Soup kitchen has fed hungry in Uptown for over 40 years

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Soup kitchen has fed hungry in Uptown for over 40 years

Volunteers prepare for a meal at the soup kitchen at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church June 28, 2019. Sts. Ita-Thomas of Canterbury Parish operates a soup kitchen, food pantry and clothing room as part of its Catholic presence in the Uptown neighborhood. The soup kitchen is open every Tuesday and Friday throughout the year, except on Christmas Eve and Day. They serve up to 150 people each evening. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jim Eder, temporary director of the soup kitchen, shows volunteers how to wash tables at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church on June 28, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers work in the soup kitchen. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Eric Bulthuis, Jason Prins and Melinda Jabaai cut vegetables as volunteers work in the soup kitchen. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers from Wheaton Bible Church make sandwiches guests can take home with them. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jim Eder reviews soup kitchen rules with volunteers. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Conventual Franciscan Brother Donald Thielsen (right) makes the soup along with volunteers. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

At 3:30 p.m. on a Friday, the basement of St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, 4827 N. Kenmore Ave., is already buzzing with activity.

There are volunteers chopping vegetables for soup and salad. Another is opening cans of black beans — a main ingredient for tonight’s soup — and others are putting rolls and slices of bread in baskets and placing them on the long tables that occupy the floor of the multipurpose room.

Others are placing slices of cake and cookies on individual plates.

In two hours, the doors to the St. Thomas of Canterbury soup kitchen will open, as they have nearly every Tuesday and Friday for the past 42 years.

Much has changed over the decades, including the leadership and administration of the church, now part of Sts. Ita and Thomas of Canterbury Parish after combining with its neighbor to the north as part of the Renew My Church effort the soup kitchen has remained a constant.

Conventual Franciscan Father Robert Cook, pastor of the new parish, had been leading both parishes before the merge.

He said the combination has brought new life to the whole community.

“St. Ita was a big parish by city standards with a vibrant parish life but not a lot of outreach ministries,” Cook said. “St. Thomas was a small parish with a long history of outreach.”

The Uptown neighborhood has changed, with more young adults and also fewer single-room-occupancy hotels. Cook said he doesn’t think the neighborhood will ever be gentrified to the point that there are no more people in the area who need the services of the soup kitchen. At the same time, the young adults and others who find their way to volunteer at the soup kitchen need what it gives them also.

“Soup kitchens exist as much for the volunteers as for the guests,” Cook said. “It’s an opportunity to encounter Christ.”

Just before 4 p.m., more than a dozen teenagers and a handful of young adults make their way into the basement. The group, first-time volunteers from Wheaton Bible Church in the western suburbs, is immediately put to work setting up chairs and distributing plastic utensils and napkins at each place setting.

Conventual Franciscan Brother Ayub Mwenda has been directing outreach ministries for St. Thomas of Canterbury since February. A large part of that is scheduling volunteers, making sure there are enough people for the soup kitchen and the food pantry and other ministries, and that two large groups of volunteers don’t show up the same day.

Conventual Franciscan Brother Donald Thielsen is stirring two vats of soup with a wooden paddle. Brother Donald lives at Marytown in Libertyville and every Tuesday and Friday he picks up food donations in a van and drops some of them off at various food pantries before arriving at St. Thomas of Canterbury. Then he looks at what he has available at St. Thomas in donations and figures out what to make.

Today the soup is ham and black bean, with carrots and celery.

“We depend on providence,” Brother Donald said. “We have a concept of what we have, and we pull something from the freezer, and I bring vegetables. We never go without.”

Brother Donald recalled a time some 20 years ago, when he was a postulant in Chicago and assigned to help at the soup kitchen. At the time, the kitchen drew well more than 100-120 guests it gets each evening now, but on this particular night, for some reason the line grew even longer than usual. The soup kitchen was serving hot dogs, and there weren’t going to be enough.

The volunteers talked about what to do: Should they serve what they had and then close the doors? Cut each hot dog in half so everyone could have a little bit? Neither seemed like a good solution, Brother Donald said.

So they prayed. Then a food truck pulled up, and the driver said it was full of leftover hot dogs from White Sox park, wrapped with condiment packets and ready to go, and could the soup kitchen use them?

“There have been so many miracles,” he said.

Brother Donald said he enjoys the guests, many of whom keep coming back for years. They appreciate the food, and that they can have as much as they want, and even take soup home once everyone who shows up has been fed.

“They’re not chased out,” Brother Donald said. “We treat them like this is a restaurant, and they’re our guests.”

Once the chairs are in place and the tables are set, Jim Eder — “temporary director” of the soup kitchen for the past 39 years — calls the teenagers to gather around while he goes over the rules.

The first rule, he says, is to treat the guests not like clients or people seeking a handout.

“Our guests are used to being treated with respect, care, understanding and love,” he said. “These are our honored guests. We don’t proselytize and we don’t preach. We share the Gospel by the way we act: with care, understanding, respect and love.”

The second rule is to make sure the guests also treat the volunteers with courtesy, Eder said. If there is a problem, he tells the teenagers not to try to handle it themselves, but to find him and let him deal with it.

Eder gave the volunteers chapter and verse — literally, Luke 14:12-14 — on Jesus telling his followers to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” when they host a banquet.

As good hosts, he reminds the teens, their job is to serve the guests rather than to socialize with one another.

Eder said the soup kitchen started when he was living at a Catholic Worker house in the neighborhood. Back then, if volunteers were needed, there were always people in the house to help. When the first director left, the pastor asked Eder to take over temporarily.

“He said he knew I would make sure the trash got taken out and the lights were turned off,” Eder said. “But I’m not much of a director. It’s pretty collaborative. My belief is it’s the Lord’s soup kitchen.”

While Eder gives his talk, longtime volunteers take a coffee break.

Jack Zang, who has been volunteering once a month for 14 years, and Judy Hiertz, who has been volunteering for 15 years, make up part of the group from St. Catherine Laboure. They come the last Friday of every month, then go out to dinner together afterward, Zang said.

Zang said his adult children come to his home for Thanksgiving dinner every year, then they all come down to volunteer at the soup kitchen the following day.

“That might be the highlight of the year,” he said. “You get back so much more than you give.”

Hiertz said the guests come for the food, but also for a chance to socialize.

“When you sit down for a meal, you sit with people you like,” she said. “I think it’s nice.”

At about 5:15, Eder finishes his talk and everyone gets up to make final preparations and decide who will do what during the meal. Soup must be ladled out, condiments and drinks distributed, leftovers packed into containers for guests to take home.

At 5:25, everyone stops to pray together, for the guests, for the volunteers, for everyone who needs a prayer.

At 5:30, the doors open and the people who lined up outside come in, each taking a tray, choosing a dessert, getting a bowl (or two) of soup. Young volunteers bring cheese for the soup, dressing for the salad, and coffee or juice or water.

The guests come to eat, first and foremost. Roger Penner said he started coming to the soup kitchen when he lived in the building next door. A guest named Joe found the soup kitchen on a list distributed by the Department of Human Services.

A guest named Jesse said he’s known about the soup kitchen since he was a child growing up in the neighborhood. He’s a day laborer, and sometimes there isn’t enough work, and if there’s not enough work, there’s not enough money for food.

“The food here is pretty good,” he said, although some days the food is better than others. “They do their best.”

By 6:30, the guests finish eating and take extra food with them. Volunteers can take soup, too, if there’s some left over. The volunteers clean the kitchen, wipe down tables, put the chairs away.

When they are done, Eder makes sure all the trash has been taken out and turns off the lights.



  • renew my church
  • corporal works of mercy

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