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Gentleness and love abound at Emmaus during Thanksgiving

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

by LIZ ALLEN, Staff Writer

Ciera rolled plastic silverware into napkins.

Jenn unfurled tablecloths.

Although they volunteered at Emmaus Soup Kitchen on different days, both women had the same good intentions – to make sure that Emmaus guests could enjoy their turkey dinners with all the trimmings.

On November 14, Ciera joined other women who reside in transitional or permanent housing at the Mercy Center for Women to help out at the food pantry and the soup kitchen.

“We’re giving back to the community, helping out where there’s a need,” said Cynthia, a Mercy Center resident. Born in Puerto Rico, she learned both Spanish and English growing up and was able to use her language skills to help Spanish-speaking shoppers visiting the food pantry.

The idea arose when Jennie Hagerty, director of the Mercy Center, asked Emmaus Director Sister Val Luckey if Mercy Center residents could volunteer for the day at Emmaus. Sister Val quickly agreed to the joint volunteer effort, held the day before National Philanthropy Day.

“It doubles the impact,” said Sister Val Luckey, about the value of having extra volunteers at Emmaus during the busy week before Thanksgiving.

“It’s good to be back,” said Jennie, a 1983 graduate of St. Benedict’s Academy, about being part of Emmaus Ministries, which the Benedictine Sisters began in 1974 through its Pax Center.

Ciara approached her volunteer job with an eye for details. She asked how many guests were expected and how many napkins were available as she talked about life before and after moving into the Mercy Center’s transitional housing in May.

She is in recovery from substance abuse. Now age 29, she started “smoking weed and drinking” at age 12 and began using harder drugs at age 14. She dropped out of school but got her GED at age 21.

“I never knew how to keep a home,” she said. “I was with someone who was really abusive for seven years. I finally left him and went into treatment.”

With her confident manner and quick calculating ability, Ciera might seem poised for an accounting career. But she emphasizes that right now, she must life take one day at a time. She is searching for a job that will pay enough to support her daughter, who is living with an aunt. She also hopes that her work hours coincide with the school day.

Recovery is a process of “trial and error,” she said. “I’ve tried this before way too fast, with nobody, and fell on my butt,” she said.

She enjoyed volunteering at Emmaus and witnessing its ministry to those in need, especially those who are homeless, she said. “It’s so easy for people to complain about homelessness and do nothing about it,” she said.

Jenn Girts is one of many Emmaus volunteers doing something about those who are unhoused or hurting in other ways. She is following in the footsteps of her late mom, Joan Vereb, who died in 2022. Joan had volunteered at the Emmaus Soup Kitchen, Sister Gus’ Kids Cafe, and Saint Benedict Education Center.

A mental health social worker with a private counseling practice, Jenn arrived at the soup kitchen on November 16 to help prepare for the Thanksgiving meal that evening, pushing folding chairs into place, spreading out the festive tablecloths and making sure centerpieces were in place. The Emmaus Ministries' Board of Directors, along with Erie Benedictine prioress, Sister Stephanie Schmidt, served the meal.

“It’s nice to have a big family meal,” said Jenn. “It’s a homey feeling.”

That comfort level is part of the legacy of the late Emmaus Director, Sister Mary Miller, who made sure that the soup kitchen diners were always treated as guests. Hospitality also is extended to new volunteers, like Jenn, to make sure they feel at home, too.

In fact, Jennie Hagerty said volunteers from the Mercy Center had one question when they finished: “When can we come back?”

Photos (Top to Bottom):

Pumpkin pies are sliced and ready to be served to guests at the annual Emmaus Thanksgiving dinner.

Volunteers from the Mercy Center for Women place pepperoni on pizzas at Emmaus Soup Kitchen.

Jennie Hagerty, director of the Mercy Center Women, and Sister Val Luckey, director of Emmaus

Ministries, are interviewed by Dominic Montefiori of Erie News Now about the joint volunteer effort by the two agencies.

Jenn Girts began her first volunteer shift at Emmaus Ministries by getting tables ready for the

Thanksgiving dinner guests.

Sister Linda Romey had the right touch for making homemade whipped cream for pumpkin pies served at the Emmaus Thanksgiving dinner.

Serving Thanksgiving dinner to a crowd is a joy for these volunteers at Emmaus Soup Kitchen. (L-R) Emmaus Board Members: Linda Romey, OSB; Valerie Luckey, OSB, Director; Benedictine Prioress: Stephanie Schmidt, OSB; Board Members: Mary Hoffman; Ann Muczynski, OSB; Betsy Vorsheck; Anne McCarthy, OSB (Not pictured: Kathy Dahlkemper and Joan Chittister, OSB)

Thanksgiving dinner at Emmaus begins with a prayer, led by Sister Val Luckey, with words adapted from a prayer by St. Vincent De Paul. "Keep your gentleness and your smile and serve with love," St. Vincent urged.


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