St. Anne’s Food Pantry continues to
serve needs in central Fall River

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Despite the recent closing of the iconic St. Anne’s Church and Shrine in Fall River, there’s still one important mission that will continue every Saturday morning in the former shrine location for the foreseeable future — the weekly St. Anne’s Food Pantry.

According to Philippe R. Gregoire, a former parishioner who began coordinating the non-profit food pantry effort back in 2004, the diocese is letting them continue to work out of the downstairs shrine location.

“The diocese has been good to us and they’re letting us stay open here,” Gregoire recently told The Anchor. “They didn’t call me and say, ‘Hey, guess what? You’re out of luck.’ No, they said we can stay here and they will try to find us another place. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to find one, too, but it’s not easy. But the diocese has remained very supportive of our cause.”

Now entering its 15th year as an official non-profit entity, Gregoire said there’s still a “decent amount of people coming every Saturday” to the food pantry and he estimates that they serve between 150 and 160 families each week. Once a month, they also coordinate the Brown Bag Program, which used to be run by Bristol Elders.

“We deliver close to 500 bags once a month,” Gregoire said. “We deliver to the various housing (units) like Barresi Heights, Cardinal Medeiros Apartments, the Ship’s Cove, and others. A lot of them can’t make it (to the food pantry) for whatever reason, so we do that service as well. So in addition to our regular Saturday every week, once a month we deliver the Brown Bag Program, which consists of a good-sized bag of food.”

Working with a core group of about 25 volunteers — many of them former parishioners — Gregoire maintained that the need is still great, especially in the central part of the city.

“Like anything else, we could do more if we had the help,” Gregoire said. “Now that they’ve closed the church and the shrine, we have the food pantry in the lower part of the shrine area. We keep tables up so people can come get the stuff, but we keep the tables close so people can’t wander off into (the shrine area). So I keep a pretty good handle on it. And there’s no bathroom facilities available anymore, so they can go to the hospital (next door) if they really have to go that badly.”

While he’s sad about the closure of his longtime parish, Gregoire said there is an upside to being the only group still using the downstairs shrine.

“We’ve expanded our food pantry area and essentially put out chairs now,” he said. “Whereas before we used to have to break everything down every Saturday because they’d have the Mass in the shrine, now we don’t have to break it down. It makes it a little easier and we have a much larger space.”

Gregoire said the first food pantry held after the official closing “went wonderfully” and people were able to sit and wait for the food to be organized and dispersed.

“We have some people who get there as early as 5:30 or 6 a.m.,” Gregoire said. “We’re open from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Then the monthly Brown Bag Program we do from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. For those people that we don’t deliver to, they can come and pick it up at that time. We keep a little area at the shrine for that as well.”

The added space will also come in handy for the newly-implemented clothing drive that Gregoire recently began.

“We also pass out clothing now at no charge,” he said. “We give out coats, hats, and clothes. If we have any additional items that people drop off, we give it away — stuff like silverware, pots and pans, household items. Whatever we get that is donated, we pass out. We have started a pretty extensive clothing program now. We pass that out once a month for people who need it. If they have a baby, we also give them diapers once a month. We just opened up a new area in our pantry, which is directed totally towards clothing, but that is limited to what we get in donations.”

As one of the few remaining weekly food pantry operations located in central Fall River, Gregoire is proud that he’s able to continue to provide for the city’s poor and needy.

“I was here when it began in the monastery (behind the church) where they used to pass out bags of food as you were walking in,” he said. “Then at some point it, when it closed and they made apartments out of it, they allowed me to open up a small area in the shrine. We used to pass out maybe six bags of food a month, maybe seven. Then all of a sudden it escalated to where it’s gotten now. As we grew, they allowed us more space. We have three computers that we use to log people in now — we’ve got to keep track of it all, so it’s a lot more technical than it used to be. You’ve got to keep track of this stuff and send it to Boston when you want to file for grants and things like that. There is a lot of information that’s needed, so it’s getting quite technical.”

In the early days, most of the food came from parish donors, but Gregoire said they now get supplies from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which requires them to keep track of the clients and make sure they meet certain prerequisites.

“There are certain qualifications that they have to meet,” he said. “Much of it is income-based and depends on the number of people in a family. The federal government has certain requirements, so there’s guidelines if you get assistance or food from them. But I have never refused anybody since I’ve been working there. Most people are really in need and don’t come just for the sake of getting it.”

To that end, Gregoire is also required to conduct an annual census and has to report clients’ information to the Greater Boston Food Bank.

“So I ask them once a year if anything’s changed, and if their income situation has changed in any way, shape or form,” he said. “But for the most part, most people that come need it, you can tell.”

With the closing of St. Anne’s Parish, Gregoire said it will be a little more difficult to find volunteers and he’ll also have to find other sources of income to help support the food pantry operation.

“We’re going to have to try and pick up some other ways of getting the funds to keep us going because we pick up food like two to three times a month, and we have to rent a truck every time,” Gregoire said. “We’re OK, it’s just that our source of income has started to dry up. The parishioners used to support the pantry either through giving money and donations and a lot of our funds used to come directly to us from the poor box (in the shrine). But we’ll figure something out. God always has provided for me in the past, so I’m sure He will do it again.”

Although he has “a great mix of people” currently serving as volunteers, Gregoire said he could always use more.

“We have a strong group of families and some of their kids have been coming here since they were nine years old,” he said. “Now many of them are in college and they’re still coming to help. Some of the volunteers we get also come from Saint Anne’s Hospital. We try to get a lot of young people involved as well as the older people. The problem is I need volunteers to go make pickups during the week at different places that donate food and clothing. It’s tough to get people to volunteer during the week and many of my volunteers are retired and some of this stuff is heavy and it’s hard for them.”

For the time being, Gregoire remains hopeful that they will be able to continue operating the food pantry out of the downstairs shrine.

“We’re going to stay here temporarily,” he said. “That could be a year, that could be a month, that could be a day. But I know they’re not just going to come and say, ‘Hey, guess what? You’re out.’”

Wherever they eventually relocate to, he also hopes they will be able to retain the name “St. Anne’s Food Pantry.”

“That’s the official name of the non-profit when it was set up,” he said. “Some parishes may not want a ‘St. Anne’s Food Pantry’ at their church, but I want to keep that name as best I can.”

Having resigned himself to the fact that his parish is now closed, Gregoire said he remains committed to continuing the legacy of the parish food pantry.

“It’s still nice to go inside (the shrine), because I still get a warm feeling when I go there,” he said. “It’s too bad that some people come from the outside that don’t know that the church is closed and think that they can just go through there and I have to explain: ‘I’m really sorry, but I cannot allow anybody back there.’ That’s the agreement I have with the diocese. It’s just a shame, but it’s a decision that had to be made by the diocese and you know, it was a difficult decision, but you have to respect that they know what they’re doing.”

Those interested in supporting the food pantry can send donations to: St. Anne Food Pantry, c/o 858 Middle Street, Fall River, Mass. 02721.

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