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Filling Bellies, Souls in Windsor: Church’s Christmas Dinner Creates Home for Holiday

  • Barbara Rhoad, of Windsor, pours some gracy on her food at a community dinner at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. Rhoad is a member of the church. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Barbara Rhoad, of Windsor, pours some gracy on her food at a community dinner at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. Rhoad is a member of the church. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Judy Longto, left, of Bradford, serves her mother Harriet Maynes. of Windsor, a slice of homemade apple pie at a community dinner at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. Maynes attends the church. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Judy Longto, left, of Bradford, serves her mother Harriet Maynes. of Windsor, a slice of homemade apple pie at a community dinner at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. Maynes attends the church. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Harriet Maynes, left, Rosemary Hall, and Barbara Rhoad thank Kris McCabe, right, following a community dinner the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. This is the sixth year the McCabe family, along with volunteer help, has served the free Christmas dinner. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Harriet Maynes, left, Rosemary Hall, and Barbara Rhoad thank Kris McCabe, right, following a community dinner the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. This is the sixth year the McCabe family, along with volunteer help, has served the free Christmas dinner. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Barbara Rhoad, of Windsor, pours some gracy on her food at a community dinner at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. Rhoad is a member of the church. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Judy Longto, left, of Bradford, serves her mother Harriet Maynes. of Windsor, a slice of homemade apple pie at a community dinner at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. Maynes attends the church. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Harriet Maynes, left, Rosemary Hall, and Barbara Rhoad thank Kris McCabe, right, following a community dinner the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on December 25, 2013. This is the sixth year the McCabe family, along with volunteer help, has served the free Christmas dinner. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

Windsor — On the front porch of the Old South Church early Christmas afternoon, statues of Mary, Joseph, a camel, a donkey, a sheep and three wise men gazed upon the newborn king in his manger, and upon the gifts surrounding him: frankincense, myrrh and … a pumpkin pie.“We needed someplace to firm it up,” said volunteer Zabrina Campney during the church’s sixth annual Christmas dinner. “The baby Jesus cooled it for us.”

Inside, Campney and nearly a dozen volunteers were serving turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, assorted vegetables and fixings and desserts — and warm welcomes — to more than 30 neighbors, friends and a few newcomers at the dinner that church member Ruth McCabe started in 2008.

“When we came here for dinner the first year, there were a few people,” recalled Windsor resident Barbara Rhoad, who this Christmas brought back 92-year-old fellow parishioner Crofter Cummings before Rhoad headed to her own family gathering. “Each time we come, there are more people.

“It's a nice community dinner for everybody,” Rhoad said.

Between greeting old friends and newcomers, McCabe estimated that “everybody” at that first dinner in 2008 amounted to about 20 people — volunteers and diners combined, including McCabe’s husband, Kris, and their children, Elizabeth and Troy. McCabe described the gathering, then and now, as “people with nowhere else to go, whose children are grown up and moved away, who are new to town — no matter what the story.”

Some came more voluntarily than others in ’08.

“I was 10 or 11, and I didn’t like having to spend the entire day at church,” Elizabeth McCabe admitted. “Now, I can’t imagine Christmas without it.”

Nor can volunteer Lori Hirshfield, of Windsor, who with her husband, Kris Garnjost and their children, Rachael and Jacob Garnjost, joined the McCabes in the kitchen and the dining room in 2011.

“We’d been visiting people in nursing homes and shut-ins on Christmas, and we wanted to be able to do that kind of thing the rest of the day,” Hirshfield said. “It’s just a natural extension of what we’ve been doing for some time now. It’s about giving back to the community, making the day special for people.

“We get a gift from doing this.”

For Wendy Smith, bringing her daughters — and, this year, her brother — to the dinner is a chance to join her parents in the church where she grew up.

“We put on a lot of dinners and pancake breakfasts and things when I was a kid,” Smith said while clearing her children’s dishes and wiping their places at the table. “Crofter Cummings was my Sunday School teacher. Our family goes back to the founding of the church.”

While Ruth and Kris McCabe grew up in Windsor — she's a 1985 graduate of Windsor High, he a 1987 — they joined Old South Church in 2007.

Not long after, “I was driving home from work one day, thinking about Christmas Day,” Ruth McCabe recalled. “We were getting up in the morning, having the thing around the tree, and then the kids would go to their rooms and we’d do whatever we would do on any other day off. I wanted to do something more.”

With the blessing of pastor Amanda Lape-Freeberg, the McCabes recruited a few volunteers in addition to family, bought what they hoped was enough, but not too much food, and spread the word of welcome around Windsor and Cornish.

Both the crew and the contingent of diners has grown “incrementally” ever since, Ruth McCabe said, and now the church as an institution donates $200 toward the food, as well as the cooking and dining space.

Meanwhile, individual parishioners contribute money and food.

After all the planning and organizing, each Christmas morning McCabe puts a turkey in her home oven at 6:30, and transfers it to the church kitchen at 8:30, when her team of volunteers joins her.

“I do feel overwhelmed sometimes, especially when I think, ‘Am I asking too much of my children?’ ” McCabe said. “I wonder how they'll feel about it when they're 22, 25, and have families of their own and they're living somewhere else. I really don't know where I'm going to be in five years. It’s a year at a time.”

Each year seems to produce diners such as the retired accountant, in her 90s, who in 2011 drove over from Cornish, “got out of her car with her canes, walked in ever-so-slowly, and joined us,” McCabe said. “She just came to be with somebody else. It's people like that that this is about.”

And about people like this year's new volunteers — Pam and Bob Annis, of Cornish, and their son Bobby.

“My daughter is working at the VA today,” Pam Annis said. “I wanted something to do that’s significant, too. Then we read Ruth’s notice on Connect Cornish, and we asked if there was a way we could help.”

The offer was the gift for Ruth McCabe.

“For the start, this has been about feeding the soul, rather than just people who needed the meal,” she said. “Now it's at the point where we need it, too.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dacorriveau@gmail.com and at 603727-3304.