GRAVESEND — The current coronavirus crisis isn’t keeping parishioners at Our Lady of Grace Church from doing God’s work.
The soup kitchen in the Sister Jane Talbot Pastoral Ministry Office is closed to the general public these days, but the place is a flurry of activity every Wednesday with vegetables cooking atop the stove and meatloaf pans being shoved into ovens by volunteers preparing hot meals for the homeless.
The volunteers then drive to an area near the Riegelmann Boardwalk in Brighton Beach to distribute the food.
“Even with the coronavirus around, they still do it,” said Father Vincent Chirichella, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church.
The volunteers have been making the same weekly trip for many years, but the dangers presented by COVID-19 have added an element of risk. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, because they tend to have underlying health problems, lack access to health care, and have nowhere to shelter in place.
At least 40 homeless New Yorkers have died from coronavirus since the start of the outbreak, according to the New York City Department of Homeless Services — 19 of those deaths took place within a 10-day span.
When the soup kitchen at Our Lady of Grace Church first closed, a group of volunteers told Father Chirichella and Annette Bonvino, the coordinator of the ministry office, that they wanted to continue feeding the homeless. They did not want to be interviewed for this story. “They let their work do the talking,” Bonvino said.
The menu changes every week, with volunteer cooks lovingly preparing plates of meatloaf, roasted chicken, vegetables, and fresh fruit for their hungry clientele. They also purchase cakes from a local bakery to give everyone dessert. “They get a full meal, from soup to nuts,” Bonvino said.
Due to the crisis, volunteers have changed some of their procedures. Instead of going under the boardwalk to hand-deliver the meals to each homeless person, as they had been doing, they set up a table to distribute the food in a municipal parking lot on Brighton 4th Street.
Bonvino marvels at the dedication of the volunteers.
“I have never worked with better people. We’re one big family,” she said. “This is what we’re about. We’re about helping people who need help.”
The Department of Health releases COVID-19 statistics according to ZIP codes. The 11235 ZIP code, where Brighton Beach is located, had more than 1,300 coronavirus cases as of April 20 and the 11223 ZIP code area in Gravesend had more than 1,100 cases.
The soup kitchen at Our Lady of Grace Church had been operating for 28 years. People come from all over Brooklyn to get a hot meal.
“I don’t ask where you’re from,” Bonvino said. “I don’t turn anyone away.”
Bonvino has been a parishioner for 55 years. “I came here for pre-Cana and I never left,” she joked, referring to the pre-marital sessions couples seeking to get married in the Catholic Church are required to attend.
The ministry office is active throughout the year. Volunteers collect toys for children during the Christmas season.
“They do wonderful work,” said Father Chirichella. “We try to live according to Jesus’ mission to feed the hungry. The parishioners are dedicated to doing that.”
The ministry office is named in memory of Sister Jane Talbot, RSM, who lived in the convent at Our Lady of Grace Church for more than 20 years and dedicated her life to helping the less fortunate.
“She was an amazing woman,” Bonvino said of Sister Jane, who died in 2009.
The corner of Avenue W and East 4th Street, right outside the church, was renamed in her memory by the New York City Department of Transportation a few years ago after parishioners requested the name change.
“When she was here, she asked Father (Dominick) Cutrone, who was the pastor at the time, if she could set up a food pantry. That is how it all started,” Father Chirichella said.