persons, places and things: Serving the hungry again

Sister Ludmilla Benda, RSM, holds a thank-you card for Tom Roederer, who provides free use of this building for Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope in Davenport. Sr. Benda asked guests to sign the card in appreciation for Roederer’s generosity.

By Barb Arland-Fye

DAVENPORT — Two decks of cards were in play at one table as the men waited for the noon meal to be served. At another table inside Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope a man and woman signed a poster-sized thank you card for Tom Roederer, a  businessman who owns the Davenport building that houses the meal site.

The crowd was thinner than usual Sunday, March 8, but volunteers attributed lower numbers to rainy weather, the daylight-saving time change and the meal site being closed for five weeks.

Sister Ludmilla Benda, RSM, who oversees the meal site named after the priest she worked closely with for many years, had hip surgery in January and needed time off to recuperate. March 8 was her first day back in business. But this story is not about her, she insists. It’s supposed to be about thanking Tom — she gestures to the poster on the wall in the main dining room that reads “Thank you Tom Roederer” in green letters — and the many volunteers who support this ministry to the hungry.

Lunch is served from 12:15-1:15 p.m. each Sunday in the building at Fourth and Perry streets, but guests arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. to get in out of the cold, eat doughnuts, drink coffee and play cards.

“This is the third year of having this place. We’re real fortunate. Before that, we were serving on the street,” she says.

Pat Peisch, scooping pea salad onto diners’ plates, remembers those days with a shudder.

“Cold, my goodness it was cold!”

 Pat and other volunteers have been keeping tabs on Sr. Benda, and were happy to assist her with preparations for Sunday’s meal. “Her heart’s in the right place and we like to help,” Peisch said.

Grateful to be back, Sr. Benda asked the diners to join her in prayer before the meal.

“We’re glad to see you back,” a man said afterward.

“I missed you so much,” she said. “We missed you even more,” the man replied. The crowd laughed and applauded.

Five weeks was a long wait for some. “I kept waiting week after week, asking if she was coming back. I’d ask people on the street I knew,” said Deanna Escoto. “Finally someone told me she would be back March 8. I said, ‘Yeah!’”

Escoto visits the meal site for three reasons: “One, I come here for the meal; two, the first time I came here she (Sr. Benda) was very nice to me and three, I like to associate with the people I’ve known since I came to Davenport.”

“Sr. Ludmilla is kind-hearted and lovable,” diner Tom Wells said.

He and other diners dished out appreciation in generous slices to volunteers.

“It’s nice to see you all back,” one diner said to volunteers working in the kitchen — either serving chicken, chili or washing dishes. Still other volunteers were serving up beverages and dessert.

And they can continue serving in this building, as long as Sr. Benda wants.

“We’re happy to support Sister,” said Roederer, who was unable to be present. “It’s good what she does; she’s a good person and does a lot of good for the community.”

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