Little church hosts big ministry with free lunches in Minnesota

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 9, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church in Litchfield, Minnesota, hosts a free lunch every last Friday of the month, drawing more than 100 people to this small parish. Photo: Jane Settergren

[Episcopal News Service] As an outpost of the Episcopal Church in a small Midwestern community, Trinity Episcopal would easily be overlooked if not for an unlikely success story that is told once a month through food and fellowship.

Even the most active members of this parish in Litchfield, Minnesota, population 6,726, openly describe the congregation as “pretty small,” “fairly small” and “little.” The church, on its profile page on the Episcopal Church’s website, calls itself as “a small but lively parish.”

Trinity Litchfield building

Trinity Episcopal Church’s building in Litchfield, Minnesota, was built in 1871.

Its roots date back to 1871, with the construction of the church building that still is used for worship every Sunday morning. In recent years, the congregation’s membership has shifted older while diminishing in size to about 100. Attendance has dwindled even further, typically about 15 members at services that are led by a rotating lineup of supply priests who travel more than an hour west to Litchfield from the Twin Cities.

But visit Trinity Episcopal at lunchtime on the last Friday of any month, and you’ll find the congregation seeming to swell to several times its size, as members of the community pour in for the parish’s monthly free lunch and fellowship time.

“Everybody’s very proud of what we do and very thankful that we’re able to do it,” senior warden Dennis Rutledge said, estimating that the free lunches draw more than 100 people to the church each month. “We’re a fairly small congregation, but this is the best way for us to be effective and do the things we can do.”

The free lunch is the most prominent example of the outreach underway at Trinity, which has money from gifts set aside to support other social ministries, said the Rev. Judy Hoover, one of the supply priests who travel to Litchfield.

“Everyone at that parish has a job, and they work really well together. They’re really kind of unique,” said Hoover, 83, who lives in Plymouth, Minnesota.

Once in a while, Rutledge said, he’ll raise the question of whether the church should keep organizing the monthly free lunches. No one, apparently, takes the question seriously, perhaps including Rutledge himself.

“I’ve been almost shouted down – ‘Of course, we’re going to do this!’” he said.

The mastermind of each month’s meal is a man named Paul Foley, whose wife, JoAnn, is active in the Episcopal Church Women group. He was raised Roman Catholic but no longer considers himself a churchgoer. About 15 years ago, the church needed a cook to keep the lunches going.

“‘Nobody’s willing to take charge,’” Paul remembers his wife telling him. “I said, ‘I will.’”

Foley has been cooking since he was a boy growing up in Litchfield. He first learned how to prepare food by shadowing his mother in their kitchen. As an adult, he said he spent some time living in Chicago with friends who, when they discovered his skills at preparing a meal, told him they’d buy the groceries if he cooked.

Paul Foley

Paul Foley is the meal planner and cook behind most of the free lunches held each month at Trinity Episcopal Church in Litchfield, Minnesota. Photo: Jane Settergren

Foley, now 79, briefly worked later in life as a cook for a hotel and then for a caterer, but mostly he cooks for fun, family and fellowship. The free lunches at Trinity provide the perfect canvas for this culinary artist.

“It’s kind of a release,” he said. “I enjoy it so much and then the fact that we’re doing it for these people, and I look out to the opening and I see them out there all happy and visiting. … It makes me feel good.”

A typical Friday meal starts on Tuesday, when Foley drive up to St. Cloud to buy the groceries and brings them back to the church kitchen. Wednesday is devoted to prep work, and by Thursday he tries to have as much of the meal done as he can. He finishes off Friday morning by preparing the items that need to be hot and fresh.

The congregation and community have come to expect certain menu items at certain times of the year: October’s meal follows a German Oktoberfest theme, Foley said, and November is chow mein, just because people seem to like it. Ham is a must for December.

“You get to visit with everybody,” free lunch regular Veronica Caswell told the local Independent Review for a feature story about Trinity’s lunches in January. “Sometimes, you just don’t know what you’re going to cook, so it’s nice to come here,”

Hip surgery sidelined Foley in January, so he had to pass the apron that month to family members, but he plans to be back in the kitchen for February’s meal. His two Lenten meals are the same every year: “a tuna recipe everybody loves” and salmon loaf.

“If I didn’t make salmon loaf, they’d just come after me,” he said.

