Amid a resurgence of COVID, faithful throughout the Archdiocese redoubled their efforts to bring hope to those in need this Thanksgiving.

Last week, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in South Philadelphia got an early start on the holiday, providing close to 100 frozen turkeys and side dishes to neighborhood families.

Earlier this week, several archdiocesan agencies – including Catholic Social Services (CSS), Nutritional Development Services and Catholic Housing and Community Services — distributed hundreds of turkeys along with stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, produce and pies to individuals and families.

Before blessing some 400 holiday meal boxes at CSS’s Norristown-based Martha’s Choice Marketplace Nov. 23, Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre described such initiatives as “a sign of the love of Christ,” mediated through the generosity and hard work of others.

In Warminster, parishioners of Nativity of Our Lord held a two-day, drive-through Thanksgiving dinner distribution that fed some 100 households, or about 400 individuals, in the community.

The Nov. 25-26 effort replaced the lavish, china-plated Thanksgiving Day community meal the parish has hosted for the past two years.

Parishioner Trisha Lamb, who had first proposed the sit-down gathering, said even with a format revamped by COVID, this year’s giveaway was still “about feeding the soul.”

Trisha Lamb of Nativity of Our Lord in Warminster donned a homemade turkey costume to greet clients of the parish’s Nov. 25-26 Thanksgiving dinner giveaway. (Gina Christian)

“When you read the Acts of the Apostles, you see they were feeding people and taking care of the forgotten from the very beginning,” said Lamb, who donned a homemade turkey costume and a smile to welcome guests. “If you want somebody to come to the Lord, you’ve got to give them a sense of home and comfort – and what could be more comforting than food?”

As the pandemic nears the one-year mark, that practical and spiritual solace is more needed than ever, said fellow parishioner and director of adult faith formation Ann Marie Gervino.

“We’re feeding maybe three times the amount we fed last year,” she said.

However, “people have been very generous in their donations,” said Gervino, and the support easily covered the increased demand.

In Northeast Philadelphia, Holy Innocents Parish gifted parishioners at its Thanksgiving Day Mass (celebrated in English, Spanish and Vietnamese) with loaves of blessed bread. A few miles west, volunteers at St. William Parish loaded a pickup truck after their holiday liturgy and drove boxes of non-perishable foods to St. Francis Inn in Kensington, where Brother Fred Dilger and Father Michael Duffy, both Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name Province, prepared fresh takeaway Thanksgiving dinners for an anticipated 200 clients.

A member of St. William Parish in Philadelphia unloads donations of food to a volunteer at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia’s Kensington section, Nov. 26. (Gina Christian)

Those were in addition to the 250 families who had previously collected boxed Thanksgiving meal items, said Brother Dilger, noting the pandemic has driven more first-time clients to the 41-year-old outreach, which is open every day.

“We’re getting a lot of new people who have no idea what we do,” said Brother Dilger.

In particular, he said, “the drug problem has gone up 150-200%.”

On Thanksgiving Day, small encampments lined Kensington Avenue, with dozens of individuals openly using and overdosing on illegal drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

Despite his long ministry in the neighborhood, Brother Dilger was himself taken aback by the spike in drug activity, which leaves users wandering the area in a “zombie-like state.”

“I went up to Kensington and Allegheny Avenues the other day, and I thought they were having a festival” due to the crowd size, he said, attributing the uptick to pandemic-related anxiety, unemployment and financial hardship.

Katrina Keating, director of the Community Center at Visitation in Philadelphia, joined volunteers in distributing free donuts, coffee and hot chocolate on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26. (Gina Christian)

Just blocks from St. Francis Inn, staff and volunteers at the Community Center of Visitation, adjacent to Visitation B.V.M. Parish, handed out donuts, coffee and hot chocolate to passersby.

Katrina Keating, the newly appointed director the center (now an independent nonprofit that works closely with a number of Catholic and secular funding partners), said COVID had exacerbated issues in an already vulnerable community.

“The average income here hovered around $13,000 a year before the pandemic,” said Keating. “So you can only imagine what it’s done.”

Yet parishes, ministries and individual volunteers refuse to let COVID have the final word on the future. If anything, said Lamb, the crisis can be a moment for evangelization.

“You reach out to people through ways that are giving and loving and nonjudgmental, so they can come and say, ‘OK, this is a good place; this is a place where people are happy and giving. And hopefully that encourages people to come back to church, or just recognize the Lord in their life. I think that’s what it’s all about.”