Thanksgiving Togetherness: Cultivating Fellowship Around Feasting
Catholic families extend an inviting hand on Turkey Day and come together on a parish level to help those in need.
At Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, junior Katelyn Anderson couldn’t get back to her Florida home last Thanksgiving, and neither could sophomore Bridget Beck return to her southern Illinois family.
“I come from a big family, and everyone comes home for Thanksgiving,” Beck said. “I thought it would be hard being away.”
But neither spent Thanksgiving alone. A campus acquaintance invited Beck to her home, where, she said, she felt she was “a real part of the family, really welcomed.” Likewise, Anderson spent the day with a friend’s family 90 minutes from campus, “excited to see what kind of special traditions they had” and be included in them.
Each year, Thanksgiving recalls Americans to the many blessings from God they’ve received, and while the sumptuous feasts many families enjoy at such celebrations often point to the material and familial blessings bestowed, Catholic families are also offering thanks to God for such blessings by providing these same blessings to those most in need.
In extending an inviting hand on Turkey Day, Catholic families not only invite foundling college students to join in their traditions, but they also come together on a parish level to help those who may not otherwise have means to celebrate or share that celebration with others.
Every Thanksgiving, in Omaha, Nebraska, Ollie the Trolley, an old bus converted into a trolley, picks up elderly residents at a senior living apartment complex, the homeless at city shelters, and other needy to bring them to St. Peter Church to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, in a gym-turned-banquet hall, with carpets, linen tablecloths and even a chandelier.
“They love it. We try to make it a happy, fancy environment,” longtime St. Peter’s parishioner Cindy Engelkamp told the Register. She and husband Kevin Engelkamp are in charge of the annual dinner. “We strike up conversations about memories of their early Thanksgivings or they talk about their lives.”
“No one is sitting and eating alone,” Kevin added. “We want no one to leave feeling lonely. We make that human connection with every person who comes to the meal.”
(The fellowship is palpable in the short film of one typical Thanksgiving at St. Peter’s shown on EWTN; view at https://www.storytel.org/thanksgiving.)
Children make up a good-size part of the volunteers at the church’s annual Thanksgiving Day meal.
“It’s a beautiful way you can serve as a family and set an example as a family,” Cindy said. “And the kids get a heart for serving those less unfortunate.” She is president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at the church, and Kevin is past president and administrative assistant of the charitable group. Both are in charge of this annual meal, which also partners with Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church.
Dressed in shirt and tie, boys take orders and serve soft and hot drinks to guests. Girls in fine attire serve the desserts. “The children are the predominant volunteers. They are the primary ones serving,” pointed out Sonja Schreffler, whose family has helped for years. Not only that, but “my own children have been able to sit down next to somebody and enjoy a meal and recognize those faces. They become friends.” Six of her 10 children are old enough to take part, and they do so with enthusiasm. Schreffler mentioned how one of the seniors often identifies the children who served him at previous Thanksgiving dinners in the parish. “With that familiarity, they think they have family.”
Another important benefit to eliminating such loneliness is that the children don’t see the homeless and poor they serve as inferior, the way society tends to, as Schreffler explains that the young volunteers recognize Jesus in those they serve, and in that way, they see them as “family, a brother or sister in Christ.”
For the last several years, the Schreffler’s son, Gabriel Schreffler, now 19, has been working directly with the guests at the parish Thanksgiving dinner and as far back as he remembers with St. Peter’s St. Vincent de Paul Society. “It’s hard to celebrate when you’re lonely,” he observed, adding how he sees the importance not just of the meal but of the companionship offered around the communal table.
“Just taking the time to get to know them a little and having a conversation shows and tells them that they matter. It really makes a difference. And it makes even more of a difference when we do that on Thanksgiving. Taking time on a holiday shows them how much they matter, no matter who they are.”
He well remembers an older Army veteran, likely having served in Vietnam, who was “not in such a great spot anymore” in his life.
At the meal, Gabriel thanked him for everything he had done for our country.
