Christmas can be a festive but also chaotic season for families as they reconnect with parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws. But for those without a family, or at least one nearby, the season can be difficult—though some have discovered a ‘Christmas family’ in the group of people they sit with every year at St Anthony’s Catholic Church, Glen Huntly, for Christmas dinner.
Gwen Fitzgerald and Veronica Blair have been coordinating St Anthony’s Christmas dinner, with the help of an army of volunteers, for 31 years this year. It has become a fixture in the local calendar, a chance every year for anyone who doesn’t have a family or a home to come together with others and enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner. Every year they cater for more than 300 guests.
The initiative began, Gwen says, with a belief they needed to do something for people coming to the church looking for food baskets during the Christmas season.
‘I felt that we should be doing something,’ Gwen explains, ‘and then I asked a group of people to pray, and they did, and then I said, “What does everybody think?” I think God wants us to do something for people who have got no family.’
The parish took a vote on it and there was an overwhelming consensus in favour, and Gwen and Veronica have continued to be overwhelmed by the sheer generosity of the community.
When it comes to the number of volunteers they have, Gwen says it’s roughly ‘one to one’. ‘So if we got 350 guests, there’s roughly about 350 helpers in some way.’
Not everyone is out by the tables serving food; some have donated generous amounts of money, others are mingling and talking with the guests, others are cooking, and many devote an hour from their Christmas day to come and help with the dishes and clean-up.
The women are moved by the way the guests talk about their ‘Christmas family’. ‘It’s the table they sit at, that’s their Christmas family, because they haven’t got any other,’ Gwen says. ‘I just think God is lovely the way he moves people and he gives them a place.’
The women are also astounded by the way in which God has provided for them. Veronica looks after the fundraising and grants, and she says that Gwen is always encouraging her trust in God’s providence.
I just think God is lovely the way he moves people and he gives them a place.
‘Sometimes I say to Gwen, “Oh, there’s hardly anything left in the bank. What do we do?” And she’ll say, “Just have a bit of faith.”’
‘It drives you mad!’ Gwen laughs.
‘Then I’ll go and look on the computer again and see if I can see a grant somewhere,’ Veronica says. ‘But there is always money. I don’t [always] know who these people are.’
‘God has his hand on it,’ Gwen says.
One of the surprising things Gwen and Veronica have found is that not everybody knows what a traditional Christmas dinner is.
‘What’s really interesting is the change in the demographics of the parish,’ Veronica says. ‘When it started, it was mostly Anglo, so they knew what a roast potato was. But when we had a lot of people coming from Malaysia, Vietnam, India, and a lot of them didn’t know what a roast potato was or had a roast potato.’
Being able to share the simple joys of a Christmas roast and Christmas pudding is a real privilege.
Veronica tells the story of one of the guests, an elderly Russian lady named Sophie who would only talk to Gwen and who loved balloons. Every year she came to Christmas dinner and, when everything was done, would tie some balloons to her walker and wander back home.
‘She lost her accommodation and had to move to Frankston,’ Veronica says. ‘But she would still catch the train up on Christmas Day. And she would still ask for the balloons … There’s a lot of characters like that and a lot of people who found the dinner a very safe place.’
Another initiative of theirs, one that has been running for 14 years now, is Tony’s Cafe—named, of course, after their parish’s patron, St Anthony of Padua. Tony’s Cafe runs two days a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with free offerings of food and clothes for those who need them. Thanks to the generosity of Food Bank and Oz Harvest, they’ve been able to provide for people in abundance.
The story behind Tony’s Cafe is much the same as the Christmas dinner. Gwen wanted to do something about the growing number of people coming to the church and asking for money. Since they did not give out money, they started doing up food parcels instead. Eventually this evolved into the sense they needed to do more.
‘I think God wants us to run a soup kitchen,’ Gwen told her community. ‘And they said, “How do you do it?” I said, “I’ve got no idea. But if he wants it to happen, it’ll happen. All we have to do is be willing.”’
Everyone was willing, and although they started Tony’s Cafe with nine guests and 15 helpers, they now have nearly 600 guests coming through the doors every week, with a team of about 70 helpers.
The number of people coming has only grown through the years, and Gwen and Veronica say it’s been interesting to observe the demographics change. Since the war in Ukraine began, there’s been an uptick in Ukrainian families coming through.
‘We’ve got quite a few Ukrainians living in the area,’ Gwen says. ‘They’re looking for food and clothes.’
They often see Ukrainian grandparents come through with their little crowd of grandchildren; their parents are still in Ukraine either fighting in the war or helping out in some other way.
God looks after his work. Things somehow happen.
Fr Leenus Neetany is Parish Priest of St Anthony’s, and he has been astounded by the generosity of the community and the hard work that goes into running operations like Tony’s Cafe and the Christmas dinner. Even though the cafe is open only two days a week, the work is really 24/7.
But they have witnessed firsthand how God provides for them, Fr Leenus says. ‘There is no need of anxiety, of tension, of worry, because as Gwen says, God looks after his work. Things somehow happen.’
Due to a rise in COVID cases in the area, this year the Christmas dinner will be takeaway only, served from St Anthony’s Parish Hall, 164–168 Neerim Road, Caulfield East, on Christmas Day between 12 noon and 1.30pm. Find out more here about how to sign up for food or as a volunteer.
Melbourne Catholic12 December 2023
VMCH11 December 2023