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Volunteers Patty Fretwell (left) and Cathy Mitchell serve a recent community meal at St. Rita Catholic Church. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

Serving others: Volunteers key to Cottage Grove church community meals

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life Cottage Grove, 55016
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

Jesus may have done the heavy lifting when he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. But it was the apostles who went among the crowd and made sure that everyone got their share.

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Likewise, it’s the volunteers who make a success of the free community meals served by at least three churches in Cottage Grove.

For the churches, it’s a way to put the teachings of the Bible into action and to engage the community. There’s no hidden agenda, no sermon or sales pitch, organizers said. And while the obvious intent is to feed struggling families and elderly folks on a fixed income, everyone is welcome. 

Jack Nicklay is a deacon at St. Rita Catholic Church, which serves a hot meal the third Friday of every month. It’s the volunteers who make it happen, he said, whether they cook, clean or serve the food.

“I open the door and close the door,” Nicklay said. “I don’t take credit for any of this. They do all the work. It’s a joy.”

One of those volunteers is Jean Brezinski, who said she’s been volunteering since the first community meal at St. Rita. Friday, she wore an apron that said, “We serve soul food.”

“I just kind of got into the habit of doing it and I enjoy doing it,” she said.

Gus Riva, 92, of Cottage Grove, has been coming to St. Rita since the meals first began on Thanksgiving Day. He thinks that was in 1998. Back then, he said, seven people showed up.

These days, the turnout at St. Rita meals ranges from 90 to 120. Riva and a female friend tucked into a meal of vegetarian pasta, bread and squash soup, with bread pudding for dessert. The meal was prepared by volunteer chef Pierre Rabbia, a lead instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in the Twin Cities.

Riva said he thinks that most of the older attendees are there more for companionship than pasta or potato salad.

“It’s not the meal you’re interested in,” Riva said. “It’s the company.”

Steve Dailey, of Cottage Grove, has been volunteering at St. Rita Catholic Church for over nine years. He is one of nearly a half-dozen roster of volunteer cooks who take turns making the Friday meal. He and other volunteer cooks buy the food with their own money and are reimbursed by the church.

“Basically, I plan the menu, do the shopping and organize the volunteers to make the meal,” said Dailey, a computer programmer. “We have volunteers who don’t go to St. Rita’s. It’s a community-building thing.”

Some folks have all three church community meals — including those served at All Saints Lutheran Church and theAlley Lutheran Church — on their calendar, he said.

“We have people who go to all the meals,” Dailey said. “I think the original goal was to have four places because it was every week but we never quite got to the four.”

theAlley Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove usually hosts their community dinner the second Sunday of the month. Their next dinner is April 13, but they’ve bumped their May dinner to the third Sunday to avoid conflict with Mother’s Day.

A typical turnout  is 200-220 people, said Dan Haupt, director of operations. They’re fortunate to have their meals donated by TST Creative Catering in St. Paul, who specialize in Mexican-American cuisine.

“The important part is to feed the flock, especially those who are poor.“ Haupt said. “The people who come, we don’t really know their circumstances. I think they come and they realize there’s no judging.”

Jon Schommer, of Woodbury, has volunteered in numerous capacities since joining theAlley Church in 2007. At the community dinners, he cheerfully does the grunt work.

“I help set up chairs and tables,” said Schommer, a professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. “I’m also on cleanup. There’s a lot of us, we just clean up afterward and take out the garbage.”

Shirley Erickson volunteers at All Saints Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove. Their next community meal, on March 28, will mark the seventh anniversary of the event. Erickson is one of several cooks who prepare meals from scratch. Recent menus have included Tex-Mex lasagna and Erickson’s own version of  Hoppin’ John, a southern-style soup with beans, rice and spicy sausage.

“I enjoy cooking. I do enjoy the feedback of the people who come to the meal,” she said. “They love our cooking. It’s just a good feeling, feeding a bunch of people.”

After years spent working together in the church kitchen, Erickson and her fellow volunteers have developed the efficiency of a mile relay team.

“We’re getting so we can get a meal for 150 together in about three hours,” Erickson said. “It amazes us sometimes that we have maybe five to 10 minutes of breathing space before we serve.”

Cindy Evans, who manages the community meals, said they are encouraging diners at Friday’s community meal to make a monetary donation to the Friends in Need Food Shelf.

“The whole point is just to have a meal where people might not have a chance to eat together,” Senior Pastor Jules Erickson said. “When you eat with others, it actually enhances your digestion.”

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