WINDSOR TERRACE — Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Bayside, Queens, has a 90-year legacy of above-and-beyond financial giving, acts of mercy, and in recent months, lots of savory soup.
Father Robert Whelan, pastor, and parishioners eagerly planned a 90th-anniversary celebration for mid-October 2020 with a keepsake journal and a dinner/dance at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston.
But first, the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, and for the first few months, people could not even attend Mass. Still, members of the Bayside parish refused to let their anniversary pass unnoticed.
“Douglaston canceled, and the keepsake journal had to be canceled,” Father Whelan said. “But then, we thought, ‘How about celebrate 90 years of blessings by finding ways of giving back?’
“Parishioners decided to make spiritual and corporal works of mercy, including charitable gifts. It was our response to God for 90 years of blessings as a parish community.”
They called the initiative “90 Days of Giving Back.” It began on the parish’s anniversary date, Oct. 19, and wrapped up 90 days later.
Guiding the parish, Father Whelan said, was Psalm 116:12-14. The scripture says, “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”
To start, individuals took the $90 they would have spent for a banquet ticket price and diverted the money to charities. That fetched about $20,000 for people served by the various groups, Father Whelan said.
“I believe we made a better, more impactful choice,” he said.
Recipients included: Futures in Education; Damien House; Helping Hands Food Pantry; Lawler Foundation for Senior Priests; Hour Children; Ozanam Hall Geriatric Foundation; Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Academy; St. Mary’s Foundation for Children; Bridge to Life; the Tablet’s Bright Christmas; Queen of Peace Residence; Mustard Seed Communities; St. Kevin’s Market; Franciscan Outreach Pantry; Diocese of Nsukka in Nigeria; and Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens.
This generosity happened in addition to other unscheduled acts of giving in the parish, which has about 1,400 families “on the books,” Father Whelan said.
He noted that 212 parishioners raised $100,000 for the 2020 Annual Catholic Appeal of the Catholic Foundation for Brooklyn and Queens. The parish also raised $37,000 in September to help students with tuition assistance at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Academy.
Father Whelan also noted that parishioners have donated numerous cars to the Vincentian Charities of Brooklyn. The thousands of dollars returned supplemented local St. Vincent de Paul charitable giving, he said.
“So, it’s a very generous parish,” Father Whelan said. “The people have bought into it, and they felt great about it. Another blessing for us as a parish is to see we accomplished some good and not just enjoyed ourselves.”
Besides opening their wallets, parishioners used the 90 days to do acts of mercy, both corporal and spiritual.
“Corporal” mercy refers to acts that address a person’s physical needs such as food, water, shelter, clothing, visiting the sick or the imprisoned, and burying the dead. “Spiritual” acts attend to another person’s spiritual, such as sharing the gospel or praying for others.
The pastoral associate, Sister Nora Gatto, asked parishioners to commit some of their time to help others. Many of the efforts kept going after the 90-day initiative concluded.
For example, a “buddy system” pairs a parishioner with someone who can’t get out because of the pandemic or other limitations.
The buddy checks on the person and brings copies of the church bulletin and The Tablet. They also offer guidance for finding live-streaming church services on their computers — a spiritual act of mercy.
The buddies might also run errands or shop for the person, Sister Nora said.
The “Soup for Seniors” program that the parish started during the pandemic is a corporal act of mercy because it offers nourishment.
“We deliver to shut-ins and people who can’t get out,” Sister Nora said.
One of the faithful cooks is Judy Reilly, who already has a full schedule volunteering at the church.
Reilly serves once a week as a receptionist, helps set up for events, including dances and weddings, and cleans up after them. She also serves as a minister of the Eucharist during Sunday Mass.
But Reilly got excited when she heard Sister Nora describe the soup program.
“I like to cook,” Reilly said. “And I can make a hearty soup, one that’s really filling.”
Her specialties include pasta e fagioli, pasta-meatball soup, and Italian orzo-spinach soup. She also prepares the recipe for the navy bean soup served daily in the U.S. Senate cafeteria in Washington, D.C.
The six volunteer cooks include Father Whelan, who reportedly makes a nice chicken-noodle.
Gallons of soup are ladled into plastic containers and then frozen. Eileen Baginski stores the containers in the extra freezer space she has in her basement.
Next, her son, John, helps deliver the containers to the current roster of 18 seniors. But before he goes on a “soup run,” he occasionally sneaks a bowl for himself.
“My mom makes a good pea soup,” said Baginski, a lifelong member of the parish. He also is a 4th-grade science and math teacher at Our Lady of Fatima School in Jackson Heights, Queens.
“I’ll come in, and she’ll have it going on the stove,” he said. “I’ll tell her, ‘I’m getting a bowl of that, Ma.’ But the people involved in this are very good cooks. I mean, you would pay good money for this soup.”
Baginski also became a buddy for an elderly parishioner. After the 90 days, he chose to keep checking on the gentleman. He fits this in his schedule of completing the soup runs, serving as a lector and minister of the Eucharist at Mass.
Reilly, a 30-year member of the parish, plans to keep making soup.
“I’m retired now, so I have the time to do stuff like this,” she said. “And I just really enjoy it.”
Some acts of mercy happened spontaneously.
Steve DiMichael, 40 years with the parish, recalled how after heavy snowfall in December, he watched a neighbor, a widow, struggling with a snow blower.
DiMichael was busy clearing his own snow. He worried that an offer to help the widow might be misunderstood as a critique of her abilities. He decided to take a chance.
“Very quickly, she said ‘thank you,’ so I kept going,” DiMichael said. “Two days later, she presented my wife and me with her delicious homemade cookies and thanked me again.
“The experience reminded me how important it is to leave some time in my day to be available to God. (He) may decide to interrupt your life at any time with a call to give back to someone by lending a helping hand.”
Reilly said there is a culture of giving and serving at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. When she needed prayer, fellow parishioners responded. Her service to the church upholds that tradition, she said.
“I would say that It has always been that way,” Reilly said. “And, what’s nice, too, is that people don’t brag about it. They do it out of the kindness of their hearts.”