Since mid-March, public Masses have been suspended for the time being in churches in the Archdiocese of Washington, following government restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But at St. Peter’s Church in Olney, Maryland, most of the pews are filled – with grocery bags, as parishioners have responded to a Mother’s Day Food Collection that by May 8 totaled nearly 200 bags of donated food.

Looking out at his makeshift congregation of paper grocery bags, each placed five or six feet apart in the church, Father Thomas Kalita, the pastor, said, “Everybody’s sitting still, and social distancing, as they should.”

The priest said he hoped that by Mother’s Day evening, the remaining section of pews would be filled with more bags, maybe reaching 300 in all. For him, the effort was a work of faith and solidarity, spiritually connecting families in his parish with families in need in the Washington area. 

On Tuesday May 12, workers from the John S. Mulholland Family Foundation, which support food pantries in four parishes in poor neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., are scheduled to pick up the bags at St. Peter’s.

Reflecting on how the effort ties into Mother’s Day, Father Kalita said, “I would suspect at St. Peter’s, the ones taking the risk going grocery shopping are mostly mothers in families. We were thinking of all the mothers and grandmothers who don’t have (enough food), whose cupboards are mostly empty. Mother’s Day being a time to remember mothers, we thought this would be a good time to remember those mothers who are struggling to take care of their families.”

St. Peter’s Church is open during the day for people to stop by and pray, and there is a shopping cart by the door where people drop off food donations throughout the year. The day before, while Father Kalita was in the church praying for 15-20 minutes, he said “at least three different parishioners came in with a bag of food, and quietly placed it in the shopping cart or on a pew. They came in, dropped off food, said a prayer and went on their way.”

The bags spaced out on the pews in the expansive church were each filled with a variety of food staples. Visible from the tops of the paper bags were many cereal boxes, including Cheerios, Special K and Corn Flakes, and inside the bags were packages of rice and beans, boxes of pasta, cans of tuna, soup and vegetables, oatmeal containers and bottles of fruit juice.

A recent St. Peter’s Facebook post on the grocery bags in the church practicing proper social distancing during the coronavirus crisis drew more than 1,357 hits, with many asking how they could contribute to the effort.

To Anne Marie Prangley Stone, St. Peter’s social concerns minister and its director of adult faith formation, those bags show “our parishioners are still present… To me this shows the heart of our people. When Father celebrates Mass and looks out from the altar, he sees their hearts, their love for the poor, and their love for Jesus that comes first.”

Anne Marie Prangley Stone, the social concerns minister at St. Peter's Parish, holds one of the bags of donated groceries that filled most of the Olney church on the eve of Mother's Day. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

St. Peter’s Parish is known for its food outreach. The parish has a food pantry supported throughout the year by adults there and by children in its parochial school and its school of religion, and for more than four decades, volunteers from St. Peter’s have faithfully cooked chili for the SOME soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., an effort only interrupted over the years by blizzards and now by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused SOME to stop receiving meal donations prepared by outside groups. (SOME is accepting financial donations to support its food outreach to the area’s poor and homeless.) 

The parish also collects food for the Catholic Charities Center in Wheaton, Maryland, and for the food pantry at St. Martin’s Parish in Gaithersburg. St. Peter's parishioners collect holiday food baskets for people in need in five area zip codes, and they support food collections for the John S. Mulholland Family Foundation, Inc.

“They’re very generous… They’re a tremendous parish family,” said Brian Mulholland, the foundation’s chairman, who noted that St. Peter’s parishioners collect thousands of cans for that group’s summer food drive.

The Mulhollands began the foundation in 2013 to honor the legacy of their late father John Mulholland, who served in the Navy at the D-Day invasion during World War II and later spent his career with the FBI and was a daily Mass goer.

Brian Mulholland said his father taught their family that “everybody has an obligation to help those who don’t have as much as we have.”

That foundation hopes to work with more than 30 local parishes for drive by, food drop off collections this summer, beginning with parishes in Northwest Washington and then in Rockville on successive weekends in June, to meet the growing need for food assistance in the wake of the economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The need is growing,” said Mulholland, who said the foundation is now helping 800 families a month. “…This thing has hit a lot of people.”

Father Thomas Kalita, the pastor of St. Peter's in Olney, stands amid the grocery bags with donated food for the parish's Mother's Day Food Collection that lined the pews of his church on the eve of the holiday. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Father Kalita said he sees a Eucharistic connection in how his parishioners are providing food assistance, at a time when they cannot attend Mass at their church, but are able to watch recorded Sunday liturgies on the parish’s website and on its Facebook page.

“For about eight weeks, our people have been hungering to receive the Eucharist,” he said. “Jesus comes to us under the form of food, under the form of bread, so we who cannot receive Jesus under the form of food are in a sense giving Jesus in the form of food to others, to feed them in their hunger.”

The priest said the social concerns ministries and liturgical ministries at the parish are linked. He noted that teams of volunteer Eucharistic ministers from St. Peter’s bring Communion to Catholics being cared for at a nearby hospital and at nine local assisted living facilities when visitors are allowed there, so they “can be fed with Jesus, the bread of life.”

For the priest, that legacy of food assistance and reaching out to the community, and the bags now lining the benches of the pews at St. Peter’s Church, are rooted in being faithful to Christ.

“This all traces back to Matthew 25, when Jesus says, ‘I was hungry, and you fed me,’” Father Kalita said.