St. Albert the Great Parish ministry serves kids from Appalachia through Crazy Quilt
By Gabrielle Nolan
For some children living in East Tennessee, the only Christmas presents they’ll receive each year are the ones gifted to them by charities and churches.
And for St. Albert the Great Parish in North Knoxville, this reality is something that fuels its Corporal Works of Mercy (CWOM) ministry to give year after year.
For Christmas, Easter, and back-to-school programs each year, this ministry assists the Mountain Arts Program led by Crazy Quilt, a food pantry and emergency-assistance program under Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.
The Mountain Arts Program is a creative learning outlet for children ages 5 to 15, and according to Crazy Quilt’s website, “the four-day program includes a nutritious lunch each day, and each participant receives needed shoes, clothing, and classroom supplies for the coming school year.”
With each new summer session, program coordinator Ed Bryant sends his list of participant names to the CWOM committee, and this list is used to identify how many children are in need of the Christmas donations for that year.
The lists include information such as name, age, grade, and clothing size, but then the kids are asked what their favorite hobbies or activities are and what gifts they would most like to receive.
“We want there to be as much choice as possible, but we have limitations in what we can provide also,” said Erin Wessell, a St. Albert parishioner who currently serves as chair of the CWOM committee. “This year we had kids choose whether they wanted a hoodie or a jacket or a coat.”
The past several programs have served around 60 children and 26 families.
“St. Albert kind of adopted those kids,” Mr. Bryant said. “They have been great, they have been good to us.”
The children participating in this program are not from St. Albert the Great, but to Mrs. Wessell that makes it more special.
“Most people in the St. Albert community don’t actually see any of the people in the Crazy Quilt community,” she said. “It’s just kind of nice helping create community even when people don’t necessarily individually meet each other, but just that bond there.”
“[Ed is] wonderful and he just really has a heart for the community up there and any way he can help,” Mrs. Wessell said.
The St. Albert CWOM ministry began in 2007 after the founding of the parish and is run by a committee of around 35 regular volunteers.
Father Chris Michelson, the founding pastor of St. Albert, attends the meetings and oversees any finances related to the ministry.
“We have a wonderful committee, they take care of everything,” Father Michelson said. “It really, from day one, has cost the parish in terms of the gifts for the kids, nothing. That is all tags that are put out and people purchasing gifts and bringing them back, and that’s how we fund that.”
According to Maria Armento, the ministries coordinator at St. Albert the Great, these three projects have average total donations of around $20,000 each fiscal year.
“For the past several years we have benefited from matching funds of $3,000 from the Pope Francis Charitable Trust Fund from the diocese to help us continue to expand our help for these programs,” Ms. Armento said. “Because of this extra money, we were able to provide hoodies to all our children along with paper products and other cleaning supplies in our food baskets last Christmas.”
Depending on the donations and availability of funds each year, the committee may be able to buy extra goodies, such as games or candy, for each child’s Christmas basket.
Each family also receives a box full of food, which normally includes items for a Christmas dinner, such as a ham, bag of potatoes, canned goods, and cake mix with icing. Long-lasting nonperishables like canned soups and peanut butter also are included.
The food baskets have household items like laundry detergent, paper goods, and cleaning supplies, too.
“If you can take a little burden off of a family and say, ‘Hey, this month you don’t have to buy these things so you have a little extra to, you know, [buy] a Christmas treat for yourselves,’ well good,” Mrs. Wessell said.
“Crazy Quilt is a great project, and it’s people not at all far from us,” she noted. “A lot of us live in a world that we can just take care of our needs, and I think real economic struggle is a lot closer than a lot of people notice or realize. I know it’s been for my kids, realizing that not that far away there’s kids who are really struggling.”
The process begins with a committee meeting in October, where plans and dates are finalized. The November meeting, usually held during a festive potluck dinner, is where volunteers create the various tags for the children’s gifts.
“We have our camaraderie, our fun time, our chit-chatting, and then we buckle down and get to work,” said Lyra Noel, a parishioner at St. Albert the Great who previously led the Christmas project for the past five years. “It can take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to make all the tags, because each kid gets more than one tag.”
Tags, which are often cut out in fun Christmas shapes, are numbered to keep the children’s identities confidential.
For two weekends at the parish, committee members stand next to tables adorned with the Christmas tags to either receive monetary donations or help parishioners choose their gift tags. These weekends are usually before Thanksgiving, so parishioners can take advantage of Black Friday savings while they shop.
