‘We made mercy concrete,’ pastor says of food giveaway

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

‘We made mercy concrete,’ pastor says of food giveaway

St. Mary of the Lake Parish, 4220 N. Sheridan Road, distributes 1,000 pre-packed boxes of non-perishable food on April 19, 2020. In collaboration with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the pop-up food pantry will serve the needs of at-risk residents, especially immigrants and will be open every Sunday at 3 p.m. for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Tables are set up outside the church for food pick up. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
People lined up around the block for food. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A sample of the food in the box provided by Greater Chicago Food Depository. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A volunteer organizes the boxes that were carried to the front of church for distribution. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers from area parishes help out during the giveaway. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Kate Meyer places boxes on the tables for those in need to pick up. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Auxiliary Bishop Mark Bartosic, right, episcopal vicar of Vicariate II where the church is located, helps out with the distribution. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

In less than three hours on Divine Mercy Sunday, St. Mary of the Lake Parish distributed 30,000 pounds of food to people in need, mostly members of Chicago’s immigrant and refugee communities.

The parish, at 4220 N. Sheridan Road, will continue to operate the pop-up food pantry each Sunday as long as the coronavirus crisis continues, said Father Manuel Dorantes, the pastor.

“We made mercy concrete on Divine Mercy Sunday,” Dorantes said, adding that just as Jesus feeds his people with the Eucharist, the church — the Body of Christ — must also feed people who are hungry.

As big as the effort was, Dorantes said it was nowhere near enough. While 1,000 people received 30-pound boxes from the Greater Chicago Food Depository with rice, macaroni and cheese, canned fruit and vegetables, canned meat and fish, peanut butter and jelly, crackers and other staples, another 1,500 who came and stood in line had to be turned away when the food ran out.

“It was really heartbreaking when I had to go down the line and tell people, ‘I’m sorry. We don’t have any more food. Please come back next Sunday,’” Dorantes said.

Now he is encouraging other parishes, especially those who serve in immigrant communities, to follow St. Mary of the Lake’s example.

“This is not sustainable for one parish,” Dorantes said. “In the city of Chicago, we have heard the Latino and the black communities have been affected in a disproportionate way. The answer is for many of us to be able to respond.”

Greg Trotter, senior manager for public relations at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said the agency already has relationships with many Catholic parishes, and it is open to working with new partners as well.

The entire food distribution network has seen increased demand during the pandemic, he said, and several temporary sites, such as St. Mary of the Lake, have been important additions.

“What they’ve done has been inspiring,” Trotter said.

Other parishes won’t have to start from scratch, said Dorantes, who serves on the food depository’s board of directors. His parish volunteer task force included management and operations consultants, medical doctors and social service workers, and they will share their playbook.

“We have put together a plan of how we did this here,” Dorantes said. “I have talked to different folks who are willing to support these parishes with the food that was needed. We have the plan of how to do it, and I have people who can help them with it. I’m calling on my brother priests to step up.”

Dorantes said the parish started its own outreach by delivering food to parishioners in need, but its COVID-19 task force raised their sights when they learned that the black and Latino communities had been especially hard-hit by the virus. They came up with the idea of distributing food from the church, where the pews are otherwise sitting empty.

The task force also insisted that it should be a consistent, weekly effort.

“We will do this at St. Mary’s for any family who needs it,” Dorantes said, adding that the only information collected is what the food depository asks for: name, ZIP code and number of people in the household.

The effort on the ground and in the church included Dorantes, one other staff member and more than five dozen volunteers who were recruited with announcements during the parish’s livestreamed Sunday Masses. The parish asked particularly for people who are young and have no underlying health conditions.

A doctor on the task force who helped with training reminded them, Dorantes said, that they should see Jesus in each person, but also treat each person as if they had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We told them that this is absolutely voluntary,” he said.

Those volunteers included Bishop Mark Bartosic, the episcopal vicar for Vicariate II. He was among those who carried the sanitized boxes from the church to the tables set up outdoors. Volunteers registered each guest as they approached the tables; volunteers placed boxes on the tables, guests picked them up and volunteers sanitized the tables before the next guests approached.

“It was incredibly well-organized,” said Bartosic, who said he arrived at 2:30 p.m. for a planned 3 p.m. start and found the food distribution already underway. “People had started lining up at 11 o’clock.”

At its peak, the line stretched about two miles from the church property, up and down area streets. Police reminded people to stay at least 6 feet apart and volunteers ran up and down to deliver the same message.

Most of the people Dorantes spoke with in line were Latino or African immigrants, he said. The pop-up pantry was promoted widely, especially through Spanish-language media, and the connection to the church helped, Dorantes said.

“The Latino immigrants, they trust the church,” he said.

Many of the people who came work in service industries, from driving taxis to working in restaurants, and have lost jobs or seen their wages greatly reduced.

“A lot of the people weren’t living in poverty before,” Dorantes said. “They were getting a check a few weeks ago, and now they don’t know how they’re going to make it.”

Dorantes, who serves on the board of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said the organization was happy to help the pop-up pantry.

It originally sent 500 boxes of food, which were stored in the body of the church. After seeing the initial response to the announcements, and talking with the nearby Lakeview Pantry, which saw demand spike 140% in three weeks, the parish task force knew that wouldn’t be enough. They asked for and received 500 more boxes.

Those who came live in about 85 different ZIP codes, information the food depository asked the parish to track, so there is definitely widespread demand.

Bishop Bartosic agreed that if the Greater Chicago Food Depository can supply more sites, it might be something archdiocesan parishes can help with.

“The times are certainly extraordinary,” he said in an April 20 interview. “I think that’s what we saw yesterday, with the huge numbers of people. The response of St. Mary of the Lake was correspondingly extraordinary.”

Dorantes said it was “amazing” to work with all  the community members and stakeholders who helped with the pop-up pantry, including the alderman’s office and local police. But, he said, as one of the volunteers told him, what they did should not be seen as extraordinary.

“She said, ‘This us being the church,’” Dorantes said. “This is what we are called to do.”

To find a food distribution site, visit To volunteer to pack boxes at the food bank, visit


  • hunger
  • parishes
  • coronavirus

Related Articles