Feeding the hungry has been a hallmark of Father Michael Briese’s priesthood, something that the pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Newport, Maryland, doesn’t just preach about. Throughout the week, assisted by volunteers, the priest personally delivers food to the poor living in rural parts of Charles and St. Mary’s counties, including in tents in the woods, and at motels, public housing units and in apartments. In addition, teams of volunteers at St. Mary’s pantry distribute food to families and individuals lined up in cars outside the parish hall on the third Saturday of each month.

“The distribution of food by volunteers at St. Mary’s helps community families have the security in knowing food is available,” said the priest, who emphasized that outreach by him and his parishioners is a work of faith. “When you’ve met a stranger in need, you’ve met the Christ. Whether a man, woman or child, that’s the image of Christ.”

In a letter to supporters of that outreach, Father Briese noted that in the past fiscal year that ended in June, the parish delivered or provided more than 50 tons of food to neighbors and strangers in need. In May, he and parish volunteers delivered food to more than 375 family households.

As it has in parish food pantries throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, St. Mary’s has experienced a dramatic increase in the need for food help in its community during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. 

“The growth was immediately apparent. When people were losing jobs across the nation, our numbers shot up about a third,” the priest said.

When the Archdiocese of Washington did a recent study of parish food pantries, it found that 67 or nearly one-half of the archdiocese’s 139 parishes operated pantries, and during the coronavirus crisis, that outreach has doubled, with parishes now providing food to an average of 15,000 people weekly. The cost for providing the food assistance to meet that growing demand has also doubled, amounting to an estimated $200,000 per month.

In early July under the leadership of Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the Archdiocese of Washington launched a Parish Pantry Support Project at https://adw.org/ways-to-give/food-pantries/,  inviting local Catholics to provide donations to support parish food pantries providing frontline help to people impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. 

“The response has been nothing short of extraordinary,” said Joseph Gillmer, the executive director of development for the archdiocese. “In just the first two weeks, more than 350 donors have contributed $175,000. With a $200,000 dollar-for-dollar challenge match in place, a total of  $350,000 to $400,000 will be available to support parish pantries through the end of the summer and beyond.”

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington has also greatly expanded its outreach to meet the demand at its area food pantries, while also providing large-scale food distributions throughout the Washington area.

As food pantries located in parishes along city streets, in suburban neighborhoods and in rural communities have tried to meet the surging need for food assistance and local Catholics have responded generously to the Parish Pantry Support Project, the scope of the challenge was described in the Capital Area Food Bank’s Hunger Report 2020 issued in July which examined the state of food insecurity in the Washington area.

That report noted that “even before the pandemic, nearly 415,000 people in the Washington, DC metropolitan area didn’t always know where their next meal was coming from.”

Noting the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the nation’s capital and its surrounding communities, the report pointed out, “Many businesses have been shuttered, first temporarily and some now permanently. Unemployment has skyrocketed. And the demand for emergency food in our community has soared and shows no signs of declining any time soon.” 

The Capital Area Food Bank report noted that the Urban Institute has estimated that nearly 160,000 jobs were lost in the Washington area as of the beginning of July, many in the hospitality and food services sectors. 

“Our own local information tells us that our network of nonprofit partners has been seeing between 30% to 400% increases in the numbers of people coming through their doors” for food assistance, the report found.

A volunteer registers people lined up for food assistance outside St. Mary's Parish in Newport, Maryland on July 18, asking what their household's food needs are. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Father Briese said that the people being helped by St. Mary’s food outreach include households that have lost one or both incomes in the COVID-19 economic downturn.

“The need is great in Southern Maryland. We have a lot of working poor,” said Evelyn Lawrence, a parishioner of St. Mary’s in Newport who serves as director of its Good Shepherd Food Pantry operating out of its St. Francis Hall.

She said the outreach from St. Mary’s food pantry on the third Saturday of each month is a team effort, with parish volunteers sorting out food, doing registration of the people pulling up in dozens of cars to see what their household’s food needs are and if they have special dietary restrictions, and then with volunteers loading the food into cars while wearing face masks.

Like her pastor, she said that outreach of helping neighbors at the country parish is a work of faith.

“That is the way I was raised. You’re there to help others who are in need,” she said.

Nils Anderson, left, the coordinator of the food pantry at St. Mary's Parish in Newport, Maryland, loads a car trunk on July 18 with fellow volunteer Joshua Lennon. At right is Tom Trudell, a deacon candidate and pantry volunteer. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Father Briese said that St. Mary’s has become a hub, providing food to other local churches that join in the effort to help people in need of food assistance.

The priest said the parish receives some of its food from Catholic Charities’ Southern Maryland Food Bank in Waldorf, and he uses people’s monetary donations to purchase food at a discount rate from local stores. He noted one woman donated $50,000 to the effort, and a boy in the parish after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation donated $21 that he had saved to the food pantry.

“We do it in the spirit of Jesus Christ,” Father Briese said, noting Jesus’s call to go out and share His love with others. “This is us. This is what we do.”