The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is quietly building the infrastructure of giving back beneath St. Brigid's.
For many of us, a church hall holds many memories. Maybe it was school lunch, maybe a play, maybe bingo night or "coffee and" after mass. For others, however, a church hall acts as a respite, and as a judgement-free zone where they can get the help and support they need to get by in the hardest times.
That is what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is trying to do in Millbury. The St. Brigid's Conference, one of eight locations in the Central Worcester District, is one of three food pantries in the district, but serves more than food. For many, it's a lifeline.
"Food, clothing, shelter," said Leo Lucke, echoing the Society's basic mission. "There's so much more than a food pantry." While the St. Brigid's Conference is focused primarily on Millbury, they will help anyone who needs it.
"It's a worldwide problem," Kevin Crowley noted about the hunger and housing issues that our society faces.
Lucke, along with Crowley, provide the leadership for the organization and shared some of what they've been doing, both during and after the pandemic. While they don't shout it from the rooftops, the pantry serves anywhere between 30-50 people a month, and their reach extends beyond the walls of the church hall, such as with rent assistance for one resident and support for an unhoused individual who was at one point camping in the nearby woods.
The support also extends beyond the church. As Crowley noted, "Jesus told us to find his sheep... the church is the people, [and we] can't say enough about the community." They credit their members and volunteers, of whom provide support both financial and physical, and do it with a smile.
"It's the best job I've ever had that isn't a job," Lucke continued. "Volunteering is underrated."
The St. Brigid's Conference started in 2015, and it went from simply feeding a few dozen families to the more structured organization today. They get volunteers from the high school (including a pantry location on campus), resources from the Millbury Police and Millbury Fire food drives, and donations from Target, Pepperidge Farms, IBA, and others.
"It's the beauty of a small town," said Crowley.
People in need are able to visit once a month and shop the racks and tables for items they need, ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables to frozen meats and salty snacks. "You're coming into a mini supermarket," Lucke said, "they literally shop..." from table to table and rack to rack, and "never turned anyone down.
Lucke and Crowley, however, do not want the Society to be known as solely a food vendor. Crowley recounted a story of an older person who lost their cane, and they worked to procure a new one. The recipient was brought to tears for the generosity, but the Society isn't looking for credit - they're looking to provide housing support, community connections, and whatever else. While their Thanksgiving food distribution will still happen, they also highlighted their children's back-to-school backpack effort and plan another Giving Tree event this winter.
Still, the Society seeks support from the community. "More hands make easier work," Lucke said, and they will need help at their next food distribution. They also seek food, especially canned chicken and canned pasta options, but they will find a way to use what people can offer.
Most importantly, they will not turn away anyone who is able to help or who may need the help themselves. While you must be a practicing Catholic to be an official member, the Society wants to help everyone and get help from everyone, regardless of creed.
"We're not trying to weed them out," Crowley said, "but weed them in."