By Sara Kraft
ST. JOSEPH — Like many of the Holy Spirit’s promptings, the idea began very simply. One Sunday morning thirty years ago, Deacon (now Father) Joe Nassal, C.PP.S., answered the phone at the St. Francis Xavier rectory in St. Joseph. The woman on the other end of the line was hungry and didn’t have anyone to give her any food.
Later that day, then-Deacon Nassal visited her with some groceries – “Probably from the St. Francis Xavier rectory,” recalls Father Nassal. He was astonished by the extreme poverty he witnessed, and began to wonder how many live like that in the greater St. Joseph area. He checked with Catholic Charities to determine available resources at the time for the less fortunate in St. Joseph, and realized there was a great need for a food pantry. After then-Deacon Nassal spoke to St. Francis Xavier Pastor Father Tom Conway, the idea of a food pantry at St. Francis Xavier Parish to serve the greater St. Joseph area was born.
Thirty years later, on November 27, the First Sunday of Advent 2011, all who have volunteered or donated to the House of Bread food pantry during the past thirty years were invited to a special Mass celebrated by Fr. Joe Nassal and concelebrated with St. Francis Xavier Pastor Fr. Ron Will, C.PP.S. and St. Francis Xavier priest in residence Fr. Bill Walter, C.PP.S.
In his homily, Fr. Joe Nassal, now Provincial of the Society of the Precious Blood, stated the pantry truly began the First Sunday of Advent in 1980 when St. Francis Xavier parishioners were given “Love Loaves,” little plastic piggy banks shaped like a loaf of bread, along with prayers written by Deacon Nassal. Families were asked to place this loaf on their dining room table, and place a sacrificial offering in the bank each evening to help provide the startup money for this project. The Sunday after Christmas, the feast of the Holy Family, parishioners brought the Love Loaves to the altar during the offertory.
The Love Loaves were then broken open, and Deacon Nassal was astonished at the generosity of the parishioners. Two thousand seven hundred forty seven dollars and seventeen cents were collected. Thirty years ago, that was a lot more money that it is today. In today’s value, it would be comparable to raising $7100.
The theme for that Advent was “Come to Bethlehem,” recalls Father Joe Nassal. Since Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” it was determined the pantry would be named House of Bread after the initial theme.
St. Francis Xavier parishioners George Knapp and Peter Bauman stepped up to the plate to begin the project, as then-Deacon Nassal was headed back to Chicago to finish his studies before being ordained a priest. Fr. Nassal joked this experience spoiled him for his entire priesthood. Since this House of Bread food pantry idea was so successful, he thought that every idea he had as a priest would be met with the same amount of enthusiasm. Fr. Nassal clarified that was not, in fact, the case.
The basement of the rectory was cleaned in order to make room for the food. For seven years, the House of Bread operated in the parish rectory, with many more volunteers recruited, including the current House of Bread coordinator Marie Lederer.
Finally, in 1988, a parish center was built. Marie’s husband Fred, a recently retired home builder, finished the basement of the new parish center to make the basement suitable for the House of Bread. Fred worked six days a week for thirteen months and didn’t charge the parish a dime for his labor or expertise. Parishioners Harold Kolega, John Burns, and Mark Werner helped greatly with the renovations with their labor and expertise as well.
Nineteen years later, the House of Bread was asked to relocate to the Xavier House, an old convent building, so an early childhood center could be established in the basement of the parish center.
In its beginning days, the House of Bread served 7-8 families with food each month. Today, it serves 300 families with food each month, some with 8-10 people in a family. It also provides assistance with utilities, rent, and transportation.
When asked how the House of Bread can continue to support so many individuals, ninety-year old Marie, says she “puts it in the hands of the Sacred Heart.” In thirty years, the House of Bread has never asked for assistance from parish funds – the generosity all comes from St. Francis Xavier parishioners, grants, the Bishop’s Emergency Fund and the extending community, including nearby parish Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Marie served as co-coordinator with Jack Switzer from 1989 to 2009, when he retired. Now, Marie is the official Coordinator of the House of Bread, but she is quick to mention the eighty-plus volunteers that help her on a daily basis. While the House of Bread is only open to the public from 9-11 am Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, volunteers work seven days a week. Marie states, “Whenever we need something (volunteers, food, or money) for the House of Bread, we just let the parish know, and we get it.”
“God still believes in us – and God wants to be born again in us. That’s what this parish taught me thirty years ago as you opened your hearts, cupboards, and wallets to the House of Bread,” stated Fr. Nassal. “I personally want to thank you for being a beacon of hope for me.”