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Little Sister’s Vocational Joy Reflected in Food

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Sister Mary Imelda, center, and the crew that makes her spaghetti sauce, left to right, Mark Piotrowski, Germane Thomas, Linda Calhoun, Michael Jones, David Houze, Tay Greer, and Robert Miller. (CT Photo/E.L. Hubbard)
Sister Mary Imelda, center, and the crew that makes her spaghetti sauce, left to right, Mark Piotrowski, Germane Thomas, Linda Calhoun, Michael Jones, David Houze, Tay Greer, and Robert Miller. (CT Photo/E.L. Hubbard)

By Erin Schurenberg and Eileen Connelly, OSU

Imagine it: 6,000 meatballs, 150 pounds of prepared spaghetti noodles and 165 gallons of sizzling tomato sauce. This was the scene on a warm June Saturday afternoon at St. Paul’s Archbishop Leibold Home in Clifton. The event was the ninth annual spaghetti dinner fundraiser hosted by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Terry Hadden, the director of the kitchen, and his team of volunteer sous chefs produced the spread.

As with the original gathering of French women brought together by St. Jeanne Jugan to serve the elderly poor, a broad spectrum of ages was present at this pasta dinner. Residents of the home, their families, staff, benefactors, volunteers and the sisters gathered to greet, meet and eat.

The woman behind the meal is Sister Mary Imelda, who politely declines to share her secret spaghetti sauce recipe. One of 12 children originally from Juarez, Mexico, Sister Mary Imelda came to know the Little Sisters as a teenager. “I learned to love the residents they ministered to so deeply, and I loved the life of the sisters,” she explained. “And, here I am 53 years later.”

Of course, there’s much more to Sister Mary Imelda’s vocation story. She recalls an early assignment to Columbia, the fear of the unknown and prayers for acceptance. “I told God, you planted me here, now I need you to help me grow,” she recalled.

Assignments at LSP homes in France and throughout the U.S. followed, with Sister Mary Imelda spending 38 years in dietary ministry. Her love for cooking and baking goes back to making tortillas as a child. “My father had to have them fresh every day,” she said.

During her time in France, where she served in the local home’s kitchen, another Little Sister introduced her to the art of cooking, including specific cuts of meat and how to slice them properly. When she arrived at St. Paul’s Home eight years ago, volunteers who owned an Italian restaurant coordinated the spaghetti dinner. Sister Mary Imelda eagerly jumped in to assist and has seen he meal grow by “leaps and bounds.”

For her, the reward in planning and preparing the meal is “giving people pleasure and knowing the happiness the food is bringing them. It means so much to hear someone say, ‘It’s almost like my mother makes.’”

On that hot summer evening, the event volunteers’ hospitality was a welcome diversion for diners like Elena Debacalzada and her sister, Betty Tuazon, and their long-time friend, Paula Medel. All three ladies were first-time attendees at the dinner, but were so impressed by their experience that they assuredly will return.

“The best part of the event was partaking of a delicious meal in the company of old and newly found friends. God willing, we plan to return next year,” Tuazon said.

In her fourth year as the event coordinator, Sarah Steffan deemed the 2019 dinner a success, with 40 volunteers per shift and three shifts during festivities.

“The sisters need to raise money to keep the home operational, but this dinner is also a way of showing their gratitude to the community for all the support they receive,” said Steffan.

One such sister who enthusiastically greeted many of the visitors from her spot near the entrance was Sister George, who turned 91 on July 4. She has spent more than 70 of those years serving as a Little Sister of the Poor, the last 12 in Cincinnati. Joined by Sister Celestine from Indianapolis, who visited for the dinner, the smiling sisters in their white habits bid a warm welcome and adieu to guests.

Sister Mary Imelda estimated that they served around 700 guests, up from 600 last year. Although she plans to leave St. Paul’s for a new assignment in Mobile, Ala., in late July, she’ll always remember the spaghetti dinners as something “pretty special.”

Even more special is her vocation as a Little Sister and the gift of ministering to the elderly. “It’s been a beautiful life, so very rewarding,” she said. “There may be times when our days seem hard and the residents just change our outlook on things. We’re there to make them happy, but they give so much more to us, especially their love.”

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