Advent giving brings Christmas to N.O. homeless

In the spirit of their Irish foundress, the local conference of Presentation Sisters and 20 lay volunteers sat down with 130 homeless men and women for a Christmas Day lunch of turkey, ham and all the trimmings at the Rebuild Center at St. Joseph Church in New Orleans.

“Our congregation was started on Christmas Eve 1775, when the four sisters said, ‘How are we going to celebrate Christmas?’” said Presentation Sister Vera Butler of the community of religious women founded in Cork by Nano Nagle. “They thought, ‘Let’s invite 50 of the poorest people to dinner,’ and it’s been a tradition ever since that we feed the hungry and poor on Christmas Day.”

Sister Vera, a native of County Kerry, Ireland, has directed the Presentation Sisters’ Mid-City-based “Lantern Light Ministries” for the poor and homeless since 2005, initially out of a tiny trailer parked on the grounds of the landmark Tulane Avenue church.

The ministry – named for the lantern Mother Nagle would carry with her during her evening walks to visit Cork’s poor – moved into more modern and spacious headquarters at the church site in 2007. Known collectively as the Rebuild Center, the interconnecting buildings, which embrace a serene courtyard, host a Catholic collaborative that includes Lantern Light Ministries; the Jesuit-run Harry Tompson Center, at which the homeless can access showers, laundry, phones, legal aid, medical services, hygiene kits and restroom facilities; and Vincentian-operated St. Joseph Church, which provides space, volunteers, marketing help and financial assistance to the Rebuild Center.

Ministry’s net widens

Currently four sisters strong, Lantern Light’s miraculous outreach has grown over the last six years to include the serving of a hot meal every weekday at 1 p.m., and emergency grocery and prescription help. Although it does not offer overnight shelter services, the Presentation Sisters’ ministry also provides vital mailbox and postal services to the homeless, tuberculosis screenings, and help with procuring documents essential to employment, such as official copies of birth certificates.

Sister Vera said Lantern Light’s Christmas party for the homeless would not have been possible had not scores of donors and volunteers stepped up to the plate this Advent, in defiance of rocky economic times.

“I guess we expected people to be more conservative this year, but they have been as generous, if not more generous, this year than in the past,” Sister Vera said, noting that a resident of Jesuit Bend donated satsumas from her home orchard, while still-rebuilding parishioners from Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette delivered blankets and jackets, “all beautifully wrapped or in gift bags,” for the center’s Christmas guests.

Parishioners from Divine Mercy in Kenner assembled 200 “super-size” gift bags containing long-sleeved shirts, hats, gloves, fleece blankets, socks, toiletries and washcloths. Other donors included Good Shepherd, Immaculate Conception in New Orleans and “our own St. Joseph Church,” added Sister Vera.

St. Peter Claver in New Orleans collected toiletries for the Rebuild Center during Masses one Advent weekend and also organized a group of parishioners to sing carols at the Dec. 25 meal, prompting one homeless guest to break out his harmonica.

“People come out and sit with our guests, which is lovely,” Sister Vera said. “It’s not just taking a meal to them and saying ‘good-bye;’ it’s sitting down and breaking bread together, and taking time to listen to the story of their lives.”

In February, DePaul USA, a Vincentian ministry, will expand the Rebuild Center’s umbrella of care by providing a van and driver to take guests to outside services such as the St. Vincent de Paul Pharmacy.

“They have to be at the pharmacy at 7 in the morning, so it’s difficult for many of (the homeless) to get out of the shelters and be there on time,” Sister Vera said. “The van is going to relieve a lot of the stress and the struggle of getting to places.”

Ironically, Lantern Light’s very beginnings provided a lesson on how one’s home can be here today and gone tomorrow. Originally scheduled to start dispensing sandwiches and groceries from its trailer on Sept. 1, 2005, the ministry was temporarily sidelined by Hurricane Katrina. Still, the sisters were able to return to New Orleans that October, setting out on foot and by car to offer sandwiches, donuts and coffee to returning Mid-City residents and to the workers who arrived in droves to rebuild the devastated city.

Whenever Sister Vera thinks back to those days, she marvels at “the long way we have come and what a great network of supporters we have developed.” She said many Rebuild Center volunteers show up weekly to help out at lunchtime or to offer their financial or material support.

“(Our outreach) has had a ripple effect – the waves have gone out and spread so wide,” said Sister Vera, who has particularly enjoyed watching teen and young adult volunteers interact with the marginalized.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the students to come and experience what beautiful people the homeless are,” Sister Vera said. “They get to see what a great sense of humor and great sense of deep faith that they have.”

For more information on Lantern Light Ministries, call (504) 273-5573 or visit www.lanternlight.org.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

 

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