No arches, but window is golden
To needy Quad-Citians, the window is a source of food for the hungry, clothes for the cold and hope for the poor. To volunteers handing out food and donated items, the window is a source of strength -- the spiritual strength that comes from helping others.
``We get more out of it than the people who are receiving,'' the Rev. James Patrick Conroy said recently. ``If you're going to be religious, you've got to be compassionate.''
The service to the poor that passes through the window has been the brainchild of Rev. Conroy and Sister Ludmilla Benda for more than 10 years. It all began Jan. 28, 1987, when Rev. Conroy moved into St. Anthony's rectory.
``That first night, people were banging at the back door, the side door, the front door, at 1 a.m.'' Rev. Conroy said. ``I thought, `I'll never get any sleep.'|''
The housekeeper would answer the door, find out what the people wanted, go to kitchen to get it and return to the door, Rev. Conroy said. By the time she arrived, more people were lined up for help.
St. Anthony's staff came up with a solution.
``We figured the little room off the kitchen was the easiest way,'' Rev. Conroy said. ``We could roll up the windown to pass the food out. The janitor fixed it so it would slide right open. We kept juice, coffee and donuts in that room. People would line up outside and we'd pass it out.''
Church staff still answered the doorbell for those in need at any time of day, but window hours were set from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Word soon spread that hungry people could get a good meal at St. Anthony's window.
``It was getting a little chaotic,'' Rev. Conroy said. ``We started passing out numbers so they don't have to stand there for 45 minutes in the cold. They can go home, or to their car, then come back when their number is called.''
Feeding 500 people a day with donated food is no small task, but Sister Ludmilla and Rev. Conroy make it sound almost easy.
``I got up at 5 a.m. to make the soup and prepare any food that may have been donated the day before,'' Sister Ludmilla said. ``You can't plan a menu a week ahead of time, because you never know what you're going to have.''
The housekeeper comes at 8 a.m. and puts out the juice, Sister Ludmilla said. Volunteers arrive at 8:30 a.m. and begin making about 500 sandwiches. About 40 volunteers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, regularly work in the kitchen, Sister Ludmilla said.
The menu they serve varies according to daily food donations. Leftovers come in from weddings, anniversaries and other parties, and stores like Hy-Vee and Eagle donate baked goods a few times a week, Sister Ludmilla said. Buffet and restaurant leftovers find their way to St. Anthony's kitchen, as do donuts from DB Donuts and venison from deer hunters.
Needed items that are not donated are bought with church funds, Rev. Conroy said. St. Anthony's parish agreed several years ago to set aside 15 percent of their funds to the needy program.
Other items are handed through the window as they are donated to the church. Toothbrushes, razors, disposable diapers and socks are handed out regularly. Soap is given out once a week. A fresh supply is usually available, Sister said, because many people donate little soaps they get at motels and hotels.
Rev. Conroy sometimes hands out a dollar bill to the first hundred or so customers, until the daily supply runs out.
Anyone who shows up at the window is served, no questions asked.
``We figure if they ask for it, they must really need it,'' Sister Ludmilla said.
``If you come out there at 6 a.m. and wait until 9 a.m. in the freezing cold, you must be hungry,'' Rev. Conroy said. ``If they've waited that long, they deserve some food.''
About 75 percent of the customers are from a six-block radius around the church, Sister Ludmilla said, but some walk over the bridge from Illinois and some drive in the cars that double as their homes. Some are working low-paying jobs, others are unemployed or homeless, Rev. Conroy said.
Church staff also tries to help the unemployed find work, Rev. Conroy said, noting that dozens of his customers came out to help sandbag during the flood. Others have done odd jobs for parishoners who need leaves raked or gutters cleaned.
Rev. Conroy and Sister Ludmilla retired from St. Anthony's the last week in January and no longer will be involved with the program. They hope the new father, Monsignor Schmidt, will continue the program. The window still was operating as of Feb. 3, and Sister Ludmilla said plenty of volunteers are interested in continuing.
``I'll give them all the support and encouragement I can,'' Rev. Conroy said. ``When I left there, it was in good shape, and all it has to do is continue.''
Rev. Conroy said he occasionally was criticized by those who feel the program enables people looking for a ``free ride''.
``I got (criticism) occasionally, but I let it go in and out my head like a breeze,'' he said. ``The Lord said, `Whatever you do to the least of these people, you do to me.' I know, I'm there, I talk to these fellows. I know they need this help.
``At night, I go to bed in a nice warm rectory,'' he continued.``Some of them sleep on a cold bench. Before we turn in, we go see if they need a blanket, sleeping bag, another sandwich, some coffee.
``You never have to worry about starving in Davenport. There's always somewhere you can go.''
-- By Sarah Larson (February 9, 1998)
Copyright © 1998 Moline Dispatch Publishing Company, L.L.C.