Milwaukeeans know that St. Ben’s is the place to go for a hot meal, prepared with love and served with a side of compassion.
St. Ben’s Community Meal, along with the House of Peace, makes up Capuchin Community Services (CCS). CCS is a ministry of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, serving the people of southeast Wisconsin, especially those whom Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel called “these least brothers of mine (Mt. 25:40).” As a community potluck, St. Ben’s serves a hot meal every Sunday through Thursday in the meal hall of St. Benedict the Moor Parish at 930 W State Street in the city’s Westown neighborhood. The meal, which originally rotated from site to site, has been served here on a permanent basis since November 1970. More than 90,000 meals are served each year. But what does it take to run a ministry of this size?
To start, this ministry required the actions of some giving people in the community by the names of Michael and Nettie Cullen. In 1966, inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the Cullens started hosting a meal out of their home, just a mile from St. Benedict the Moor parish. The house became known as Casa Maria house and the meal promoted the practice of direct and personal sharing with people experiencing poverty by receiving guests in their own personal kitchen. However, as the meal grew, they were forced to seek larger quarters. In November 1970, in collaboration with Capuchin friar Alex Luzi and after much prayer and discernment, the meal was moved to the location where it sits today and became known as St. Ben’s Community Meal.
From the beginning, there was a strong emphasis on the community aspect of the meal. Sponsor groups from a variety of churches, organizations, and civic groups throughout the wider Milwaukee community committed to providing the meal. It is thanks to efforts and dedication of these sponsor groups that the meal continues today. St. Ben’s draws sponsor groups from people and groups of diverse backgrounds, including the Sikh Gurduara Brookfield, the Islamic Society of Milwaukee and others.
Perhaps one of the longest-serving meal sponsor groups is Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, located at 3722 S. 58th St. The parish has been serving at St. Ben’s Community Meal for 48 years and was also one of the first meal sponsor groups to get involved. But what causes a church to be able to make a commitment like this? Mel Hynek is the current coordinator of the St. Ben’s Meal Program at Our Lady of Lourdes, along with his wife Joni. Mel gave us some insight into what drove the desire in him to get personally involved.
“I’m one who has seen poverty,” said Mel. “I taught in the Milwaukee Public School system and I taught in some areas where the families were struggling. I saw poverty up close and personal.” At MPS, Mel saw kids struggling with hunger
and deprivation. “At that time, I would hear kids talking about not having anything to eat last night and comments like that stuck with me. I knew that this was something I could get involved with to help eliminate that problem.” Mel and Joni got involved serving the meal about 18 years ago and never looked back. “Somebody’s gotta help when there is that need there,” said Mel.
A Typical Day in the Life of a Meal Sponsor
Preparing the meal for an entire hall full of hungry guests is no easy feat, but with the right amount of help and a carefully structured day, the group at Our Lady of Lourdes pulls it off without a hitch.
“We meet at the kitchen of the church the day before at around 7:30 in the morning,” said Mel. Each volunteer has a dedicated task. “Two people work on making the roughly three and half gallons of gravy, another group works on cleaning the chicken and scraping off the extra fat so it’s nice and lean when we bake it. Another group, of one or two people along with myself, puts the chicken pieces in large pans, seasons it, and bakes it. While those activities are going on, we have a couple of people who will get the dishwasher going and make sure all the dishes are clean and ready. Another group butters the bread. Finally, volunteers take cookies, brownies, and cakes and assemble them into large plastic containers that we will use when we travel down to St. Ben’s. We also have parishioners who provide cut vegetables and hard boiled eggs.”
The Reason behind the Action
In total, there are about 18 people from the parish that are most likely to come every week or most weeks. “If you pay attention in the church and in the Bible, helping those in need is a theme that goes all the way through the Bible. Our parish really believes that. It’s a good feeling. I don’t have to struggle to have helpers. These people are committed to helping keep this program successful,” said Mel.
When asked if he had any advice for others looking get involved in the meal, Mel offered: “Have the courage to try getting involved with some helpful activity that you have an interest in and see how it goes. You might not know until you actually try something.”
“Most of the nights flow really well. We’ve never had a problem serving there in all the years I’ve been involved. All the St. Ben’s staff in the kitchen do a good job keeping everything organized and it all runs really smoothly. The best parts of the experience are the faces of the people you’re serving as they smile and say thank you.”