At Epiphany, 15 Years of Feeding Those in Need
By WILLIAM WICHERT
The table is always big enough at Epiphany Lutheran Church on East 206th Street, where anyone may receive a free hot lunch four days a week through a ministry program called St. Stephen's Meals.
St. Stephen's Meals, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, was originally created by a Planning Association of Lutheran Churches in the Bronx that addressed issues facing the church in the 1980s. While the lunch program originally offered one lunch a week for senior citizens, it eventually expanded to serve lunch four days a week.
"We saw a great need in the community," says Pastor Jim O'Hanlon. Since Sept. 11, that need has become even greater as the program has gone from serving 500 meals a month to 700. On any given day, nearly 50 people sit down to lunch in the basement at Epiphany, and some come from as far away as Yonkers and lower Manhattan.
Around 1 p.m., the lunch crowd, many of whom are not members of the congregation, gathers. After signing in and gathering their utensils, they take a seat as head chef Sonia DeCicco distributes the day's meal.
"I never turn nobody away. I know what hunger is," says DeCicco, a member of Epiphany who has been cooking for the program since its inception. Attendance depends on the meal for the day. Aside from the regulars who routinely show up, when favorites like meatloaf and turkey are listed on the menu, a larger crowd turns up, especially on Fridays, when cake is often brought in to celebrate someone's birthday.
"This is something I like in a ministry," said DeCicco. "This is my second home."
Up until a few months ago, DeCicco would simply serve processed food that was sent by the United Way of New York City. Since the people may not be "getting the nutrition they need," O'Hanlon said, United Way has made a greater effort to supply fresh food for the program thanks to a new $9,000 grant. Local businesses, such as Hillside Meat & Deli and Bainbridge Bakery, have also made donations to St. Stephen's Meals.
These weekday meals can make up for both the physical and financial difficulties facing the people who attend. Many elderly participants live alone and are unable to properly cook for themselves. O' Hanlon believes that many of the people in the program are "dependent on some sort of help like this."
A desire to help is what brings Al Armanini to Epiphany every week. A member of St. Brendan's Church, the Catholic church just around the corner from Epiphany, Armanini has been a part of St. Stephen's from the beginning. Even though a recent knee injury makes walking painful, Armanini can still be seen going from table to table, cleaning up and serving others. "I like to help out," he simply said.
O'Hanlon characterizes this atmosphere as "a ministry of feeding and fellowship." Afternoon diners get to escape their often solitary lives for a couple of hours of food and friendship. Some have known each other all their lives, while others just met over a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder.
"That's a big part. The people who attend and become friends," said O'Hanlon.
Ed. Note: St. Stephen's Meals begins at 1 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the basement of Epiphany Lutheran Church, located on East 206th Street near the corner of Bainbridge Avenue. For more information, call 652-6839.
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