‘Servant of the poor’: Almsgiving a push toward generosity, community

| February 11, 2015 | 0 Comments
Sister Dorothy Struzinski (from right), Mother Maria Francis and Cindy Vindedahl, an employee of the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul, sort through fruits and vegetables at Wholesale Produce Supply in Minneapolis with help from Kyle Johnson. The company is among many that donate to the Little Sisters to help feed the nursing home’s residents and help sustain the order’s mission. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Dorothy Struzinski (from right), Mother Maria Francis and Cindy Vindedahl, an employee of the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul, sort through fruits and vegetables at Wholesale Produce Supply in Minneapolis with help from Kyle Johnson. The company is among many that donate to the Little Sisters to help feed the nursing home’s residents and help sustain the order’s mission. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Editor’s note: This issue, The Catholic Spirit launches a three-part series on the three basic pillars of Lent: almsgiving, fasting and prayer. In honor of the Year of Consecrated Life, each feature will include members of religious communities who are deeply living out these spiritual practices all year long.

First in a three-part series

Every Tuesday, Sister Dorothy Struzinski makes consecutive stops at two Woodbury Starbucks locations in the Chevrolet Suburban she worked hard to raise money for. But rather than leaving with coffee in hand, she crosses items off a list while her companion, Cindy Vindedahl, carries a large container of pastries out the door after thanking the shops’ employees for the donation.

As the Little Sisters of the Poor’s official beggar, it’s imperative that Sister Dorothy stick to her pick-up schedule in order to feed about 100 residents at the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul.

Throughout the week, additional stops at Country Hearth, Wholesale Produce Supply, Byerly’s and elsewhere allow her to supply the groceries sought by the nursing home’s chef, Scott Nielsen. Ultimately, the food Sister Dorothy collects determines Nielsen’s weekly menu.

“That’s one of the bigger challenges I’ve had as a chef,” said Nielsen, who has been in the food industry for 30 years, and at Holy Family Residence for three months.

“It’s like [the Food Network TV show] ‘Chopped’ every day. The stuff that comes in, you never know . . . it’s the mystery basket. So, I’ve been able to be flexible.”

By nature of its foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, the order depends on the generosity of others for everything, government funding sources aside. For necessary equipment and utilities to the salaries for staff members including Vindedahl, the Little Sisters use funds they receive from general donations, foundations and a variety of other sources.

“We can’t say enough about our benefactors,” said Sister Dorothy, who begins each food run with prayers for those benefactors, the community at large and the residents. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without them.”

The congregation’s approach to caring for those in need with the fundamental belief in divine providence serves a greater purpose for humanity, Sister Dorothy explained.

“The idea of begging is an apostolate; it helps the laity to practice charity,” she said. “It all begins with the relationships you build with people every day.”

Begging for the sake of people’s livelihood means never turning down a donation. When the sisters receive gifts of stock, they sell it in order to comply with their rule of never accepting permanent forms of income. When they receive hay, they use it for harvest or Nativity decor. And when they have an abundance, they share it with other charities, including the Franciscan Brothers of Peace in St. Paul.

“When you look around and see people who need food to eat, you can’t look away from that,” Sister Dorothy said.

Upon entering the congregation, Sister Dorothy prayed that her responsibilities would never include begging. Now, she loves meeting the people in the community who sustain the Little Sisters’ mission.


instagramlogo

See the sisters in action on Instagram


 

A pillar of Christianity

Whether they realize it, and Catholic or not, every benefactor of the Little Sisters of the Poor is giving alms, a biblical tradition from the Old Testament that is woven throughout the New Testament and pronounced in the Church during Lent.

John Froula, assistant professor of theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Paul, said there’s the traditional notion of almsgiving — giving to those who are in material need — but the practice extends further to include those who dedicate their lives to others through vocations and giving time, talent and treasure to the Church.

“The general idea is you help those who either can’t help themselves or those who choose to give their lives to others who need help doing that,” he said.

During Lent, almsgiving is significant because it’s a practice that would naturally occur in a time of penance, Froula explained. And it’s especially important, he said, because some sins are based on greed and selfishness.

“If Lent is a time of conversion and turning to God, it’s an especially intense time to focus on God instead of other things,” he said. “One way to do that is by giving them away. Lent is a time to spiritually prepare for Christ’s resurrection. So, coupled with prayer — communication with God — and fasting, which can be done in remembering those in need, [almsgiving] can help us turn to God.”

Froula said that over time, the basis of almsgiving has remained the same: Those who are able should give to those in need.

“It really is an essential part of Christianity; it’s not optional,” he said.

“It has to do with the most fundamental Christian virtue, which is charity and love of God. In a society where we tend to reward excellence . . . it might be forgotten that we’re more stewards.”

He added: “Spiritual benefit does happen, but really, the motivation is for love of neighbor.”

Servants of the poor

Father Bob Hazel, former pastor of St. Joseph in New Hope and Plymouth, said almsgiving is the most overlooked spiritual practice of Lent perhaps because it takes the most effort.

“Traditional Church teaching is prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It does not say prayer or fasting or almsgiving; it includes all three,” Father Hazel said. “If that were the case, we’d all pick prayer, because that’s the easiest.”

To Father Hazel, not only is almsgiving about supporting favorite charities, but also “digging a little deeper” and “getting our hands dirty.” He believes everyone can do something.

GFP“Giving to the poor can help you experience community,” said Father Hazel, who, since retiring eight years ago has been heavily involved with Cross Catholic Outreach, a Florida-based relief and development ministry that provides for the poor across the world. “This is a place where Catholics can learn, because the typical Catholic outreach is to say, ‘We’re doing something new,’ or ‘We’re having a Mass.’ But before you have the Mass, you have to build the community. The heart of evangelization is building community. Then, you can celebrate your togetherness in Jesus.”

What’s more, Father Hazel said, is recognizing Christ’s teaching that reaching out to the poor includes those who are poor in spirit.

“The poor are those who are suffering,” he said. “In the U.S., we try to define the poor by income levels, but this doesn’t involve the full scope.”

And while many people might not know what a poor spirit looks like, almsgiving is about “stretching ourselves.”

“We know how to give to our children, our family, people we like,” Father Hazel said. “We’re stretching out to people who we don’t know and who we might not like.”

To help him remember this, Father Hazel keeps a quote from St. Vincent de Paul in his pocket, a tradition carried over from his father:

You will find out that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored.

They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.

Father Hazel said that like prayer, almsgiving shouldn’t be routine. It should be challenging and push Christians toward generosity.

Charities want the person, he said, not just the money.

Tags: , ,

Category: Featured, Lent