Soup kitchen celebrated for outreach to Gary community

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.
“Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?
“When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
“When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
- Matt 25: 35-40

GARY – Every Friday for the past 30 years, the people of Ss. Monica and Luke have seen Christ in their hungry neighbors and reached out through the parish’s soup kitchen ministry with a noon meal.

More than 100 supporters gathered on April 30 to acknowledge that remarkable record at a Ss. Monica and Luke Soup Kitchen 30th Anniversary Celebration, beginning with Sunday Mass and continuing with a gala luncheon at Chateau Banquets in Merrillville.

“It’s a labor of love. I don’t know how I do (all of) this, but I do it for all of you,” said soup kitchen director Verlie Suggs as she reached out toward donors, volunteers, parish leaders and supporters in the audience. Businesses, foundations, other churches, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ and individuals contribute food, funds and time to allow Suggs “to spend close to $2,400 a month feeding our neighbors,” added Suggs, who shops weekly for the ingredients that are turned into meals for as many as 200 people on Friday mornings.
After Mass, parishioners and guests trooped down to the parish hall’s kitchen for the unveiling and blessing of a new commercial grade stove and prep table by Father Mike Surufka, OFS, pastor. Suggs explained that the old stove had become dangerous to operate. “We have the new stove, but now we have to raise the money to replenish the food fund.”
In his homily, Father Surufka said that friends sometimes ask him, “‘How many people do you have in your parish?’ and I say, ‘Not many,’ but Jesus lives in this city and he has a voice and it is on our doorstep every week when we open the door. He lives in our hearts and lives in this work.”
Smiling broadly at the celebration were Renate Schneider, now of Hyde Park, Ill., and Helen Gillis, now of Merrillville, who are considered the founders of the soup kitchen. “We started out serving just soup and sandwiches, because that’s all we were able to do,” said Gillis, who admitted disappointment “because we had prepared for so many, and only eight people came the first day.”
Encouraged by their then-pastor, Father Pat Gaza, the volunteers went door-to-door in the neighborhood, handed out flyers and were soon drawing two dozen guests, a number that kept growing as word of mouth spread and the meals became more substantial.
“Some people didn’t necessarily need food, they just needed people to talk to, and the soup kitchen also brought our two (merged) parishes together, St. Monica and St. Luke, which were made up of different people,” Gillis recalled. “After 30 years, I’m proud to be here. The soup kitchen is better than ever.”
Schneider, who has lived and worked in Haiti for the past 25 years -- opening a rural university, starting a community mental health program, building homes for women and their children -- also expressed pride in the soup kitchen. “I proposed the soup kitchen because I thought it would be good for people to know that the Catholic Church was involved in helping the community,” she recalled. “People liked the idea, and after a year, we were hearing reports that we had the best food of any local soup kitchen.”
Longtime volunteer Diana Moreno, who followed in the footsteps of her late in-laws, Laura and Tony Moreno, said, “My life changed because of the soup kitchen,” she said. “I learned to drive so I could get there, and the world opened up to me. I got to do a lot of things for the people in my life.”
Moreno added, Ss. Monica and Luke is my home, and such a welcoming church.”
Jim Wiseman, marketing coordinator at Rieth-Riley Construction Co., said he sends groups of employees to volunteer at the soup kitchen as a way to spell the regular volunteers, “and they all come back to work talking about what a great experience it was.”
Hector Arroyo offered his praise for the soup kitchen through a song, “Jesus is Calling,” while U.S. Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-1st) and Indiana State Senator Eddie Melton (D-District 3) both offered their support for the work of the soup kitchen.
“The enthusiasm 30 years ago was so vibrant (among the organizers),” recalled Father Gaza, who greenlighted the ministry. “They didn’t know exactly what it involved, but they worked together and figured it out. To me, the most important service has been the relationships that people develop. The clients come not just for the good food, but for the good company.
“We don’t always know what people need,” he added, “but it is always more than just a little food.”