The small Morgan County community ‘jumps at the chance’ to offer a Holiday Food Box distribution
By Bill Brewer
A lot can happen in a year. And a lot did. Just ask the members of St. Ann Church in Lancing.
During the 2022 Christmas holiday, parishioners in the Morgan County Catholic community were hoping to identify ways to better serve their broader county community.
But a small, rural mission parish has limited resources, and opportunities to begin a new ministry are limited.
But God’s timing and His plans were perfect. And a year later, St. Ann launched its first ministry in years to serve its Morgan County neighbors: the Holiday Food Box distribution.
“It was very much a hands-on experience. It’s the first time we’ve been able to reach out to the community on a broad basis. Last year at Christmas (2022), we were looking at ways to serve our community, but we didn’t have the means. Deacon Dave reached out to us to see if we would be willing to help out, and we jumped at the chance,” said Nancy Jurkoic, one of several St. Ann members who volunteered to get the Holiday Food Box ministry off the ground.
Deacon Dave is Deacon David Duhamel, newly appointed executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, the Diocese of Knoxville’s leading social-services agency.
Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, who is serving as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville until a new bishop is named, last month removed the interim tag from Deacon Duhamel’s position, making him the executive director of Catholic Charities on a permanent basis.
Deacon Duhamel succeeds Lisa Healy, who retired as executive director earlier in 2023.
Deacon Duhamel in 2023 reached out to St. Ann about becoming a new site that Catholic Charities’ Hope Kitchen could help serve. Hope Kitchen provides relief to families through food and basic necessities in partnership with community organizations and parishes.
St. Ann was a good fit for the Hope Kitchen even with the rural parish’s limited resources.
“St. Ann is a great community. They are very willing and actively engaged in helping their neighbors in Morgan County,” Deacon Duhamel said.
One of Catholic Charities’ many missions is to ease the economic burden of East Tennesseans across the 36 counties the agency serves. And one of the ways it is accomplishing that mission is through its Hope Kitchen.
“Morgan County is a very underserved county. Catholic Charities is actively looking at ways to extend our reach in counties like Morgan,” said Deacon Duhamel, who praised Father Michael Sweeney, pastor of St. Ann, for helping bring about the Holiday Food Box ministry. Father Sweeney also is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Harriman and St. Christopher Parish in Jamestown.
“I made the offer, and they took it and ran with it,” Deacon Duhamel said about St. Ann and its members.
He said Catholic Charities staffers Michelle Kitts and Paul Ritter led the effort to get 4.5 tons of food to Lancing for the December distribution. Y-12 Federal Credit Union and its FCU Gives Grant helped make the food supplies possible.
Deacon Duhamel hopes St. Ann’s Holiday Food Box ministry and others like it throughout East Tennessee will continue for some time.
“My goal is to continue reaching out to all of our neighbors in the 36 East Tennessee counties we serve,” he said.
Dudley Hurst and his wife, Ruth, have been St. Ann members for 20 years. He serves as cantor for the weekly Mass, and she is the church sacristan.
Mr. Hurst doesn’t recall many, if any, ministries that have served outside of the parish and into the county since his return in the early 2000s from Pennsylvania.
“This is the first time we’ve done anything like this that I’m aware of in the St. Ann community in a food ministry. St. Ann Parish is a very small community, and there always seems to be folks helping each other in ministry,” said Mr. Hurst, who is a Morgan County farmer and raises cattle.
That’s not to say St. Ann doesn’t have a track record for helping its neighbors. It does.
Mr. Hurst said Morgan County’s Catholic community does have a history of ministry and outreach, and specifically mentioned Habitat for Humanity and two Catholic Sisters who performed after-school learning programs for children in the rural county.
“But it’s been at least 15 years since we’ve seen any kind of outreach with the Catholic faith in this community,” he noted. “This is a brand-new ministry. We were blessed to have Deacon Dave Duhamel think of our community with a food ministry. Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and its Hope Kitchen were able to put together a grant that we were able to receive a little over four-and-a-half tons of nonperishable food items. So, Deacon Dave was able to contact us and asked us if we would be interested in participating in that ministry. As a parish, we agreed to, and we’ve been able to come together and make it happen for families.”
There are several reasons why Morgan County is on Catholic Charities’ radar, which makes St. Ann a logical staging area for Catholic outreach to a rural area where low incomes and limited job opportunities abound.
Mr. Hurst said that according to the state, several Tennessee counties are recognized as in need, and Morgan County is one of them.
