Sr. Stephanie Baliga had a problem: The Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago’s food pantry was shut down by restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but the need for food in the neighborhood was greater than ever.
So she found a way. And as sisters are doing across the country under challenges imposed by COVID-19, when she ran into still more challenges, she got creative.
Nationwide, millions of people have lost jobs as employers closed or cut back, making the need for food and other support greater than ever, and Catholic women religious have answered the call in myriad ways.
The weekly food pantry at the Mission of Our Lady of Angels in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood normally serves about 225 people, Sister Stephanie said, but the need for food had doubled. So the sisters moved the pantry outside.
Because social distancing requirements meant patrons would not be able to pick and choose their own food, it all had to be prepackaged. At the same time, the sisters couldn’t allow most of their volunteers to help.
So all nine sisters in the small community, founded in 2010, pitched in to help.
“Everyone’s here,” Sister Stephanie said. “We’re very, very limited on volunteers, so it’s a lot of work.”
They did get some unexpected volunteers: the Chicago Police Department.
Even with moving the pantry outside and keeping everyone 6 feet apart, many senior citizens and those with compromised immune systems could not risk exposure. Likewise, those who are homebound discovered many of the services they rely on had been shut down. So the police loaded up a vehicle with more than 100 bags of food and delivered them to those in need.
“The city and the [police] department as a whole is going through a difficult period and this neighborhood, which is one of the more challenged communities within the city as we see it, needs all the help they can get,” Lt. Jason Brown told the Chicago Tribune in late March. “We’re kind of in uncharted waters. I think given that, we have to take a different approach to how we police and what policing really means.”
Sister Stephanie said working with the police is not unusual at the mission, and that has not changed even after a weekend of destruction in Chicago that left 20 dead, sparked by protests over the death of George Floyd.
“They’re absolute heroes,” she said of the police in the neighborhood.
Sister Stephanie said the Mission’s buildings were the only ones not damaged over the weekend, and that the neighborhood was largely destroyed.
“This is one of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the United States of America, so we were not in a good place before this [pandemic] started.”
City of Chicago statistics show 34% of households in Humboldt Park are below the federal poverty level of $26,200 for a family of four. Per capita income there is about half that figure, and 35% of those 25 years or older do not have a high school diploma.
The pantry work has become all-consuming, Sister Stephanie said, but it hasn’t been a problem because almost all of the community’s other ministries have been shut down.
In Detroit, two Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice, known as the Felician Sisters, also found themselves running a food pantry.
Previously, the ministry of Sr. Felicity Marie Madigan and Sr. Shelley Marie Jeffrey focused on hospitality: They opened the Deo Gratias Café in late January in the parish center at St. Jude Catholic Church, a place where they could build relationships with the community.
“We were just getting to really know some people when the pandemic put a kibosh on those kinds of activities,” Jeffrey said.