A note from faithful in Texas was included in a donation to St. Martha Parish.  Christina Leslie photo
A note from faithful in Texas was included in a donation to St. Martha Parish. Christina Leslie photo

The spiritual riches of a livestream community Mass, coupled with a definition of the word “parishioner” as a neighbor with no tangible bounds, has resulted in a mammoth donation of food for one parish along the Jersey Shore.

St. Martha Parish, Point Pleasant, is the joy-filled recipient of nearly a ton of macaroni and cheese intended for area poor this Thanksgiving, sent from across the nation.

The Ocean County parish is no stranger to helping the less fortunate; St. Martha Knights of Columbus Council 7926 has conducted a Thanksgiving meal and food basket distribution since 2002, its members cooking and assembling hundreds of turkey dinners for area poor and homebound seniors. Since this year’s ongoing coronavirus would prevent the men from using the church kitchen, the Knights approached their pastor, Father David Swantek, for guidance. The priest devised a multi-faceted solution.

In his quest for food and supplies, “I knew I wanted to help out a local restaurant,” Father Swantek began. The parish purchased 300 turkey dinners from Joe Leone’s Italian Specialties and Catering of Point Pleasant Beach; the establishment’s owner is a member of St. Martha’s Knights council. Another parishioner, owner of a Jersey Mike’s Subs franchise, donated 300 sub sandwich gift cards to the project. Extra groceries to accompany the meal were donated by the Knights as well as the Neptune-based food pantry known as Fulfill, “since two of parishioners are on their board,” the pastor said.

The last piece of the plan involved individuals. “I wanted the parishioners to help contribute, too,” Father Swantek stated. During his Nov. 15 Mass that aired on the parish’s YouTube channel, the pastor asked parishioners to send in boxes of macaroni and cheese.

But with the parish YouTube channel having more than 8,900 subscribers from across the United States – as well as from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Ireland, England and other nations – thousands of faithful heard the priest’s entreaty and, considering themselves his parishioners as well, decided to help.

The next day, boxes of macaroni and cheese began to arrive: by automobile and on foot,parishioners living near the Herbertsville Road church delivered the dinners. Then, a steady stream of delivery trucks began to disgorge scores of large boxes and bags filled to the brim with the cheesy bounty.

“It was a truly amazing response to the YouTube channel,” said Nancy Dormanski, parish business manager. “What a phenomenal outpouring. St. Martha parishioners are a generous parish as it is, but this …”

Boxes large and small from across the country began to fill the parish office and hall. Packages bearing return addresses from Delaware, Indiana and California lay on tables near boxes hailing from Texas, Wisconsin and Kentucky. Some donors sent checks and messages of thanks to Father Swantek; others referenced a line or two from one of his broadcasted homilies, and one box, adorned with the message “You Rock, Father Dave!” contained treats for his dog, Cragly, and a pair of socks with the Doritos logo.

Two long-distance donors shared the reasoning behind their donation.

John and Mary McGee are native New Jerseyans who have been members of St. Mary Parish, Schwenksville, Pa., for 24 years. They began attending Mass online with Father Swantek before their home parish began livestreaming and sent St. Martha Parish 30 boxes of macaroni and cheese for the drive.

“It felt like [Father Swantek] was speaking directly to us, which told us the Holy Spirit was definitely working through him,” John McGee said. “Maybe it was the fact that Kraft Mac and Cheese was a childhood favorite, but it was an honest ask from an honest man to his congregation, and while we are not parishioners, Father Dave definitely makes you feel part of the congregation.

“We may never meet the people that our small gift feeds, but Father Dave knows them … and that is good enough for us,” McGee said.

Tom and Elizabeth Wavering, members of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish, Norman, Okla., attempted to send macaroni and cheese by ordering online, but experienced delivery challenges. Instead, they downloaded the Target store app on their phone and requested the store nearest St. Martha Church to “empty the shelves,” Elizabeth Wavering recalled with a chuckle. The result: 89 more boxes.

The Waverings are parents to seven children ages four to 18; they are homeschooling the youth this year due to COVID-19. Elizabeth Wavering explained, “There are only two Catholic churches in our area, and Masses were packed. No one had started livestreaming yet, and we thought it was safer to be at home.

“We surfed around and found Father Dave and have been watching him since March,” she continued. “When he began broadcasting from his own living room, the kids felt like his family – like honorary nieces and nephews.”

Elizabeth Wavering was pleased her large donation had been received by St. Martha Parish, and noted she would be making a similar donation closer to home.

“The kids see [the donations] and hopefully learn we support our neighbors. We are all a community in the Body of Christ, whether or not we are literally neighbors,” she said. “Father Dave always says that St. Martha parishioners are praying for us online people at Mass. It is very moving to be prayed for.”

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, parish volunteers organized the macaroni and cheese dinners by expiration date as Father Swantek walked through the parish meeting room, shaking his head in happy disbelief and filming a video for the following Sunday’s livestream Mass. At last count, was 3,400 boxes, or nearly a ton of macaroni and cheese, had been received. The bounty will be split between the Knights’ Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner delivery programs.

“Amazing,” the grateful pastor said of the thousands of boxes sent by his parishioners near and far. “People have been incredibly generous. They hear Christ’s call to feed the hungry families down the line.” Citing the folk tale about how villagers with very little are able to band together and concoct a hearty broth, Father Swantek said, “This is some great stone soup.”