LEDGEVIEW — Funerals are tough events for families to get through, but when your parish provides the funeral dinner for family and friends of the deceased, more than good food comes with the ham and beans.
In this Holy Year of Mercy, as declared by Pope Francis, Mary Jane Van Remortel, who has led a funeral meal ministry for more than 40 years at her parish, said she and her helpers heed the pope’s call for mercy in this jubilee year. Their work offers corporal works of mercy as they serve families of the deceased. “It is so very important. It’s a continuation of the service in memory of the deceased on their last journey by serving a meal and showing them mercy and compassion.”
The work of Van Remortel and her crew has taken place first at St. Mary Parish – first at the downtown De Pere site and, when it was closed, at the new St. Mary Church at 4805 Sportsman Drive. She’s been in charge for 42 years, all while raising six children and working for 13 years at the former Abbot Pennings High School. Van Remortel took over the role her mother, the late Martha Smits, held until her collapse, ironically, during a funeral meal and death later that day in 1979.
Her mother passed Van Remortel the keys to her ministry in 1973 in the form of food order lists sized for parties of 50, 100, 150 and 200. In November, Van Remortel handed off the updated list to the new leader of the parish funeral meal crew, La Verne Heezen.
Smits initiated the Rose Altar Society at St. Mary in the 1940s. With it came the funeral meal ministry run by parish volunteers. Van Remortel became president in the 1960s, but the society is defunct today.
The volunteers are still very much present, however, and always come when a funeral call is made. “They may say, ‘I have an appointment that day, but I’ll cancel it,’” Van Remortel said.
The group makes all the food, with the exception of desserts which are purchased or brought in by family and friends. The menu is down pat: scalloped potatoes, baked beans and green beans, cole slaw, rolls, and, of course, ham. If children are expected to attend, hot dogs are added to the menu.
“The family (of the deceased) pays for the food, but there is no charge for the services of the kitchen workers. If they want to make a donation, that’s fine,” Van Remortel said. Some parishes don’t have funeral volunteers and the people either cater the meal or dine at a restaurant, both costing more than double what the fee is for food at St. Mary.
In earlier times, the food was ordered from Ford’s Bakery, which is no longer in business. Today Van Remortel calls Festival Foods in De Pere to place her order.
There are five regulars in the kitchen, all women ranging in age from 70 to 80-plus. The others are Bernice Jensen, Carol Toonen, Janice Johnson, Heezen and the lone male, Clayton Billings. She said the property on which the new church complex was built in 1998 was purchased from Billings.
Everyone knows their job, Van Remortel noted, so that when they arrive at the church kitchen at 8 or 8:30 a.m. for a 10:30 or 11 a.m. funeral, they get right to work. They typically don’t finish with cleanup until after 2 p.m.
It takes more than kitchen workers to make a funeral meal successful, she added. There is a dining room crew that arrives faithfully to set tables, serve the food and clean up after the guests have dined. In between, they are greeting people, offering sympathy and providing a pleasant atmosphere for the bereaved. “We all offer service, comfort and good food,” she added. “It’s a service we offer because of our faith. The volunteers love people and want to help. That’s love. That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? It’s showing respect and comfort to families who have lost a loved one. It’s a very warm feeling to sit in here and be surrounded by friends and family. … And it’s another means of spreading the faith. Our parishioners are very appreciative.”
She credits the church office staff for their help as well as the folks at Cotter Funeral Home “who are so considerate and helpful” as they advise families about the funeral meal and contact her to make arrangements. She cites her husband of 57 years, Donald (Gus) Van Remortel, who unfailingly encourages her in her funeral meal ministry and her other church involvements, which include reading announcements at Mass, visiting parishioners in nursing homes and doing a Scripture study during Advent and Lent.
“Being there for people at their time of need has always been important to me. My Catholic faith and my family are my life,” she said, adding that her parents “were the best of Catholics,” guiding their 12 children along the same path. “My dad would line up nickels on the table for each of us to give at Mass.”
Van Remortel said she will still help out at the funeral meals if needed, but she read her horoscope that said, “When you give up something, something else takes its place.”
“I feel that’s going to happen.”