A “Center of Hope” for Providence
The numbers are astounding: 125 tons of food distributed in 2022, an average of 51 pounds each week; 1300 new families served since 2019, with nearly 150 visits per week by last year’s end; three hundred volunteers working in the pantry. A volunteer-run thrift store grossing $10,000, one $2 sale at a time.
The numbers tell only part of the story. A shelter for homeless women is underway, while new projects include a neighborhood repair shop, ESL lessons, school system advocacy assistance for parents who need more than translation services provide, and block parties that celebrate growing relationships. In December, a congregational toy store allowed parents to select Christmas gifts for their children.
And the congregation sponsoring all of this outreach—St. Peter’s and St. Andrew’s in the Mt. Pleasant / Elmhurst neighborhood of Providence—has grown from nine members to 30.
The Rev. Maryalice Sullivan, vicar at St. Peter’s and St. Andrew’s, said that though the membership was small when she arrived in 2018, “there was still spirit.” A food pantry, begun in the 1970s by Elsie Nickerson, now 104 years old and active in the congregation, was still operational, offering groceries to those in the neighborhood two Saturdays a month. Early in 2019, as the covid pandemic took hold, the Rhode Island Food Bank called to ask if they could be open every week. “We just said yes,” Sullivan said, “and began to figure it out from there.”
The congregation sold an apartment building it owned in 2018. The funds created a small endowment and enabled the parish to begin paying down bills and making some long-overdue repairs. That shift changed their outlook: there were things that they could do.
As the pantry began to grow, the congregation, along with volunteers from the community, stepped up. The food bank began delivering five to seven thousand pounds of groceries each week. When volunteers saw a need for affordable clothing, the thrift store “sort of materialized,” first with items on the sidewalk on Saturdays, and then with space inside the church where visitors could spend time and shop while waiting their turn in the small pantry. Today, racks and tables are moved into the nave each Saturday, where immigrant neighbors buy them and often send them back to their families. Eight different countries are represented in the neighborhood, Sullivan said.
“It’s not easy, but the parish is proud of what we’re doing. This is a parish affair. A thrift store in the middle of the sanctuary is messy. It’s a lot of work, but it is such a blessing,” she said.
This “organic growth,” as Sullivan described it, continues. Grants have provided the congregation with funds to restore the church basement and replace the parish hall and kitchen floors, and upgrade electrical wiring, lighting, shelving and appliances. The congregation has raised a thousand dollars to turn the garage at the former rectory into a small repair shop for neighborhood use. The parish is working with the state on a plan to use the former rectory as a shelter for homeless women.
“We describe the parish as a ‘center of hope,’” Sullivan said. “That’s true for the congregation, the volunteers, and those who live in the neighborhood. This is so much more than the hard work involved: the ministries have brought hope, renewal, and joy to all of us. I do not think we are a small parish, we are impacting the lives of so many people. … By the time the different ministries take shape and form, there will not be an inch of space that is not being used.”
Sullivan and Kristen Milette, who runs the pantry, have dreams for the new year. Their goals include getting help with scheduling, increasing social media exposure, coordinating with public services like SNAP and WIC, fundraising, and community engagement.
“I am not sure why this tiny parish has been called to do this; what I do know is that it is a privilege,” Sullivan said. “And that there is a lot of joy.”