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Troy churches and Catholic Charities regear to serve poor after closings
Staff Writer

It's hard enough for Nancy Russomanno to say goodbye to the 167-year-old St. Mary's Church in Troy, where she was pastoral council president until it closed in early June.

But Ms. Russomanno also has to bid farewell to the parish soup kitchen below the church, where she cooked dinner every Wednesday.

Established in 1991 by volunteers from the LaSalle Institute in Troy, the kitchen served up to 100 people each week. The church also ran a food pantry for more than 30 years, helping about 20 families every month.

At the end of June, St. Joseph's Church - which sits less than a mile away - will take over the facilities until they are sold.

Many closed or closing Troy-area churches have faced similar problems lately: a fallen food pantry, a forgotten social ministry. But, diocesan officials say, needy residents will not be forgotten.

"It was always, 'We'll bend over backward to make sure this [ministry] happens,'" said Deacon Frank Berning, diocesan director of pastoral planning.

In 2009, when Bishop Howard J. Hubbard announced the closing of six Troy parishes through the Called to be Church process, diocesan and Catholic Charities officials launched a series of meetings with Troy city and Rensselaer County parishioners and parish leaders.

Bishop Hubbard wanted to continue and coordinate social services in order to serve the poor in the community.

Former St. Mary's pantry clients have nearby options: St. Joseph's and the Catholic Charities' Roarke Center, for instance. There are no soup kitchens in other area Catholic churches, but volunteers encourage clients to go to the ones at Victorious Life Church and the YWCA.

In addition, nearby Bethany Hospitality Center serves breakfast and lunch, and Joseph's House and Shelter serves dinner.

Volunteers from St. Joseph's Church have already handed out food packages to about 10 new families since St. Mary's pantry began to empty. In the past few months, said one volunteer, they've been assembling about 20 bags a week, compared to about five only a few years back.

Add that to the 50 or so turkeys they hand out every Thanksgiving and the toys and books they wrap up for needy children at Christmas, and you'd think their resources are dwindling.

But parishioners have re-sponded to the increased need, donating more money for Price Chopper gift cards and more food. The Regional Food Bank in Latham also contributes 800 pounds of food monthly.

Examples of success abound. This summer, the soon-to-close St. Patrick's Church in Troy will merge its food pantry with Catholic Charities' North Central Troy food pantry, possibly moving to a new site, Deacon Berning said.

The pantry at St. Augustine's Church in Troy may collaborate with Catholic Charities staff to handle food storage, and volunteers from Our Lady of Victory Church in the city will help recruit volunteers.

At the merged St. Patrick's/ Catholic Charities site, Deacon Berning expects extended hours and a stronger volunteer base will emerge. In addition, clients will be able to select food instead of being given pre-packaged bags; this will eliminate waste and respect dietary needs, Deacon Berning said.

Catholic Charities will also help all the pantries keep statistics to better meet clients' needs.

"It's turned this potential negative into a significant positive," Deacon Berning said. "Our parishes were doing a wonderful job, but they were somewhat doing it on their own."

Volunteers from the Troy parishes and Catholic Charities have been hanging fliers and approaching clients to tell them about new and existing options.

In Troy's Griswold Heights area, where the former St. William's Church previously donated dozens of turkeys and toys to families at holidays, other churches have since filled the gap.

BY several measures, these are accomplishing even more in the community: This year, a team of volunteers from St. Michael's and Sacred Heart parishes in Troy and St. Jude the Apostle in Wynantskill collected 4,000 books for Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County to start a children's library, as well as 3,000 pairs of socks for sockless schoolchildren.

Last weekend, they collected diapers, baby food and baby wipes for the Damien Center, a community center for people living with or affected by HIV or AIDS. They also serve meals there monthly.

This summer, St. Michael's parishioners even plan to take up a special collection to buy fans for people in need.



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