“Coincidentally, Morgan County is one of the largest counties in the state in area, with its location between Nashville and Knoxville and the Oak Ridge community nearby. It’s surrounded by well-established communities that have a lot of means to offer support. Morgan County is just one of those areas in need of help,” he pointed out.
He cited industries that have moved away and the number of low-income families that call the Cumberland Plateau county home. He described Morgan as a minimum-wage county.
“There is a huge income gap in Morgan and Scott counties. Morgan and Scott County both are just a big hole in terms of having necessary, fundamental resources,” he said.
Mr. Hurst believes St. Ann’s new food distribution ministry is being well received.
“Everyone in the parish has been overwhelmingly supportive of the ministry. I would say half of the parish is participating. It hasn’t just been something that people have paid lip service in supporting. People have put their elbow grease toward this,” he said. “And that’s been the key to what a real blessing this is. It’s a gift to us to be able to serve others. It’s a gift for us to share with families in need. We’re grateful to the diocese for thinking of us out here and giving us the means to do that. And we are grateful that we have the hands here willing to do it.”
Mr. Hurst shared that the new ministry not only helps bring the small church together, more importantly it helps bring the church together with its neighbors.
“It’s good fun, and most importantly we’re meeting neighbors. A lot of folks out here are putting a face to a name. In a small community like this, we bump into each other. It’s making new friends. It’s meeting your neighbors. It’s getting to know each other and helping one another,” he said.
Mr. Hurst and those participating in the new St. Ann ministry are hopeful the ministry will continue.
“We’re not an affluent parish. We’re a mission parish. I do think the diocese recognizing us out here is a positive. And Deacon Dave Duhamel, with an idea that was laid on his heart, acted on it, and here we are,” he said. “I would like to see it be much more than an annual occurrence. I think our community has a real need, a regular need. We called this a Holiday Food Box distribution. But with Catholic Charities and the Hope Kitchen, I believe there is a demand for family support in this community with food for mothers and children. We see that need, especially with people who are economically challenged.”
Perhaps the Holiday Food Box will offer nourishing meals on other holidays throughout the year.
“I would like to think that maybe if we’re successful in demonstrating that we’re frugal with the gifts that we’re provided out here, then maybe we all can see an opportunity to help people out here more. All the people are so grateful and appreciative,” Mr. Hurst said.
He joined Deacon Duhamel in crediting Father Sweeney for helping make the Holiday Food Box distribution happen.
“Father Sweeney, without his support and continued help with the church and its ministries out here, this wouldn’t be possible. The only thing he hasn’t done is dress up like Santa Claus for it. He’s a wonderful pastor and priest for us here. This wouldn’t happen without his approval,” Mr. Hurst noted.
Among those taking part in the Holiday Food Box distribution, in addition to Mr. Hurst, was his wife, Ruth; Mark and Coleen Patterson; Ed Hajost; Ted Lucas; Matt, Dani, and Nathan Van Dalen; Jeremy and Nancy Jurkoic; Rick Bemis; Frank, Nancy, and Alex Boniewski; Betty Kober; and Mary Jo Hooker.
The distribution crew gathered in the church parking lot on a chilly Saturday morning, Dec. 16, ready to hand out boxes of goods to vehicles that would drive through. Each vehicle received two boxes of food, enough to feed a family of four for a week.
Assorted items included chicken, milk, vegetables, canned goods including fish, oats, nuts, bread and bread mixes, cereal, fruit, peanut butter, crackers, and macaroni and cheese.
A steady stream of cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs pulled into St. Ann’s parking lot in single file for the fast-paced hand-off. Most of the people receiving the fruits of St. Ann’s ministry had pre-registered, but not all.
Ms. Boniewski, Ms. Jurkoic, and Ms. Hurst emphasized the high quality of the food that was distributed.
“This really shows the quality of what we have,” said Ms. Boniewski.
“And there’s a variety of what we have,” added Ms. Jurkoic.
Ms. Hurst explained that Catholic Charities and its Hope Kitchen delivered 4.5 tons of food to St. Ann to be distributed to Morgan County residents.
Ms. Jurkoic shared the St. Ann volunteers’ sentiments that the small parish has been ready to step up and minister in a county-wide way. She explained that average Sunday attendance at the church is 32 people, and there are about 45 families registered with the parish.
“As individuals, we do what we can. Our church here is a mission church. This community is over 100 years old. It started in Deer Lodge, and then it relocated to Wartburg before settling in Lancing,” she said, relishing St. Ann’s history and continuing ministry.