The menu isn’t the only diversity at the lunches. The meals draw a mix of people from the congregation and the community, including two group homes in the area whose residents suffer from developmental disabilities, church member Jane Settergren said.

“Those folks just enjoy it so much,” Settergren said. “We like to see them.”

And members of the congregation have gotten used to taking on certain roles every month, she said. One of the men is in charge of brewing the coffee. JoAnn Foley makes sure the bathroom supplies are stocked.

“I’m kind of the assistant washer,” Rutledge, the warden, said.

Settergren, 71, and others are stationed in the dining room to welcome diners. And one of the women, if she can break from serving the food, will play her cello while the crowd socializes.

“We haven’t really made a profit for the last couple years, but that doesn’t worry anybody because that’s not the object,” Paul Foley said. “It’s to get them together and have a good meal.”

And they expect to keep serving up the monthly meals at this “super little church,” as Settergren calls it, as long as they are able.

“It’s fun. Everybody seems to enjoy it,” she said. “We would miss it terribly if we didn’t do it anymore.”

-David Paulsen is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.


Comments (15)

  1. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Is a monthly free lunch the best thing this church has to offer? I’m afraid that if Trinity can attract only about 15 of its 100 members to show up on Sunday morning it has pretty much degenerated into nothing more than a social welfare organization.

    1. David Paulsen says:

      The lunches draw a mix of church members, non-Episcopalians from the community and also visits from residents of two local group homes. It’s a ministry like other churches’ ministries, except that it happens to draw a crowd disproportionately large compared to the this church’s aging membership.

      1. Pamela Payne says:

        I think that it is wonderful that such a small congregation is still able to make a valuable contribution to the community…in this case, size does not matter!!

    2. Rev Judy Hoover says:

      This church also supports other outreach projects. This is just one but it is a humdinger. They also collaborate with other like minded churches during special services during Advent and Lent. It is a joy to serve this small but lively congregation.

    3. The Rev'd Paul Gill Rider says:

      Wow. Just. Wow.

    4. Kilty Maoris says:

      Absolutely right! Small size…15 people not enough to form a decent altar guild. They should give up and go to a decent church with real priests.

      1. The Rev. Brian Chace says:

        If it takes the supply priests an hour to get to Litchfield, I wonder how far away the closest “decent church with real priests” is.

      2. Rev Judy Hoover says:

        Sorry you feel that way. I have been ordained for 25 years and feel quite real. Rather like the Velveteen Rabbit.


    THANK YOU FOR SOME GOOD NEWS!! I believe your monthly free lunch is a grand outreach, obviously enjoyed and used by the community, which is our mission: love our Lord and our neighbor!!

  3. Peggy Goldsmith says:

    My church does this once a year. I can’t imagine doing it once a month! I think it’s a wonderful ministry and hope it goes on for a good many more years. I wish you all the best.

  4. Kay Amelia Bell says:

    Congratulations, Trinity. Well done. Keep up your good work. Our “little” church is All Saints’, Pontiac, Michigan. Our Sunday attendance is about 80. We serve a free breakfast every Saturday morning to 120-140 very hungry folks from inner-city Pontiac. Hard work, but we get back so much more than we give.

  5. Judy Erwin says:

    Thank you for being Christ’s hands in the world. What an amazing ministry. You bring joy to others, while you also grow spiritually and enjoy fellowship. How wonderful!”We are one in the Spirit”!

  6. Frank J. Corbishley says:

    For the folks living in the group homes, this gives them something to look forward to each month. Truly a valuable ministry to people forgotten and ignored by society. Well done!

  7. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    I apologize if I inadvertently gave the impression that I am in principle against such outreach programs as Trinity’s free dinner. My own church in Boston hosts a dinner each Tuesday requiring considerable effort intended largely for local down-and-outers virtually none of whom attend church on Sunday. The point I was clumsily trying to make is simply that too many churches these days see their mission as primarily one of social welfare (that’s particularly true in left-wingish Massachusetts) and their main job of tending to the spiritual needs of parishioners is often almost lost in the process. Perhaps things are different in Litchfield, I send Trinity my best wishes.

  8. Melanie Barbarito says:

    What a lovely ministry for the community. I’m sure that the presence of God is felt in a very real way as neighbors share a meal. Hm. That reminds me of something . . .

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