated on the third Wednesday of each month since May 2008, they set the stage for the Visitation Community Lunch, the abundantly successful brainchild of a parish couple named Frank and Isabel Kronicz, who had a vision of holding gatherings that melded food, friendship and faith.
Over the past four years, the lunch – considered a natural extension of the food bank started 14 years ago to help people in Ocean County, especially those residing in the 08732 zip code – has hosted thousands of folks within that 10-mile radius.
Gatherings range from about 60 people to upwards of 100, say organizers who credit the dedication of the volunteer crew with its success and salute the response from business, civic groups, schools and the county health department who have contributed everything from fresh baked bread to Thanksgiving feasts and even health checks.
On this day, the community lunch they prepared and served would be a summer favorite composed of hot dogs with relish and mustard accompanied by pasta and potato salad and fruit cup.
There would be ice cream sandwiches for desert along with a host of beverage choices including ice tea and coffee.
Before long, 60 to 70 folks would arrive at the meal which has become a social mainstay in the parish, said Marilyn Lago, the kitchen supervisor.
“Everyone is welcome,” said Lago who noted that the diners reflect a wide swath of the community at large. “Everyone is represented,” she said. “We have parishioners, seniors from around the area, members of the Hispanic community, handicapped people who enjoy coming here because we are handicap accessible.”
Lago calls the monthly gatherings an opportunity – in the best Christian tradition – to give to others.
The mission statement of the operation boldly states the intention to “graciously serve the public, persistently improve the program and unconditionally feed the spirit” of those who may be lonely, struggling with physical infirmities or financial woes.
“This is so important,” Lago said. “When you see the smiles on the faces of the people who come here each month, when you see the friendships that have been made, you don’t need any more of an explanation than that.”
The operation runs as smoothly as a well oiled machine thanks to the planning of the Kronicz who divided the program into two components: one where the floor supervisor manages set up, serving, greeting and cleaning up. Lago, the kitchen supervisor, is in charge of cooks, preppers, dishwashers and the bagged lunches that every guest takes home for the next day.
Frank Kronicz does most of the cooking and Isabel oversees keeping the pantry full.
“Everyone is just wonderful,” Lago said of the crew. She said that while she actively recruits helpers, many approach her with interest in serving.
And organizers are mindful of keeping an eye to future gatherings. Even before the August luncheon began, the group of directors gathered together, clipboards and notebooks in-hand, to plan out some of the food selections and themes of future luncheons.
Marie Cavallaro, who supervises the dining area of the luncheon, said that the event goes beyond providing just a hot meal. In addition to fresh offerings on the table, guests are invited to pick up a free book to take home, and prizes are raffled off. Organizers also select a theme for each month, and spend time decorating the parish hall to spice up the space.
“They get a kick out of it,” she said, smiling. The servers would later put on hula skirts for guests, fitting with the Hawaiian theme of the lunch. “It really picks the people up.”
“We are serving the mind, body and soul,” Cavallaro said of the program, which has been operating at the parish for four years and three months, to be exact. “It is a way to reach out to the community.”
The most recent luncheon offered a summer favorite – hot dogs with relish and mustard – accompanied by pasta and potato salads, fruit cups, and ice cream sandwiches for desert, not to mention a host of beverage choices ranging from iced tea to coffee.
A recent addition to the program is the singing of “Happy Birthday” to guests celebrating the month of their birth, something volunteer Phyllis Carpenter said is part of the fun.
“They get sung ‘Happy Birthday,’” she said. “I just like to help people. It makes you feel good.”
Father Albert Ricciardelli, pastor of Visitation Parish, said that the community event is just that. Guests include those outside of the parish community, with some living in poverty, and others just looking for fellowship.
“It isn’t just for the needy, but also for those feeling low who want some fellowship,” he said. “It is what Christ in the Church is all about.