Seasons of charity and hope

Photo Caption: Thirty-five Catholic parishes, schools, and institutions are contributing gifts to families in need through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria.

By: By Jared Olar

Through a tradition of giving and service, Advent and Christmas have become seasons of hope, especially for those in need — and this month parishes and schools throughout the Diocese of Peoria are again doing their part to keep up that tradition.

At Blessed Sacrament School in Morton, for example, students have been collecting “Christmas presents for Baby Jesus” to place under a tree in the school foyer. The gifts are items for babies, to be donated to Crittenton Centers’ Crisis Nursery in Peoria, according to Blessed Sacrament parishioner and volunteer Ann Saunders.

In addition, Blessed Sacrament Parish takes part in an annual “Giving Tree” outreach for families and children who are served by the Missionaries of Charity at the St. Mary’s Cathedral soup kitchen in Peoria, Saunders said.

“There were 365 cards. One hundred were for adults who use the soup kitchen, and 265 were names of children the Sisters gave us. Each child will get a gift, and the Sisters will throw a Christmas party for them,” said Saunders.

Besides those cards, Saunders continued, Blessed Sacrament added 50 more families to their Giving Tree, and 12 other families will be helped through a Dec. 14 parish food drive. The parish’s Advent giving is coordinated through the St. Vincent de Paul Society, she said.

“The parish is very giving,” Saunders said.

This year about 35 Catholic parishes, schools and institutions across the diocese are working with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria to provide a joyful Christmas for children and families who very likely would not otherwise be able to have one. Joining with them are about 35 non-Catholic churches, businesses and organizations, according to Jamie Cecil-Monari, Catholic Charities media specialist.

The annual drive, dubbed the “St. Nicholas Outreach,” has been supervised for the past five years by Sue Hirschman, Catholic Charities volunteer services and intern coordinator.

“Every year I worry, and every year the churches are just so generous. Especially this year I was really concerned, but the churches have really been coming through. It’s just amazing,” Hirschman said.

“People have really stepped up, and we have some families who really need help,” especially “during these stressed economic times,” she said.

Thanks to their generosity, about 800 children and adults in the Peoria area will receive Christmas presents, according to Hirschman. The effort provides gifts for children in the foster care and youth intervention programs, for counseling clients, and for clients who receive senior services throughout the 26 counties served by Catholic Charities.

In addition to their Christmas drive, Catholic Charities offices also participate in the Adopt-A-Family program. Through that program Catholic Charities and OSF Healthcare System are cooperating to buy Christmas presents for several families in the Peoria area, Hirschman said.

In the Quad Cities, Sacred Heart Parish in Moline offers a variation of the Giving Tree outreach called “Family-to-Family.” The program benefits parish families in need. The parish has announced that by the start of Advent more than $4,200 already had been donated to the program.

Meanwhile in the Urbana-Champaign area, Holy Cross Parish is helping to fill Christmas gift bags for guests of St. Jude Catholic Worker House at 317 S. Randolph St. The bags will include not only Christmas gifts, but gloves, scarves and toiletry items for adults. Donations should be brought to the house on or after Dec. 21 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. The gifts will be distributed on Dec. 24.

In Bloomington, parishes and schools have worked together with the broader community to bring in a record 140 tons of food for the food pantry of Clare House, 703 E. Washington St., a Catholic Worker house that also operates the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen at St. Mary’s Parish.

“This is our 14th annual food drive, and we started it in October because we’d run out of food. We usually don’t start the drive until November,” said Tina Sipula, founder and director of Clare House. “I would wager that it was one of the largest food drives in the country.

The need for food will remain urgent throughout Advent and into the new year, she said.

“My lines have doubled since June. I’ve never seen it like this before,” Sipula said. “This month is my 30th anniversary here at Clare House, and I’ve never seen it so bleak. I’m afraid it won’t be getting any better, either, so my hope is that those who have been so generous in supporting our food drive would continue to help Clare House.”

The students of Epiphany School in Normal as well as Bloomington Central Catholic High School are still gathering food for Clare House this month. Also, Holy Trinity Parish is collecting blankets, said Sipula.

Clare House distributes about 500 blankets every winter. “We don’t care if they are used, as long as they are clean,” she said. “St. Mary’s is a poor parish, so everything given stays here to help people.”

Clare House accepts donations on Wednesdays from 9 to 11 a.m. and 7 to 8 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 to 11 a.m.

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