As it has at Catholic parishes across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic hit home at the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville, Maryland. 

Father Paul Lee, St. Jude’s pastor, said in a recent interview that two parishioners had died of the coronavirus, and at least three other members of the parish were in intensive care after contracting the virus.

But the steep economic downturn resulting from the spread of the coronavirus and the shut-down of businesses also has impacted communities across the country, with millions of workers now unemployed and needing help.

“About a month ago, I found our own parish families were looking for food (assistance). I was shocked that my own parishioners needed help. That gave me a jolt,” Father Lee said. 

He convened a meeting of some parishioners, and they decided to start the St. Stephen’s Pantry at the parish, named after St. Stephen, the first deacon and a symbol of service in the Church.

The parishioners organizing the new program at St. Jude’s consulted with other area parishes offering that kind of outreach, to learn how they operated and to get tips for running the pantry.

As a young boy growing up in South Korea after the Korean War, Father Lee had witnessed the importance of the Church offering food assistance to people. His father, Bernard Wonkil Lee, was a Catholic lay leader, and working with Catholic Relief Services, he delivered donated goods from U.S. Catholics to people left impoverished after the war, and he fed about 1,000 people every day by running a soup kitchen. Father Lee remembers seeing soup being prepared in a huge pot in his home to feed the people lining up for help.

“A lot of people came to our house to get food,” he said.

Edwin Lopez, the pastoral council chair at the Shrine of St. Jude, said the parishioners mobilizing to help start the St. Stephen’s Pantry understood the need for food assistance in the wake of the pandemic and economic downturn.

“This is not just some strangers. These are people in our community who need help,” he said.

Among the St. Jude’s parishioners mobilizing to help set up and organize the pantry were Larry and Jennifer Kilmer, Catholic school teachers who live near the church. 

“I just felt we’re right here, we’re in this situation, we can walk over and do it,” said Kilmer, who is a math teacher and coach at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland. His wife Jennifer teaches math at Oakcrest School in Vienna, Virginia, and they have 11 children.

Larry Kilmer noted that Jim Kuzma -- a parishioner who owns a painting business -- helped in the effort, with his son Jack building the shelves for the pantry, which soon was stocked with food donated by parishioners.

In response to the growing need for food assistance in the community in the wake of the COVID-19 health crisis and economic downturn, parishioners at the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville started the St. Stephen's Pantry there, stocking its shelves with food donated by parishioners. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

St. Jude’s parishioners dropped food off, and parish volunteers sorted the food and put it in bags. On Saturday morning May 9, the St. Stephen’s Pantry opened its doors for walk-up service, with parish volunteers wearing facemasks and gloves handing out bags of food to 121 families who lined up outside.

Father Lee said the pantry was nearly bare afterward, but a few days later, he noticed the pantry was full again, stocked from parishioners’ donations of food. His response, he said, was, “It’s a miracle!”

Lopez noted that in the first few weeks of the effort, 60-70 people had volunteered to help with the pantry.

“It’s been amazing, not only the volunteers, but the food (donations),” he said. “We’ve had an overwhelming response from the parish.”

Father Lee noted that on the previous evening, 10 parishioners had been sorting food at the pantry.

“People from all walks of life, they come and help, or ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ I’m very impressed by the goodness of my parishioners,” he said.

Kilmer said the people dropping off food include senior citizens who’ve been in the parish since it started in 1956. He said a father helping at the pantry that day had lost his restaurant job when the shutdown began.

“St. Jude’s is just a special place,” he said.

Lopez, who owns an insurance agency and who has been attending the Shrine of St. Jude since 2010 with his wife Alexandra and their son Benjamin, agreed. This spring, Benjamin is graduating from St. Jude Regional Catholic School.

“We have a very diverse parish, and that diversity makes our parish very strong,” he said.

Volunteers gave bags of food to 121 families on May 9, the first day of operation for the St. Stephen's Pantry at the Shrine of St. Jude. Two weeks later on May 23, the pantry was able to provide food to nearly twice as many families. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

On its second Saturday of operation on May 16, about eight volunteers at St. Stephen’s Pantry served more than 160 families.

And in addition to the support from St. Jude’s parishioners, the effort has been bolstered by a monetary donation from Our Lady of Grace Parish in the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, by food and donations from members of St. Patrick Parish in Rockville, and by donations of Ezekiel bread that Father Dan Leary of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring has been delivering to local pantries during the crisis.

Catholic Charities – which has been holding large food distributions throughout the Washington area and increasing the food outreach at its area centers since the demand for help has been growing dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis – contacted St. Jude’s Parish, offering to help the new pantry there.

Before the third Saturday’s distribution on May 23, St. Stephen’s Pantry received a donation of 190 bags of food from Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, and another parish provided the pantry with 500 paper bags for the food. That day, the pantry was able to provide bags of food to 230 families, and 40 bags of baby supplies to families.

The next day, an alert on the parish’s website noted, “Desperate need to replenish the now empty pantry since there were over 230 families served on the last distribution date May 23rd.”

During the coronavirus shutdown and stay-at-home restrictions in local communities, Father Lee said he has emphasized that times of solitude offer opportunities to “deepen our relationship with the Lord and others… We can rely on the Lord more.”

Summarizing his Easter message to St. Jude’s parishioners, Father Lee said that even in a challenging time, people can find joy in reflecting the love of the risen Christ. “The foundation of our hope is not from our own abilities, but from the risen Christ,” he said.

Reflecting on the outreach of the new St. Stephen’s Pantry at the Shrine of St. Jude, Lopez said, “I think when you do it for the right reason, God blesses it… We’re all doing it for God. We all have the same goal in mind.”

The website of the Shrine of St. Jude Parish has information on how to support the St. Stephen's Pantry. Distribution dates are Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. 

Regular staffed drop-off days and times for people to bring donated food there are on Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m and Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. If people cannot drop off food on Sundays or Thursdays during those time frames when regular pantry volunteers are present, they can leave the donations on a table labeled “Food Pantry” in the breezeway during daytime hours. 

As of May 23, the most needed items for the pantry are canned tuna and chicken, canned soups, canned fruits, vegetables and tomatoes, small bag of beans and rice, peanut butter in plastic jars, cereal and cans of oatmeal, pasta and pasta sauce in plastic jars, fruit juice in plastic jars, paper towels and toilet paper. Wish list items also include diapers, baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, deodorant and soap, shampoo and toothpaste. The pantry is also accepting monetary donations and gift cards to grocery stores.

The Shrine of St. Jude is located at 12701 Veirs Mill Road, Rockville, Maryland.