“It’s unusual to say people really look forward to the opportunity to give,” Father Michelson said. “I know people who start early just anticipating it and start buying when they see things on sale now because they know we do it three times a year.”
“It’s just become part of the life of the parish… It’s our Christmas tradition,” he added.
Many parishioners have their children or grandchildren shop with them so they can pick out gifts for other children in their age group.
“I have grandkids now, so I take my grandkids to help me do that shopping because that’s a good way for them to learn about giving back to others who are less fortunate than they are,” said Joan Eiffe, also a St. Albert parishioner and previous chair of the CWOM ministry.
As the gift donations start rolling in, committee members store the gifts and sort them multiple times to ensure each child correctly receives what was listed on their tags and that gifts are distributed evenly.
This year, because of continued challenges with the pandemic, the committee members will purchase gifts in advance that parishioners can “shop” from at a Christmas bazaar and then wrap.
When the final gifts are wrapped and the baskets are ready to be delivered to families, the team will make the hour-and-a-half drive to Newcomb and decorate the open space at Crazy Quilt, where the festivities happen.
“The only thing I do is open the door for them and let them in and help them,” Mr. Bryant said. “I just turn it over to them; they do their program.”
“We would set up a Christmas tree station with one of the youth dressed up like Santa Claus,” Ms. Noel said. “We have a member of our parish who donates her time and goods of a professional photographer, so she would set up a professional portrait studio in the corner so that the families could come in and get professional pictures made.”
“Many of the families told us this was their first family photo,” Mrs. Eiffe said.
The parish faith formation group also will get involved and curate donated gifts for teenagers and adults and create a Secret Santa station, which allows the children to choose a gift that they can wrap for a loved one.
“They get to actually shop for their loved ones, for their moms, their dads, their uncles, their grandparents, their siblings who they may not have been able to give gifts for without this,” Ms. Noel said.
Even with the challenges and uncertainties of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the parish adapted and continued to meet the needs of the people their ministry serves.
Since CWOM could not accept physical donations last year, parishioners donated their dollars, and committee members did the Christmas shopping.
“For the past several events, we have received monetary donations from our parishioners and purchased items online in bulk,” Ms. Armento said. “We have a deep commitment to these programs, and that is very visible through the parish and their flexibility in still wanting to make these programs work even through the difficulty of the pandemic times.”
The other two projects the parish donates to every year are the Easter baskets and back-to-school backpacks. While the Christmas baskets are individualized based on the child’s interests, the annual Easter baskets and back-to-school backpacks are more uniform.
The Easter baskets contain candy and snacks, school supplies such as pencils and paper, hygiene items such as toothbrushes, and a novel, magazine, or coloring book.
Families also receive a food basket at Easter, which contains items for an Easter dinner, as well as cleaning supplies and household goods.
Back-to-school backpacks are stuffed with a variety of snacks and school supplies to start the year off on the right foot.
“I always say that everyone at our parish is a part of Corporal Works of Mercy,” Mrs. Wessell said. “Everybody is a part of Corporal Works of Mercy because that is what we are called to do as Christians, you know, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and this is a way that we actually do that.”
“I hope that people see that this is an opportunity to literally live the call that Jesus gave us,” Mrs. Wessell said.
The three donation programs for Crazy Quilt are the main focus of giving for the CWOM ministry, but St. Albert the Great has a history of donating to other organizations as well.
The Pregnancy Help Center adjacent to Crazy Quilt has received many donations from the parish over the years, and so has Samaritan Place, Horizon House, and local hospitals. Overflow of Christmas donations would often go to St. Joseph School in Knoxville and St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish in Maynardville.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: our parish is awesome,” Ms. Noel said. “They are always more than willing to go above and beyond to give… St. Albert the Great is a smaller parish, but we give in the same realm as some of the bigger parishes.”
“I would say we’re the volunteer parish in the sense of… we are not in the part of town that would normally be seen as the more economically wealthy part of town,” Father Michelson said. “But everybody gives, and truly we’ve emphasized that time and talent are just as important as the money.”
“We’re just going out and taking care of who needs our help,” Mrs. Eiffe said. “To me, it’s a great blessing just to be able to do that and to be able to see the families, how much it means to them, who we serve, and also the families in our parish who also get to help with the project.”