Lessons on St. Nicholas, God’s love delivered to lunch guests

Photo Caption: Earianah King, 4, gets an embrace from St. Nicholas (portrayed by Bob Beckenbaugh) during a lunch at St. Joseph’s Parish Hall near downtown Peoria on Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas.

By: By Tom Dermody

Before dressing as St. Nicholas for a lunch with more than 350 hungry homeless and underemployed adults and their children Monday at St. Joseph’s Hall in inner-city Peoria, Bob Beckenbaugh knew “a minimal amount” about the original Santa Claus.

“I was a little apprehensive,” said Beckenbaugh, a member of Holy Family Parish who was donning the familiar red suit for the first time.

Not to worry. Beckenbaugh knows plenty about God’s love, and on St. Nicholas’ feast day he and about 15 volunteers with the Sacred Heart Sandwich Program spread that love like the peanut butter on the hundreds of sandwiches the program distributes daily.

At Monday’s lunch, however, the program’s guests enjoyed a few extra measures of compassion, including a chance to eat indoors on a frigid day. In addition to the traditional sandwich, there were warm bowls of chili and hot baked potatoes served with a smile. And St. Nicholas and the volunteers freely handed out gifts — sacks of gloves, scarves, and hats donated or handmade by members of area parishes.

Moreover, they shared messages of God’s love, made tangible by their charity — and the gentle ways of the bearded guy in the unusual garb.

“We wanted to teach them the story of St. Nicholas, and how Santa is a Catholic tradition,” said Claire Crone, director of the sandwich program, which for years had been operated out of Sacred Heart Parish downtown and earlier this year moved to St. Joseph’s Parish hall nearby.

“It’s one thing to give a sandwich,” said Crone. “It’s another thing to feed souls.”

That Beckenbaugh took the lead in that area on Monday was itself an answer to a prayer. The original Santa choice became sick, so Crone turned to the Claus-in-training.

Beckenbaugh had been growing a beard since summer to portray Santa for Cub Scouts at St. Joseph’s Parish in Pekin and students at Holy Family, Peoria, closer to Christmas. “I encouraged them to pull it,” he said of the children at Monday’s lunch.

His preparation for the St. Nicholas role, however, went far beyond the beard.

At Holy Family, Beckenbaugh is recording secretary for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which assists families in need. As St. Nicholas on Monday, he spoke with adults as well as children, determining how needs might be met. One guest called Holy Family later that day.

A former Methodist who entered the Catholic Church in 2003 after making a Cursillo the previous year, he has a weekly adoration hour and had just come off a silent retreat in St. Louis, during which he prayed for what he might say as St. Nick/Santa. Those prayers were answered, too.

“It changed my heart feeling the love of those children. I tried to make them feel loved, sharing God’s love, and I felt great,” he said.

Crone supplied a sheet explaining background and traditions regarding St. Nicholas, the former Bishop of Myra in the land now known as Turkey, as well as a holy card with the image of St. Nicholas on one side and a prayer for children on the back.

The information sheet noted that the Dutch name for St. Nicholas was “Sinterklass,” now Santa Claus.

Beckenbaugh said it was “humbling” to not only portray the saint, but to assist the work of the volunteers at the Sacred Heart Sandwich Program. The program mobilizes about 70 volunteers every week as it feeds up to 700 people per day.

“I felt like a hit and run,” said Beckenbaugh. “These people do this day in and day out. It was a wonderful opportunity to feel God’s love and share it. I felt nothing but openness and acceptance.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Donations to the Sacred Heart Sandwich Program are welcomed at Sacred Heart Parish, 504 Fulton St., Peoria, IL, 61602. Call Crone at (309) 673-6317 for more information.

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