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Springfield Soup Kitchen receives apostolic blessing from Pope

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The letter from the Apostolic Nunciature. (Courtesy image)

By Sarah Anne Carter
For The Catholic Telegraph

Tucked away in the middle of Springfield, Ohio, is a soup kitchen that not only feeds stomachs, but also warms hearts and saves lives.

The work is important and has been recognized as such by several organizations and the pope himself. 

In September, Fred Stegner, the man who runs the kitchen, received a letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the current apostolic nuncio to the United States, who imparted an apostolic blessing from Pope Francis.

“It’s very unique,” Stegner said. He had previously sent the pope two letters, including one that invited him to visit the soup kitchen. “We appreciate it because we’re doing the will of the Lord. We’re saving lives.”

Stegner said there was one night recently where they called 911 three times when the kitchen was open as a warming center.

“These guys were on the street and would have died of a heart attack and drug overdoses,” Stegner said. Drunks who may have passed out and frozen to death find shelter at the soup kitchen. They also have people attempt suicide during the soup kitchen meals and are able to call 911 to help them.

“People, especially this time of year, suffer from extreme depression,” he said. “We try to cheer them up and let them know that tomorrow is another day and God loves them.”

The soup kitchen in Springfield opened in 2007 after Fred Stegner and his wife, Carolyn, moved to the area and realized there was no soup kitchen in the city.

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“My job has taken us all across the country and, every place we went to, there was a soup kitchen,” Stegner said. “Springfield didn’t have that.”

Stegner grew up poor. His mother would beg for the family.

“It was the most embarrassing thing,” he said. He decided that when he grew up he wouldn’t be hungry again or beg.

“Now, I’m begging for others so they won’t have to be embarrassed,” he said. “And so they don’t’ have to go out and be, especially children.”

Stegner said there are some churches in the area that serve meals a few days a week, so the kitchen tries to fill in the gaps. Right now, they serve meals on Monday and Wednesday and they may soon serve on Tuesday.

“It’s growing,” Stegner said. “We get more and more people.”

The soup kitchen started out in the basement of St. Mary Catholic Church, but moved to a closed restaurant at 830 West Main Street three years ago. Stegner focuses on serving others; he feels it is his purpose.

“I died 18 years ago,” he said. “I had a massive heart attack and they brought me back three times. Life is short.”

While the soup kitchen is not a religious organization, Stegner’s Catholic faith does shape his words and actions at the kitchen.

“We don’t beat the people over the head with the Bible. We set an example,” he said. “People come up and ask you what church you go to and say, ‘I want to go there.’”

The Soup Kitchen receives help from Springfield churches, organizations and people in the form of food, money or volunteer time. Catholic Central school’s students and teachers voted and chose the soup kitchen for the Magnified Giving Award, which designates the charity they consider the most worthy.

Father Marv Hackman, a retired priest at  Mercy Hospital, occasionally helps at the soup kitchen and was there on Thanksgiving to give the blessing.

“I need to stand near a man like Fred Stegner to be around holiness,” Father Hackman said. “He’s one of the saints.”

He thinks the apostolic blessing is a well deserved honor for the soup kitchen.

“That’s where the church should be,” Father Hackman said. “These are the people that are the church. This is the Gospel being preached.”

However, Stegner is still in awe of receiving the apostolic blessing.

“I look at it as one of the highest honors,” he said.

“We start every meal by saying, ‘Welcome to the Springfield Soup Kitchen.’ We only exist because God loves us and he loves us all,’” Stegner said.

The soup kitchen served 34,000 meals in 2013.

“Our budget was way under that,” Stegner said. “But here we’re feeding so many people in an all volunteer outlet.”

For more information or to make a donation or volunteer, visit www.springfieldsoupkitchen.org, or call 937-925-2900.

Body & Soul is a feature that hopes to highlight faith-filled folks who nourish others through their ministries, other food related topics and perhaps even heavenly inspired recipes. Please send any story ideas to Eileen Connelly, OSU.

This Body & Soul feature originally appeared in the January 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph. 

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