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Bringing Christmas cheer to families in Southwest Baltimore

On a chilly December morning, as the streets lay puddled with rain from yet another downpour, about 150 of residents from the Millhill neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore queued outside Saint Benedict Church.

Each was there to pick up a turkey, bags of groceries — filled with bread, butter, eggs, fruit vegetables, and boxed and canned food  — toys, clothes and books for their children, as well as blankets, coats and sweaters for the coming winter. Every item was donated to or purchased by the parish.

“For some of these children, they don’t have a whole lot to smile about,” said Mary Karpers-Burke. “If we can put a little twinkle in their eye, it’s well worth it.”

The Millhill neighborhood has changed significantly since Karpers-Burke took over the Christmas ministry at Saint Benedict in the mid-1990s, she said. Hit hard by the recession, the working-class community has seen increased turnover in residents, many who struggle to afford the added expenses of Christmas. 

“We try to ease that burden for the families,” she said. “The goal of Saint Benedicts is to help people, to be of assistance to families.”

“There’s such a need for it,” said Grace Anne Boettinger, who recently took over leadership of the ministry. “To give to others, that’s the greater gift.”

For 22 years, Karpers-Burke ran Benedict’s Pantry, the parish’s monthly food pantry, as well as it’s Christmas parish outreach ministry. She is still involved today. 

“This is our own way of sharing Christmas,” Karpers-Burke said. 

Exactly how many years the parish has provided for its neighbors at Christmas is unclear, but pastor Fr. Paschal Morlino estimates the ministry has been active for more than 30 years.

Christmas at Saint Benedict starts in August when volunteers with the ministry begin to collect donations. 

In the fall, community members can sign up to be a recipient of the food and gifts, which are distributed around mid-December each year.

Boettinger said the parish asks community members to sign-up so that it can collect the age, size and wish-list for the children, and so it can ensure that those who come in December to receive the donated items live in the community. 

Each child age 15 and younger, receives a gift that includes toys, a book as well as clothes. 

This Christmas, the parish ensured that gifts were under the tree for more than 200 children in the community. 

A freezer at Saint Benedict Church in Baltimore is stuffed full of turkeys. The turkeys were distributed in December to about 150 families in the Millhill neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore as part of the parish’s Christmas ministry.

Ensuring that there is enough food and gifts for each family is something that Boettinger said she often thinks about. 

“Mary always tells me ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. Just trust in God,’” Boettinger said. “I worry just a little.”

Just a few weeks ago, she said they were short on turkeys and it was unclear how they would afford the 20 more they needed. 

“I told her [Boettinger] ‘You’ll get the turkeys, they’ll come,'” Karpers-Burke said. “You have to believe that God provides. We’re doing the right thing.”

That afternoon a man called and asked what he could do to help. She told him they needed 20 turkeys. That week, 25 turkeys arrived, she said. 

“God provides,” she said. “He truly, truly does provide.”

Boettinger said Saint Benedict also works with five sister parishes that help supply clothes, donations, gifts and volunteers.

In addition to gifts and food, the parish also provides blankets, coats and sweaters, which individuals can shop for on pickup day. 

Blankets, sweaters and coats were a recent addition to the ministry, after the parish learned how many in the community were struggling to stay warm. 

When pickup is over, Karpers-Burke said she marvels at the blessings the parish was able to provide. 

“Look what we’ve done and how blessed we’ve been to be able to do this,” she said. “That truly is the spirit of Christmas.”

If any coats and sweaters remain after Christmas, Boettinger said the parish opens its doors to the community again in January to allow them to pick up additional items to keep warm throughout the winter. 

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