By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — Clientele of Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope say they admire a recently erected statue of Our Lady of Grace, even those who know little about her. The statue, with arms open in a welcoming pose, overlooks the meal site from a grotto set into the building and designed to look like a church window box.
“It’s beautiful; I hope it stays permanently,” said Ward Sajak, who was at the meal site Sunday, May 20, with dozens of other lunch-goers to honor Mary with a blessing, May crowning and bestowal of flowers. Sister Ludmilla Benda, RSM, who runs the meal site, asked Derek Grant to play the bag pipes and Father Joe Wolf, a priest of the Davenport Diocese, to give the blessing. She has known both men for years.
The prayer of blessing that Fr. Wolf chose seemed especially appropriate to the gathering of clientele, volunteers and benefactors. In part, it says:
“… You chose the blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother and companion of your Son, the image and model of your Church, the Mother and advocate of us all … Father, may your children who provided this statue of Mary know her protection and trace in their hearts the pattern of her holiness. Bless them with faith and hope, love and humility; bless them with strength in hardship and self-respect in poverty; bless them with patience in adversity and kindheartedness in times of plenty.…”
After the blessing, men, women and children lined up to place fresh-cut flowers from volunteer Mary Jo Holte’s garden into vases just below the grotto. Hope Coleman reached up from her wheelchair to place a flower in a vase. She said afterward that she wasn’t familiar with Mary.
While Sr. Benda knows that some people she serves at Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope are unfamiliar with the Blessed Mother, “I thought if they have respect for Jesus, then they’d know that he had to have a mother.”
Longtime volunteer George Meister built the five-foot-tall grotto, which took about a month-and-a-half to construct. An automatic light system illuminates the grotto from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and an automatic sound system plays “Ave Maria” at 11:40 a.m. each day. “George did a great job,” said Sr. Benda, who’s heard nothing but compliments about the statue and grotto.
Marilyn Davis, a longtime volunteer who was recently widowed, said she wished her late husband, Johnny, could have seen it. “He had such a devotion to Mary.”
Sr. Benda dedicated the project in gratitude to Tom and Mary Roederer and in memory of Fran and Rita Roederer, Tom’s parents. Tom owns the building that houses Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope and allows Sr. Benda to use it for her ministry to the hungry and homeless.
Fr. Conroy and Sr. Benda had worked for years as a team ministering to the hungry and homeless before he died in February 2005. Five months later, Sr. Benda opened Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope on a street in downtown Davenport. A year later she moved the meal site to Roederer’s building at Fourth and Pershing streets. She and a corps of volunteers serve lunch at 12:15 p.m. every Sunday and on holidays. “I think we had close to 150 people for lunch May 20. We’re getting ready for 200 on Memorial Day weekend,” added Sr. Benda, whose devotion to Mary and the rosary keep her going at age 86.