WAUPACA — The week before Christmas, Jeff and Ellen Hager were among those working to prepare meals for a couple hundred people. It was St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church’s year to host the Christmas community meal.
Ellen and Jeff head the parish’s Fellowship Committee that worked with the Social Justice Committee to plan this year’s meal. The annual Christmas community meal is typically catered, and Waupaca churches take turns hosting it. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Mary Magdalene did not invite people into its large Fellowship Hall for it.
Cooking the meal was also a challenge.
Jeff said that is what the church’s kitchen is for, and Ellen said all they needed was manpower. “We asked people to donate,” Ellen said.
Some donated ingredients, including frozen hash brown potatoes, carrots, cream of chicken soup and cans of crushed pineapple. Others donated money to purchase hams or volunteered to make pies and drop them off at the church on Dec. 18 — the day people were there to help cook.
People also signed up to help portion out the meals the following day or to distribute and deliver them on Dec. 20.
As part of their preparation, Jeff and Ellen visited First United Methodist Church when it had distributed takeout meals for Thanksgiving. They wanted to see how the meals were packaged and distributed to community members.
For Christmas, St. Mary Magdalene parishioners made a take-home meal for more than 200 people. While the Hagers head the Fellowship Committee, Ellen says whatever they do is done as a team. “So many are willing to help,” she said.
Ellen encourages others to volunteer and said when people hear a “little voice,” they should listen to it. “That’s not us speaking,” she said. “That’s the Holy Spirit.”
Married 46 years, the Hagers have five sons, five daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. The Appleton natives have had a home on Lake Kristine in Saxeville since 2002. When in the Waupaca area on weekends, “we would come to church here,” Jeff said.
About eight years ago, they made the lake home their full-time home and also became members of St. Mary Magdalene. The parish was preparing to open its Fellowship Hall when someone asked Jeff to be on the Kitchen Committee.
He was the perfect person to ask.
Jeff had spent 34 years working at Mary’s Restaurant in Appleton, beginning at the original one on Richmond Street and also working at the south side restaurant when it opened. (That store is now closed and has been for a couple of years.)
Ellen worked in the restaurants after their sons were older. Jeff was a manager and eventually a co-owner. “That’s where the skills come from — his management skills,” Ellen said.
When Jeff was asked to be part of St. Mary Magdalene’s Kitchen Committee, he asked Ellen her thoughts on the idea. At the time, she was a member of the Social Justice Committee and involved in the parish’s Elizabeth Ministry. “To be able to do well, you have to focus,” Ellen said.
She agreed to join Jeff on the Kitchen Committee. Using their skills is something they believe they can do for the church. They have headed the Fellowship Committee since the opening of the hall several years ago. “We do it together, so it’s we, not just me,” Jeff said.
When they first started serving on the committee, the kitchen still needed a dishwasher and stove. He found used items. “Our real job was to have the kitchen ready for people to use,” Jeff said.
Since then, the committee has helped the parish’s religious education program start monthly family dinner nights. Soup dinners, Sunday donuts and more have also been a part of the Fellowship Hall.
Due to the pandemic, the space is not being used as much right now. However, the Hagers and others continue to use the kitchen. In September, they decided to start making soup and encouraged people to give it to someone.
“We’ve been doing it once a month to let people know we really care here at St. Mary Magdalene,” Ellen said. All who help have their temperature taken and wear masks and gloves. Hair must be pulled back or be in a hair net.
They also put soup aside in the freezer so, if someone is sick, it can be taken to the person.
There are many people in need, Ellen said. She believes God brings everything into one’s life for a reason. When something is asked of a person, Ellen always says it is “Jesus asking us to do it. Every person next to us is Jesus.”