Clare House closing, soup kitchen to continue in Bloomington

Photo Caption: In this file photo from 2011, more than 200 people line up outside of Clare House for food distribution the day before Thanksgiving.

By: By Jennifer Willems

BLOOMINGTON — It is often said that when God closes a door he opens a window, and that has proven to be true at Clare House in Bloomington.

After 37 years of working to feed the hungry, founder and director Tina Sipula announced her retirement Oct. 9. The final distribution from the food pantry will take place at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

While it looked like the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen, an outgrowth of Clare House, would follow suit, Catholic parishes in the Bloomington-Normal area have agreed to work together to sponsor the meal program. Lunch will continue to be served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the parish hall of St. Mary Church, 527 W. Jackson St., just as it has since 2001.

“It was a God thing,” Sipula said earlier this week about how one of her former volunteers set up a meeting for her with Father Tony Lee, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish and Historic St. Patrick Parish, both in Bloomington.

“What do you need,” he asked and she told him, “Sponsorship, a fundraiser and a coordinator. The volunteers want to stay, the cooks want to stay, the vendors want to stay.”

Father Lee made some calls and an hour later told her, “It’s a go.”

“I was jumping up and down,” Sipula said. “What an amazing God thing.”

“Time and again, Pope Francis has invited all of us to care for the poor and hungry. In December 2013 he said, ‘The church, each of us, as one single human family have to give a voice to all of those who suffer silently from hunger, so that this voice becomes a roar which can shake the world,'” Father Lee said in making the announcement Oct. 16. “For nearly 40 years, Tina has been this roaring voice in the Bloomington area.”

He said the Bloomington-Normal parishes were grateful for Sipula’s “devoted service” and looked forward to carrying out “the important work of feeding the hungry.”

“I am grateful to St. Mary’s for their continued support and the decision of Father Ric Schneider to continue providing the space to operate the soup kitchen,” he said, adding his thanks to the longtime volunteers.

Father Lee is expected to name a coordinator soon.

“Most people forget that we were the first shelter in town for women. I opened that in 1978,” said Sipula, who was inspired by Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. In keeping with Catholic Worker principles, Clare House has never filed for tax exemption.

She has never drawn a salary for her work.

For the first three years, she provided a safe haven for homeless women and women affected by domestic violence and then transitioned to housing mothers and their children.

The food pantry has been operating for 20 years and serves between 60 and 80 people each Wednesday and Friday. That number can grow to 200 or more at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Sipula said.

The numbers are about the same — 60 to 80 people — for the soup kitchen, which started at Holy Trinity in 1983. That increases during the summer months when the children are out of school, she explained.

With the soup kitchen in good hands and the knowledge that there are 12 other food pantries in the area, Sipula is very much at peace with her decision to close Clare House and retire. The decision came after two years of discernment with her spiritual director and much prayer.

“I married late in life and want to spend more time with my husband and family,” she told The Catholic Post. “The work is, quite frankly, all consuming.”
In addition to spending time with Bob Sampson, her husband of eight years, she would like to do some writing, saying, “There are so many stories.”

Sipula received the Pere Marquette Award, an honor bestowed by the Diocese of Peoria for outstanding service, in 2007, but that isn’t what she mentions when asked what she hopes her legacy will be.

“I hope we have been a witness to those who are in need and a channel for the community to respond to that need in many and varied ways,” she said.

“I would like to say thank you to anyone who ever contributed and made this ministry something beautiful to those in need. I would encourage those who have or those who would like to to support the soup kitchen so they can continue to feed the hungry,” Sipula said.

Monetary donations may be sent to Loaves and Fishes, c/o Father Tony Lee, Holy Trinity Church, 711 N. Main St., Bloomington, IL 61701. (Please make checks payable to Loaves and Fishes.) Online gifts may be made by visiting

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