By Lois Rogers, Correspondent
When it comes to education, Sister of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Pa., Christine Joseph Iacobacci is widely recognized and respected for her gifts, not only in teaching reading, but creating programs that help students master the vital skill.
And throughout a ministry that has spanned five decades in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the Trenton Diocese and beyond, Sister Christine also found time to share her considerable culinary gifts, first nurtured in the Philadelphia kitchen of her paternal grandmother. As she recalls it, her grandmother had such a special way with food that she loved learning at her side as a youngster.
Finding good recipes and adapting them for a personal touch is a result of her lifelong penchant for reading cookbooks not only for instruction, but inspiration and fun, as in adding a splash of vanilla to the sweet potatoes.
Over the years, this secondary devotion has produced countless meals that were warm and nourishing accompaniments to life in community with the sisters, and a welcome presence on the tables of their retreat house, St. Mary’s by the Sea in Cape May.
And for the last eight years, Monday through Friday, she has come to the sun-filled Lincroft kitchen to create dinners for the team of Christian Brothers who administer the order’s District of Eastern North America.
There, just before Thanksgiving, she was cooking for five: Brother Dennis Malloy, visitor (provincial) of the district; Brother Dennis Lee, auxiliary visitor for community life and formation and pastoral care; Brother Timothy Froehlich, who oversees finances; Brother Joseph Juliano, director of the property and human resources of the schools, colleges, middle schools and family services in the district, and Brother Charles Mrozinski, assistant to Brother Malloy.
The menu she prepared reflected the tastes of Brother Lee, who was celebrating his birthday.
Each Brother selects the dishes he wants served as a birthday treat, and Brother Lee requested center cut pork chops, mashed sweet potatoes, asparagus, Waldorf salad and rum raisin ice cream.
Sister Christine, who entered religious life in 1963 at age 20, explained that she took on cooking for the brothers at a time when she needed to travel less and they were just starting to travel more.
Residing on the Lincroft campus of Christian Brothers Academy, the team had just been tasked with administering the geographically huge district formed as the result of a merger of three “legacy” districts – Baltimore, Long Island-New England, New York – with schools and ministries reaching from Toronto, Canada, to Washington, D.C., and from Warren, Mich., to Pawtucket, R.I.
Though headquartered in an Eatontown office, the members of the team often traveled to a different location. They soon realized that the “one time we get together is dinner,” said Brother Mrozinski.
“We gather and pray together at 6 p.m. followed by dinner. It is our one time a day to gather this way, and this meal has become very important,” Brother Mrozinski said.
It didn’t take long for them to realize that it was vitally important to find someone who could take care shopping for food, plan the menus and prepare meals, he said.
They realized they needed a cook.
Right Place, Right Time
After years of teaching, supervising schools and training teachers in the Archdioceses of Philadelphia and Newark and the Trenton Diocese including St. Gregory the Great in Hamilton Square – she resided in community with the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Peter Parish, Point Pleasant Beach.
Being in the Monmouth-Ocean County area, Sister Christine’s vast background of reading skills came to the attention of the Huntington Learning Center in Middletown, where she began as a teacher and soon was named director of education. At first, she said, it was just for two centers, but before long she was training full-time staff on site as Educational Advancement Director in 34 company centers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
A change in the company’s time schedule, however, would interfere with her life in community. The time came when it became clear the job wasn’t “conducive to my life as a Sister of St. Joseph,” said Sister Christine. She knew a change of direction was in order.
One day, she stopped by an office of a friend who worked for the Christian Brothers, who asked if she knew anybody who would like to cook for them. Sister Christine immediately replied that she would. When asked to send in her resume, she hesitated, because on paper, there was no reference to her culinary skills.
“Send it in anyway,” was the response.
When asked during the job interview what was the largest number she ever cooked for, her instant reply of “163” sealed the deal.
“They asked if I would consider taking the job, and I said, ‘If you don’t mind having a sister.’”
“The job just fell into my lap,” Sister Christine.
When she agreed to cook for the Brothers, an educator at heart, she created a questionnaire asking about their favorite entrees, whether they had any allergies and what they heartily disliked.
As it turned out, liver and onions and lima beans were the most disliked.
She also asked them to describe their “dream meal,” which inspired the ongoing birthday dinner tradition, she explained.
Brother Juliano said the team appreciates her efforts and the care she takes in producing good meals.
“What we most look forward to is a good, home cooked meal.”
The added plus, they all agreed, is the sense of community she brings to the table.
“Her cooking is extraordinary,” Brother Malloy said.
“It’s a ministry,” concluded Brother Mrozinski.