Despite the pandemic, holiday meals around diocese go on

Some local groups were able to pivot around COVID-19 and deliver on meals

ALLOUEZ — Thanksgiving will look very different this year. Fewer people around tables will be a certainty, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fewer people will also sit around the tables that used to host free Thanksgiving meals offered by many generous community groups and churches in northeast Wisconsin. Nearly two dozen of the groups The Compass contacts each year had to cancel plans. However, some were able to devise new ones.

“This will be our 20th year (offering a free Thanksgiving dinner),” said Helen Cox of Wautoma. “Each year, more people come to the dinner and we did not want to disappoint.”

Cox and Kathy House co-chair a cast of many who have offered a Thanksgiving Day meal at St. Joseph Parish in Wautoma. But with COVID-19, they knew a sit-down meal would not be safe. Nor would it be safe to welcome the number of volunteers they usually have, because many of them are over age 65.

“When we were trying to decide to do it or not, many people in our parish encouraged us to do it and, of course, they would help,” Cox said. “So, once we got the OK from the diocese, we decided to go ahead.”

St. Joseph is one of nine groups offering a meal for Thanksgiving, although altered in presentation from previous years. (See list below?? Or Page?.)

All the groups cited safety concerns, such as those voiced by Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Marinette: “At this time, there are no plans to have what had become a bit of a tradition, in the form of a full-fledged Thanksgiving meal for the public. This is a disappointment for many people, but the demographics of the church put most of the workers in the high-risk category and we can’t ask them to make that sacrifice.” 

Steve Siegel, business manager at St. Mary and St. John the Baptist Catholic parishes in Menasha, said they also had to cancel their annual Saturday before Thanksgiving dinner this year.

However, the parish wanted to do something special, Siegel said, so they “teamed up with an area business in Menasha to help them collect food for needy families. We are collecting food and money to donate towards their cause.  We are …. hoping to do (a meal) again next year.”

Father Carr’s Place 2B in Oshkosh would have been hosting its 47th annual Thanksgiving lunch and supper. However, when COVID-19 hit and after a lot of communication with the city health department, the staff realized that “a great majority of our volunteers are over 65 and some have health issues, we asked them to stay home for their well-being,” said John Nieman, executive director.

Still, that didn’t mean Thanksgiving won’t happen at Father Carr’s. Instead, people pivoted their plans. The result?

“Lots of creativity, brainstorming, sharing ideas with the mission always in mind that we are here to serve our community but want to do it safely,” Nieman explained. “When COVID hit, we had to change our every Friday Food Pantry from inside to another avenue. We chose to do a ‘Drive Up and Thru.’ That has been very successful every Friday, so we thought, ‘Let’s try it for Thanksgiving.’”

In Wautoma, help, food and donations came in from all areas of the city and its surroundings.

“Grace Methodist Church in Wautoma offered to make the desserts, which will be pumpkin slices with Cool Whip,” Cox said. “Their church will prepare them and bring them to our hall for distribution. (In addition), our parish allows us to cook all the turkeys, hams and use up their space in the hall.”

Many turkeys are already promised, Cox added. “And more, if needed. We have had several people volunteer, either on Thanksgiving or the days prior, to help prepare food. As usual, I sometimes have to turn helpers away because we either don’t have enough work or there are too many people. We also have had monetary donations to the dinner. … It always amazes me at how generous people are to help defray the cost of food and also the amount of food that is donated to the meal.” 

Wautoma, because of health concerns, will not have its usual sit-down meal, but there will be pick-up and local limited delivery in the Wautoma and Wild Rose areas.

Father Carr’s has had to eliminate its usual home delivery, but will still make some deliveries.

“While we can’t deliver to individual homes,” Nieman said, “we thought about the low income or special needs complexes. We did it in the past and this year, we will be dropping off reserved meals to six complexes and management there will do the delivery.”   

The groups that will offer delivery or pick-up are all practicing safety precautions with masks, gloves and even temperature checks of volunteers. Things won’t be the same this year. But these groups, along with those groups that were not able to offer meals this year, all expressed the same sentiment as Cox:

“There will not be any socializing, which many of the people enjoy. Hopefully, we will be able to have a sit-down next year.”