When he did, he recalls the vet was “very cheerful and grateful for what he had and very positive — not something you’d expect from someone having a rough time. He really made an impression on me — on how much the Thanksgiving meal matters. He was showing it and saying it.”
And the benefits extend to the volunteers themselves.
“One of the things we didn’t count on when we started was that people came and volunteered so that they wouldn’t be alone at Thanksgiving — that wasn’t on our radar,” Cindy Engelkamp said.
“It gives them something to look forward to at Thanksgiving,” Kevin Engelkamp added.
“It’s beautiful to watch.”
Now in Steubenville, Ohio, the Breuningers, with their three boys and two girls age 8 months to 12 years, love to host and celebrate Thanksgiving (and other holidays, liturgical and non-liturgical alike) with their community, including Franciscan University students who can’t make it home for the day of thanks.
Brittany suggests the benefits of potluck-style celebrations.
The communal gathering around food brings people together, she says. “You’d be surprised about people who don’t have family around and otherwise just celebrate alone,” Brittany noted.
In addition to any Thanksgiving meal they might host, the Breuningers always cook and bring a turkey to a ministry in Steubenville that helps the homeless, the lost and the forgotten.
Brittany explained that “there are other ways you can help in ways that are safe.”
She added, “If a shelter provides food, go to the shelter and share yourself with them and in the meal there.”
When the family lived in Houston, they put together bags containing food, toiletries and clothes to give out to the homeless.
They will never forget one gentleman they met called Mr. Charles. “My children still pray for him,” Brittany said.
Brittany hopes and prays “the children will have fond memories of the meals we host and share and that the lessons stay with them.”
This year Thanksgiving Day falls on the feast day of St. Catherine Labouré, a saint who didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day in 19th-century France but nevertheless coped with loneliness personally.
She lost her mother when she was young and struggled with separation from her family because of her longing for religious life, according to Vincentian Father Timothy Lyons at the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Philadelphia.
He described how, following her mother’s death, lonely 9-year-old Catherine clutched her family’s statue of the Blessed Mother and said, “Now you will be my Mother.”
“Catherine felt the longing in her own heart and her loss of her mother that helped in her connection to other people,” Father Lyons said. She spent her life fulfilling the mission of the Miraculous Medal, and “she cared for old men in a nursing home.” That’s why she’s sometimes referred to as the patron saint of senior citizens.
St. Catherine can also readily serve as the patron saint of all people looking for companionship over a hot turkey-and-stuffing dinner.
In her loneliness, St. Catherine sought out similar companionship by turning to Mary, whom she was blessed to see in multiple apparitions in the convent in Rue de Bac.
“Catherine Labouré’s claim to fame is she got to spend an hour kneeling next to the Blessed Mother with her hands in [Mary’s] lap,” Father Lyons noted. That took place during Our Lady’s first appearance to Catherine in the convent chapel, when Mary sat on a chair and Catherine knelt by her side.
“Where would you like to be when you’re feeling lonely? I want a compassionate presence there,” Father Lyons observed.
He counsels, “Take this [loneliness] to the Blessed Mother’s lap. It’s a big lap, with a lot of compassion and a lot of wisdom.”
He also described how Catherine had expectations she would see Mary. She prayed, seeking the intercession of St. Vincent de Paul, founder of her order, hoping she might encounter our Blessed Mother personally.
That first apparition happened the very same night. “Try that on yourself. What would it be like to expect to see Mary — to expect to see Jesus?” Father Lyons suggested.
During lonely times, we should also acknowledge any sadness, loss and grief, counseled Father Lyons.
Remember that love experienced in the past, but bring and give “the love into today,” finding outlets to reach out to others, like St. Catherine did. “These tend to be the most family-centered days of the year. What about my Church family? Other people who need family?” he asks.
He points out that meals are mentioned 10 times in St. Luke’s Gospel, a timely reminder to invite people to gather around our table, especially at Thanksgiving.
“Always ask for Mary’s help, Catherine’s help, directly — help me to connect to my loneliness,” Father Lyons advises.
Indeed, during this special time of year focused on giving, Father Lyons said, “Find something close to your own need and connect that with other folks.”
is a Register staff writer.