Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Growing up, James Fedak, Jr., always enjoyed helping people. “As I got older,” he said, “that continued to where I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Fedak put his boyhood dream into practice and set up the Master's Table Community Meals in Ansonia, a town along the Housatonic River in southwestern Connecticut. He wanted to help members of the community including veterans, elderly, unemployed, underemployed, poor, homeless. Not only these but any men, women and children who would accept an invitation to the community meal.
“I always enjoyed working and volunteering in soup kitchens and I felt there was a need in this area for this kind of program or meal,” he said. “I approached a few friends about it, one particular friend, [the late] Pat McCabe. He agreed it was a good idea, and it grew from there.”
But The Master’s Table was not going to be another soup kitchen. Fedak’s idea went further.
To begin, Fedak’s Catholic faith was the foundation and essential ingredient. He explains, “My mother Marie Viglione brought me up with strong faith.” For seven out of 12 years he attended Catholic schools.
After finding a place willing to open its doors to him, Fedak and his wife Janette sent out press releases and hung up flyers around town. “We invited anyone and everyone who wished to come to the Master’s Table Community Meal,” he said. He gave them the option of paying one dollar (in case anyone felt they wanted to contribute something) or eating totally free.
He happily recalls, “We had our first experimental meal on Oct. 17, 2010, a Sunday, and served pasta and meatballs and salad, with dessert to 23 people.”
Fedak and Janette put more plans into the works for the next meal in February 2011. They got a permanent chef who continues to volunteer — Vin LaRocca with 50 years’ experience running from owning catering businesses to cooking today at a major area center serving those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
As more people showed up this time for a traditional meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans dinner, Fedak said, “We were on to something.” That April, the Master’s Table started serving meals once a month.
In the future meals doubled to twice a month. Fedak also established Master’s Table as a non-profit.
“When we found out that no one was having a Thanksgiving meal in 2015 in The Valley (the common name for a few towns adjoining each other in this area), we decided to host a Thanksgiving meal the Sunday before Thanksgiving at Assumption Church in Ansonia. It was our first meal there.”
Eventually, Assumption Church became the Master’s Table permanent home. It was providential because prior to this the Fedaks didn’t have the November meal. They had figured other places in town were providing one for the people. Besides, the Master’s Table Christmas meal was to take place on the second Sunday of December.
Then, as now, at the Master’s Table people get a home-cooked meal. “Our chef takes time and pride preparing a wholesome, well-balanced meal, Fedak notes. “Everyone gets a good-sized portion.”
Nourishing Something Else
In 2015, the pastor of Assumption, Father Jeffrey Gubbiotti, immediately welcomed the Master’s Table.
“When I first heard, what attracted me the most was that this wasn’t the traditional soup kitchen, good as that is,” Father Gubbiotti explains. “It was meant to be a community meal. We all need the Master, Christ the Master, whether we have enough financially or not. We need to have the community.”
People liked the idea.
That initial plan was having the meal on the fourth Sunday of each month because “we could help people more if they were running low on funds, or their checks ran out,” Fedak said. Yet it wasn’t long before the Master Table grew into hosting and serving meals at Assumption on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. Two a month, weather permitting.
“We do not consider ourselves as a soup kitchen,” Fedak emphasizes. “It’s a Community Meal. Anyone who wants to come is invited to attend. It’s a communal setting, breaking bread with their neighbors. People bring friends and family. They meet new friends. It’s one big communal event with people interacting with each other.”
“The point is, it’s not just the meal itself. As much as a meal is important, it’s being around other people and socializing and having that interaction with others. “The people seem to enjoy that interaction.”
Fedak describes how, “We get anybody and everybody.” The gamut can run from the homeless, to the low income, to those secure but who are lonely. “No one gets turned away from a meal regardless of income stature, whether they have two pennies or two million pennies to their name. Everyone gets the same treatment and same meal. We call these people our guests.”
No questions are asked about an attendee’s status except one: what town are they from.
Who are some who come to take a place at the table? “We do pretty good with the elderly,” For example, Fedak said. “Last year we served in excess of over 700 seniors, 60 and over.” That’s not counting all those below 60.
Father Gubbiotti sees much benefit in the Master’s Table approach and goals.
“Everyone is encouraged to come, whether they’re in material need or not,” he said. There are numbers who are alone. “Some who are financially stable can have someone to eat with for a couple meals a month. They can be with others. For those whose family is distant, the ability to eat with others is good for the soul. The conversations that happen create a kind of synergy where we’re able to help one another. Someone having a problem might speak with someone who knows who can help with it. It’s a beautiful experience. It’s more than just feeding a person [food] for the afternoon.”
Father Gubbiotti adds that “it certainly espouses Catholic values. I’m happy to host it here in the parish.”
Even More Heart
As the Master’s Table has grown, so have “other courses,” figuratively speaking, to the community meal.
Once a month a parish nurse provides blood pressure screenings and makes referrals for free mammograms. Another addition is the giveaway table with everything from food to clothing and everyday items. Bimonthly, one local chain supermarket donates bread and pastry items. Whatever is there is equitably distributed. “It’s really amazing what people donate,” Fedak said.
That includes flowers from the same supermarket chain store. When Fedak saw the floral department throwing away good flowers, he asked if they could go to the Master’s Table meals. The store liked the idea and began donating them. “People enjoy it,” Fedak said. Flowers are put together by volunteers and dispersed to the people at some point during the meal.
Meals are basically buffet style so there isn’t waste. Guests are intentionally given a choice. If a person doesn’t like corn, for example, they can pass it up rather than leave it untouched on the plate. Meals see 20-25 volunteers greeting, serving, and helping in various ways “to show more hospitality,” Fedak said.
“This makes the people feel welcome in a caring environment. It’s not about us. It’s about them,” Fedak emphasizes.
Now outreach community services cover some area towns. “We can provide people with emergency food to last for a couple of days to get people over the top if they run out of food stamps and funds are low. Things like cereal, soup, peanut butter and jelly, etc. This is a one-time deal.”
Another one-time type of community assistance comes in the form of a gift card if the need is great. It might be a gift card for something such as household items like bed covers, or a gas card. Fedak said, “We don’t offer cash.”
Funding the Master’s Table, which is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization, comes from private and monthly donations, and an annual fundraiser.
Other Positive Results
The Master’s Table has served positive results in addition to getting people together for a community meal, building friendships, and extending help where needed in neighborly fashion.
“We’ve gotten a couple of new parishioners through it,” Father Gubbiotti explains about Assumption Church. “Anything that’s done for Christ is going to bring the good fruits.”
He fully endorses Master’s Table and when there he finds it “always an uplifting experience.”
As for Jim and Janette Fedak? Father Gubbiotti explains, “He and his wife have given their lives to it. It’s a beautiful way they serve Christ.”