St. Bernard’s Shines a Light, and the Counties Take Notice

This article was posted on: April 5, 2024

Uplifting people’s dignity

Every Thursday afternoon, a long line of cars forms around St. Bernard Church in Abbotsford. The line is long but moves quickly. In the space of about two and a half hours, 343 families will be provided with food on this bright and windy autumn day. Father Tim Oudenhoven stakes out a position at the end of the line, the last stop after the meat and fresh produce have been loaded into the cars. This is where the oddball items are handed out: refrigerated meals, cakes, tubes of sausage, drink boxes, industrial-sized jars of jalapenos and relish—even window insulating kits. Father Tim happily chats with the occupants of each car as they drive up. He hands out treats to the children in the back and a tray of lasagna to the adults in the front. Father Tim asks if they want jalapenos. They want to know how many he is giving away.

“How many do you need? Give me a number,” he says in fluent Spanish. Most people ask for one, maybe two.

Seis, por favor.

Without batting an eye, Father Tim flashes six fingers to me, and I dutifully load up the car. Six gallons of jalapenos it is.

Most likely, the jalapenos will be shared among multiple families. I spoke with Rhonda Grabko from UnitedHealthcare, who came to collect food for five families. One of them is a family of 14. The mother loves getting squash, and the kids usually get a treat—a rare event for them. Rhonda also delivers to seniors as well, who look forward to the company as much as the food. One of her elderly clients loves to make grilled cheese with the Irish cheddar she receives. Father Tim doesn’t ask for names and addresses. If someone says that they are delivering to five families, he loads up their car and sends them on their way.

St. Bernard’s mission is to uplift people’s dignity and avoid processes that bring shame or demean people. Father Tim, who runs the food pantry, has made everything streamlined to the point where if anyone is hungry, they can come and get food. He records the number of families being served because his food providers require it, but he doesn’t keep track of how often someone comes back. He tries hard to avoid the degrading, hours-long process of standing in line waiting for your box to be filled which is so common at many food pantries. The pantry is a well-oiled machine at this point, but Father Tim takes pride in the patrons rather than the process. Referring to those he serves, he says “At the end of the day, I’m impressed by their faith and their strength. They inspire me, and I am honored to be here with them. I think our patrons feel that.”

The Counties Take Notice

St. Bernard’s has grown significantly since its inception in 2020 when it served only 120 families. Nowadays, it provides assistance to more than 300 families each week. Feed My People of Eau Claire is responsible for supplying the food that St. Bernard’s distributes. To accomplish this, they send an entire 18-wheeler full of fresh produce and other staples nearly every week. The truck starts in Second Harvest, Minn., with a load of fresh produce, which is then supplemented with other types of food in Eau Claire. The fully loaded truck then heads to Abbotsford for delivery.

The counties in central Wisconsin have noticed a gathering of individuals who are in need of social services. Every week, they all come together in one place. During my visit, I saw the Director of the Clark County Health Department, Brittany Mews, standing in line with Father Tim. They were handing out food items and health information to those in need. Brittany kindly offered to take me on a tour downstairs.

“So the volunteers of St. Bernard Parish do exactly that every Thursday—they provide a special concern for the poor that enriches the other two missions of teaching and the sacraments.”

In the basement of the church, families sort through tables piled with donated clothing, books and toys. The clothing giveaway is a regular feature of the food pantry, but today, something is different. Today is the health fair, where the health departments of Clark, Taylor and Marathon counties have come together to offer much-needed services to St. Bernard’s patrons. These health fairs have been taking place every other month since January 2023.

Families are seen moving from one table to another, each of which is staffed by county health department workers. Hmong and Hispanic Network (H2N) translators assist with Spanish, Hmong and even Portuguese. The families are offered immunizations, COVID and flu vaccines, and vision screenings. Children are given car seats that are appropriate for their size. The staff also helps people apply for WIC benefits and other services. They provide gun locks and locking medicine bags to prevent accidents. In short, the counties offer all the services that they usually provide in their offices. At St. Bernard’s, they bring their services directly to the people instead.

The parishioners themselves, including many immigrant families who attend the two Spanish-speaking Masses each week, know about this health fair because Brittany Mews was invited to speak about it after Mass. Twice a month, Father Tim invites various speakers to provide information on topics ranging from obtaining a GED to navigating immigration law. “It is a novel approach,” he says matter-of-factly.

It Is All About Mission

Later that evening, Father Tim and I find ourselves in a small Mexican restaurant. The staff and patrons all recognize the “Padre” on sight. I order a beef-tongue quesadilla and listen intently as Father Tim explains. “A lot of parishes don’t have a vision. We don’t know what it means to be a church today. We haven’t adjusted to the change in times. We’re so resigned to just going away into nonexistence. I didn’t become a priest to close parishes.” He firmly believes that the Catholic Church needs to ask itself what its mission is and how it can evangelize the community.

Father Tim’s vision is rooted in canon law, which outlines that a pastor must educate the faithful, administer sacraments and have a particular focus on the poor and their suffering. Father Tim believes that to fulfill these missions, all three must be prioritized. He argues that while the first two are important, the third—the special concern for the poor and suffering—is crucial to give real significance to the other two.

So the volunteers of St. Bernard Parish do exactly that every Thursday—they provide a special concern for the poor that enriches the other two missions of teaching and the sacraments. When asked about the connection between the missions, Father Tim points to the catechesis program. He mentions that he has 240 children enrolled in catechism, and some of the highest sacramental counts in the diocese. This is partly because the children volunteer at St. Bernard’s and other places. The spirit of helping the needy, which started with a food pantry, has spread unexpectedly to the parish youth.

I noticed the boxes of cereal stacked in the narthex of St. Bernard’s, and I suspect there might be some hurdles to overcome in setting up a similar program in other parishes. Father Tim remains optimistic. “Establishing [a pantry], that’s easy…It’s setting the vision, setting the framework, having a leader who will lead the process and be able to navigate any pushback.” Although Father Tim and his volunteers may face some grumbling from time to time, they remain steadfast in their vision.

“What’s the most important thing I did today?” asks Father Tim. “Probably just shaking everybody’s hand—thanking them for being there.”

Story by Dan Rislove
Published in the March/April 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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