Editor’s note: We always appreciate casserole donations. At the moment, we ask that new groups hold off on making large-quantity casserole donations. 

Most people would have at least flinched when offered 400 pounds of uncooked chicken. Jeanette Middleton Sudano took it as a sign of the Holy Spirit.

It was early April, and COVID-19 had shut down most of Maryland. The director of Giving Back, Linda’s Legacy – a volunteer operation that provides clothes and other necessities to people in need – was considering how to help with the growing challenges around her.

“And all the dots just started connecting,” she said.

Waiting for casserole dropoffs from parishioners (Taken before masks were required.)

She linked up with Kathy Kirby, a friend and fellow parishioner at St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park, who had read a Catholic Review article about the need for casserole donations at Our Daily Bread Employment Center. Together, they quickly launched an operation that delivered over 350 casseroles to the center’s hot-meal program within two weeks, along with more donations to other local needs.

Through Facebook posts, neighborhood outreach, donations, and connections throughout the community, they tapped into their networks, ultimately engaging hundreds of volunteers.

“We’re just kind of marveling at what the Holy Spirit is offering,” said Kathy.

Because the St. John the Evangelist School was closed by the pandemic, Rev. Erik Arnold invited the pair to use the school’s kitchen and large refrigerators to store supplies. They took in donations – including the uncooked chicken from the Franciscan Center – bought other ingredients wholesale, and began assembling recipe kits in casserole pans for volunteers to cook and return.

“They pick up the casseroles, go home, hopefully pray on them as they’re making them, and bring them back,” Kathy explained. “Time and again I’m hearing, ‘I’m so glad you’re allowing us to help.’ “

The logistics of the operation were complicated, and made more so by the pandemic. The women used masks, gloves, and appropriate distance when assembling the casserole kits. Online sign-up sheets helped limit the number of people picking up or dropping off food at any time. Volunteers placed empty pans and recipes on their porches to reach those unaffiliated with the parish or those who couldn’t pick up a pre-assembled kit.

The recipes presented their own challenges – “what exactly does 10 to 12 pieces of chicken mean?” Kathy asked – and they learned to improvise when unexpectedly offered 25 pounds of rice or 50 pounds of carrots.

The St. John the Evangelist parish has long donated casseroles to Our Daily Bread Employment Center. But the results of this effort were far more than either of them expected. Kathy mentioned the number of young families who got involved for the first time, a moving development since older parishioners, who have traditionally spearheaded casserole collections, may have been particularly vulnerable during the pandemic.

“God gives us … different gifts and talents. … He calls us at different times, too. It is beautiful the way we can bring other people together,” Jeanette said. “I don’t cook in my house; my husband cooks. It’s kind of ironic that I do all this with food.”

Looking ahead, the pair expected St. John the Evangelist would be able to resume its usual monthly casserole delivery to Our Daily Bread through longstanding, dedicated volunteers, but added they felt “blessed” to have devised a stop-gap in the meantime.

“It is the time for the laity to step up,” Kathy added. “If you see something and the Holy Spirit puts something into your heart, don’t be afraid to bring it up to people.”