Father Juan Gabriel Rojas of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, works the drive-through with a volunteer. Courtesy photo
Father Juan Gabriel Rojas of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, works the drive-through with a volunteer. Courtesy photo
With COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in place, parishes across the Diocese have been getting creative in their efforts to help others.

In recent weeks, St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, and Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, put out parish-wide calls to help feed their local communities.

Holy Eucharist has taken part in three parish-wide efforts to benefit Cathedral Kitchen, a program that serves the hungry and homeless in Camden, which is not far from the church.

On May 12 alone, more than 1,500 homemade sandwiches, 1,800 bottles of water, 1,600 snacks and 1,200 fruits were collected. There were also so many boxes of soap, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes and socks that they filled four vehicles for delivery.

Jeff Siedlecki, youth ministry coordinator, shared numbers that he said would “give you goosebumps” as he reflected on the amount of donations from all three collections.

"I don't believe I am overstating the facts that we have achieved biblical proportions (over 5,000 total meals to be distributed),” he said. “Our little church and our connections to the community have brought people together to form a lifeline. We have joined hands across the breach that is this COVID-19 crisis and reached out, beyond even our own community borders, to put food in the bellies of those who need it most.”

Siedlecki explained that the collections were organized by adult volunteers from the youth ministry, faith formation staff and families, and the Knights of Columbus council. For weeks, parishioners have been bringing their donations to the parish parking lot, where they are loaded into vehicles and transported to Camden. The youth ministry members have a history of volunteering at Cathedral Kitchen, Siedlecki said.

“YOU answered the call to be our Lord's hands and feet,” Siedlecki said in an enthusiastic thank-you Facebook message to parishioners. “Tonight's lead news story may be that the world may never be the same after this crisis. I believe that's true; I have seen my world and the people in it respond to a crisis with boundless love. I will never be the same.”

In Hightstown, meanwhile, the parish has been hosting a number of drive-throughs. The second, on April 22, served about 521 cars in the morning and early afternoon hours. There were about 30 volunteers, including local and state police departments and Knights of Columbus councils who helped direct traffic. Various tasks included preparing bags and cartons of donated goods, greeting the cars upon arrival, checking food recipients’ identification and placing the packages of food in trunks, all while practicing social distancing measures.

“It’s tiring and a lot of work, but it’s beautiful, so rewarding,” said Father Oscar Sumanga, pastor.

The drive-throughs were organized by the parish and RISE, a community service organization that’s adjacent to the parish. RISE helps residents in the area with food, clothing, household items and emergency monetary assistance.

There was an added bonus of the April 22 date – it was the day after Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., celebrated his birthday. Father Sumanga, Father Juan Gabriel Rojas, parochial vicar, and volunteers made special birthday greetings, which were posted around the parking lot. This act of service “is our birthday gift to the Bishop,” Father Sumanga said, then noted that during the third drive-through on April 25, some 900 families were served.

In addition, free COVID-19 testing has been going on in the church parking lot every Friday since May 8. This effort is a partnership between the parish and Hightstown Police Department, led by police chief Frank Gendron.

Jennifer Mauro, managing editor, contributed to this report.