The Blessing Bags program at St. Miriam’s Catholic Church in Flourtown has a new home in an unused classroom. Seen here cutting a ribbon are (from left) Father Frank Souza and Monsignor James St. …
by Barbara Sherf
While many organizations put a halt to activities inside church buildings because of the pandemic, St. Miriam Parish and Friary in Flourtown just held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for dedicated space to assemble food and hygiene bags for the homeless and food-insecure in our area through their Blessing Bag Outreach Program.
Starting in 2018, volunteers pack large plastic sandwich bags with protein, snacks, water, juice, peanut butter, a sweet and socks. Volunteers have ramped up from creating 400 bags to more than 2400 bags per month since the pandemic began.
“This didn’t only happen as a result of the pandemic, but it’s clearly a time when this service is absolutely needed,” said Monsignor James St. George, who has been with the church since its founding in 2007. “The idea of providing a ready made bag to our brothers and sisters was greeted with enthusiasm from members of our parish.”
In 2007 the congregation rented space from Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Philadelphia, then moved to Norristown, Blue Bell and finally Flourtown (the old Zion Church) on Bethlehem Pike in 2015. Today, over 600 families who are active parishioners supporting the church and its ministry.
“What we strive to do here is bring an increase in awareness that leaving Mass is where the real work begins in our everyday activities,” said St. George, while sitting in his Franciscan robe complete with sandals.
Abington plumber Tom Frey, a parishioner, goes into Kensington and other parts of Philadelphia for work but returns late at night, often hearing that the food in the bag was the first sustenance the homeless individual had had all day.
“The reaction on the street is sheer joy. These people are literally starving,” said Frey, who added that as soon as he walks into a subway station, people start taking their shoes off “because they know there is a fresh, clean pair of socks in with the food. I had a guy crying yesterday because I gave it to him with no strings attached, and there was a note in there from one of the kids at our school. The hard part is when I run out of bags and have to turn people away.”
Blessing Bags are also distributed in Chester and Norristown. Clifford McGoldrick of Ambler also distributes the bags in Philadelphia. While making bags on a weekday afternoon, McGoldrick shared that he was able to talk a homeless man out of committing suicide earlier in the week.
“He said he didn’t want the food because he didn’t want to live. But I talked to him, and we shared a cigarette, and I left him with a couple of cigarettes and a blessing bag to give him hope,” said McGoldrick, 70, who goes out every other night with the bags, blankets and hope. “That’s what we all need during this time is hope.”
Father Frank Souza who oversees the Blessing Bags program, noted that plans are underway to open an outreach center in Kensington in the next year. “We see that there is a great need out there on the streets for those who are homeless and addicted and in need of love and assistance. As Franciscans we’ve always responded to the need to serve the marginalized and underprivileged.”
The parish and larger community received a $2500 grant and have donated thousands toward the Blessing Bags program. As for the bags of food, St. George and other volunteers were surprised to learn of an equally pressing need in addition to food. “The number one item people asked for besides food was socks. Doctors will tell you when your feet are wet, you are more prone to illness,” said St. George.
The church community approached three different sock manufacturers — Bombas Socks, Inspyr Socks and The Joy of Sox — who routinely send free shipments for inclusion in the bags.
Sunday School teacher and parishioner Kate Vandergrift enjoys filling the bags three times a week. “This has really morphed into something that is very needed and that’s situational,” said Vandergrift. “I like doing it because it gives back to the community. I’m retired, and the whole mission of what Father is doing to adapt and apply the message of Christ is important to me. I feel honored to be reaching out to someone in a time of need.”
The volunteers also makes separate hygiene bags for both men and women and “Pets with People Bags” for the homeless who have pets. They even make a special hygiene bag for the transgender population. “Many transgender individuals are on the streets because their families have rejected them and their choices. As a church, we welcome everyone from all walks of life,” said St. George, noting that the congregation does not take its marching orders from the Vatican or Archdiocese. “We are truly independent, and that has attracted a lot of people.”
The parish is located at 654 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown. For more information, visit mysaintmiriam.org/blessingbags. Monetary donations are also gladly accepted.
Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf can be reached at Barb@communicationspro.com