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Franciscan Ministry
The Franciscan Outreach Program
Has Big Plans for Christmas

Jeremy Harrington, OFM, often visits the pantry operation in the basement of Transfiguration Church to provide thanks and encouragement to the Franciscan Outreach Program’s team of volunteers.

An assembly line is humming with activity in a suburb about 15 miles from downtown Detroit. It’s not a sprawling facility, and you won’t find industrial robots or conveyor belts here. The Franciscan Outreach Program, a food pantry established in the early 1940s, operates in the basement of Transfiguration Church in Southfield, Michigan – where a team of volunteers and Franciscan friars push carts along a row of tables and fill boxes with frozen meat, fresh produce, canned goods, and other food.

This assembly lifeline provides emergency food every month to the poor and those living on the margins. Guests, ranging from the elderly and families with children, to military veterans, the disabled and unemployed – mostly from Southfield and the broader metro Detroit area – are invited to come once a month to the Franciscan Outreach Program, which is open every Monday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

“We have no borders; guests don’t have to live in certain zip codes. They can be any faith, or have no religion. If they come to our door, we provide them with food,” said John Grden, a retired IT specialist and the program’s volunteer director.

Volunteers and friars neatly pack the food into boxes, then walk them up a flight of stairs and through a doorway to the street, where vehicles are lined up with their occupants awaiting this welcome cargo. Somber expressions turn to radiant smiles and gratitude when they see Philip Wilhelm, OFM, a soon-to-be 87-year-old  

More than 320 guests lined up with their vehicles last month outside Transfiguration Church in Southfield, Michigan, where volunteers provided turkeys and a box filled with all the trimmings of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

friar, Edward Gura, OFM, and Louis Zant, OFM, joyfully loading boxes into cars on this cold and blustery morning. This Franciscan ministry offers as much compassion and hope as it does food.

Volunteers of the Franciscan Outreach Program, which provides food to hundreds of families every month, fill boxes with groceries in the church basement.

“I appreciate the variety of healthy and nutritious food, and I know everyone who comes here is grateful. It’s a blessing! They go out of their way to make sure we don’t get just anything – although when people need food, they are happy to take anything. But the well-planned options give us a feeling of dignity and respect,” says Marilyn, a 78-year-old guest.

“This is a ministry of presence as much as it is a ministry of food outreach. It’s uncomfortable for people to ask for help. We want our guests to know everyone is welcome,” said Jeffrey Scheeler, OFM, pastor of Transfiguration Church who can often be found with Jeremy Harrington, OFM, thanking volunteers and greeting guests.

The Franciscan Outreach Program provides at least 110 pounds of food to every family (more for larger households) – including 40 lbs. of canned goods (soup, vegetables, fruit), 10 lbs. of meat

(such as chicken, ground beef, pork loin), seafood, dairy (milk, yogurt), orange juice, fresh produce (such as tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, squash, mushrooms, potatoes, onions, grapes, melons), pasta, rice, cereal, and extras like cake and desserts. The shelves and walk-in refrigeration boxes and freezers in the church basement are stocked weekly from several sources, according to Mr. Grden, whose Sunday and Tuesday nights include a trip to the local Panera at closing time to pick up unsold bread and baked goods – usually 60-90 lbs. – that would otherwise be tossed into a dumpster.

The Franciscan Outreach Program is donation driven, funded through financial contributions used to purchase food from Gleaners Community Food Bank, a regional food pantry that provides groceries to local organizations at significantly discounted prices. Food also comes from federal government surplus programs and Forgotten Harvest, a local not-for-profit that collects excess produce and other goods from supermarkets and big box stores.

The number of guests has risen in recent months – more than 700 in September, 750-plus in October, and exceeding 900 last month. In addition to the regular food distribution in November, over 320 families received a turkey and all the trimmings for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The pantry expects guests to eclipse 1,000 this month during the Christmas season. But Mr. Grden said they are prepared and already planning special offerings to deliver the joy and light of Christmas to their guests.

“We have big plans for Christmas!” he exclaimed. “We are signing up families for a complete Christmas dinner, similar to what we did for Thanksgiving, providing everything from the main course (choice of turkey or ham) to ingredients for side dishes and desserts.”

In addition, he said parishioners are purchasing toys and gifts as part of a giving tree that has been set up in Transfiguration 

The Franciscan Outreach Program purchases cases of canned soup, vegetables and fruit from Gleaners Community Food Bank, a regional food pantry that provides groceries to local organizations at significantly discounted prices.

Church with paper ornaments representing hundreds of children whose families come to the pantry. While families are waiting to pick up their Christmas dinner box and gifts on Dec. 20, they will also be invited to select hand-woven hats and scarves crafted by members of the parish knitting club.

“Although this Franciscan ministry is separate from the parish, the support and generosity of our parishioners is amazing. People have ‘caught’ the Franciscan spirit. They have genuine concern for our most vulnerable and forgotten, especially at Christmastime. The friars are grateful for their generosity,” said Jeffrey.

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.

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