By Barb Arland-Fye
Sister Donna Donovan’s email arrived when God wanted me to see it — two days before Thanksgiving. A member of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, she and other Catholics and non-Catholics were finalizing details for Ottumwa’s Community Thanksgiving Dinner. They anticipated serving about 900 people this year. Her description of the ecumenical feast of hospitality activated my reporter’s instincts and provided an idea for my family’s celebration.
Our plans for Thanksgiving were undecided because the chief cook (aka Steve Fye, husband and father), would be driving a train that day. When I proposed a trip to Ottumwa to my sons, both of whom love road trips, we had a plan.
We arrived at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Ottumwa shortly after 11 a.m., when Ken and Beth Cook were heading out the door after delivering 49 Thanksgiving dinners to folks who couldn’t make it to the KC Hall. The Cooks, of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Bloomfield, and other volunteers delivered a total of 720 meals that morning. “The people are so gracious,” Beth said. “It’s nice to know that people who wouldn’t otherwise get out are going to have a warm meal.” Around 200 people ate their meals in the KC Hall, following a blessing by Father Jim Betzen, C.PP.S., pastor of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa.
Sr. Donna, wearing an apron, came out of the kitchen smiling and gave me a hug. She introduced me to Pam Ward, also of St. Mary’s in Ottumwa. “They’ve designated me the chair,” Pam explained. Good choice! Pam has been involved in the community Thanksgiving dinner for 34 years and directed Ottumwa Transit before her retirement. Logistics and meal delivery are second nature for her. “This is open to anyone who wants to come, who needs a meal, to enjoy the day, rather than be alone,” said Pam.
She and her husband, Tim, who helps deliver meals, instilled the tradition of serving up Thanksgiving hospitality in their own family. “It’s always been our Thanksgiving tradition to help other people out,” explained daughter Dana Belzer, 27, who brought her 10-day-old daughter, Lottie Marian to this year’s event. “I was 11 months old when I started, so I figured I should start her out early,” Dana quipped. The baby, Grandma Pam added, “provided entertainment.”
Previously, the Salvation Army organized the Thanksgiving Dinner until leaving Ottumwa in September 2014. Pam, Sr. Donna, Jim Cutsforth (who managed the KC Hall before retirement) and other volunteers weren’t about to let the tradition die.
Last year, “we didn’t have a lot of time to plan. This year, we had a better handle on things,” Sr. Donna told a TV reporter who stopped by the KC Hall for an interview. Even with short notice, volunteers served around 550 home deliveries and 150 dine-in guests last year. This year, they served 720 home deliveries and around 200 dine-in guests.
“I did not realize how big it is,” said Jim, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Ottumwa. “There are a lot of good volunteers in town and a lot of people who want to help.”
Local businesses, organizations and individuals contributed generously. The main cooks, including two women who previously cooked at the Salvation Army meal site, are pros, Sr. Donna said. Protestant and Catholic youths from the area also helped out. Area churches placed notices in their bulletins stating that desserts would be appreciated. “We had lots and lots of people working behind the scenes,” Sr. Donna noted. “It’s a wonderful day of the legacy of truly thanks-giving.”
To her observation, my sons and I say, “Amen!”
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.)