It came to pass on the eve before Christmas that about 75 volunteers shared dinner and the light of Christ with people who were hungry.
They helped prepare and serve or deliver 536 hot meals during Sacred Heart High School’s 37th annual Christmas Eve Dinner.
“The Christmas Eve Dinner holds a strong tradition here in Pettis County,” said Timara Kennon, who teaches religion at Sacred Heart and is coordinator for the school’s National Honor Society (NHS) chapter, which sponsors the event.
“Not only do we feed underprivileged, unemployed and homebound residents,” she noted, “we also take a meal to people being held in the Pettis County Jail, along with county and city law-enforcement, firefighters and EMTs.”
The volunteers also dish up meals in the school cafeteria for people who want to partake of food, warmth and fellowship.
Some years, they serve and deliver 700 or more meals, depending on the weather and other factors.
“This is a huge undertaking for such a small group of kids,” said Mrs. Kennon, “but we do it with big hearts.”
Bringing people together
Parishioners, businesses and local charitable organizations donate money and food.
Adults oversee the preparation of massive quantities of roast turkey, potatoes, gravy, dressing, coleslaw, vegetables, bread and pie.
Students and volunteers package meals in to-go containers and deliver them by car to people who call in ahead of time for a delivery.
The calls come from people who are in need, unemployed or underemployed, elderly, lonely or homebound.
Precious Blood Father Mark Miller, pastor of the Sedalia and Bahner parishes, blesses the food and the volunteers each year.
Each meal includes a handmade Christmas card from a Sacred Heart student.
There are three shifts: 7 to 10 a.m. for food preparation, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for delivery, and 1 to 3 p.m. for clean-up.
Parents of NHS members oversee the kitchen operation while Mrs. Kennon keeps the assembly line going in the dining room.
Several families and Sacred Heart graduates come back each year to help and be a part of the event.
For some, it has become an intergenerational affair, with as many as three generations helping out.
“People say this one of the best parts of their Christmas,” said Mrs. Kennon.
NHS is a national organization for high school students who demonstrate scholarship, service, leadership and character.
NHS member Alysia Marquez, a Sacred Heart senior, signed up for the early morning shift. She and two other girls cut the pies into slices.
She enjoyed spending time with the other volunteers, many of whom she often sees at church.
“It made me proud of my community to see so many helping hands volunteering their time on Christmas,” she said.
Because she was on the early shift, she got to meet only one guest who came about two hours before dinner was served, only to sit and absorb the atmosphere.
Miss Marquez asked Mrs. Kennon why the man arrived so early.
“She told me that lots of people come in early, because this is the highlight of their Christmas,” the student recalled. “It is so easy to forget the lives of others.”
Miss Marquez noted that Christmas can be a very selfish and indulgent holiday.
“Taking time out at Christmas to help others has reminded me of the real opportunities Christmas presents to us, instead of ignoring the struggles others face,” she said.
For her, the Christmas Eve dinner is a chance to share with people who are less fortunate, all in the name of God.
Having been a student at the school since kindergarten, she has grown up with the same classmates and teachers.
“Sacred Heart has become more than a school to me, but a second home,” she said.
She believes being Catholic obliges her to work toward helping God make the world better.
“Currently, the world is filled with so much animosity, and Catholicism inspires people to fuel the world with love rather than hate,” she said.
She emphasized that the Christmas Eve Dinner runs solely on the kindness and generosity of others.
“Donations are always welcome!” she stated.
“God in every human”
This annual tradition started in 1982 when a Sacred Heart teacher challenged his students to find out about people in need and then go out and do something to help them.
The students were startled to learn that people in their own community were hungry not only for food but also for relief from their isolation.
The students and their families responded by preparing a festive meal and serving it in person to anyone who was feeling cold on the inside or the outside.
The effects on all who take part have changed little over time.
NHS member Summer Caton, a Sacred Heart junior, helped promote this year’s event.
Because she was going to be out of town with her family on Christmas Eve, she helped send out invitations to volunteers, visited local businesses, made posters promoting the event, and handed out flyers.
“The NHS Christmas Eve Dinner is a heartwarming event to help with, whether it be in preparation or on the day of,” she said.
She believes God was actively present in all who were in need and all who came to help.
“There is God in every human, and it’s amazing to see how He can gather all of us together to work toward a common goal to help another one of His disciples,” she said.
Miss Caton is glad to be part of the Sacred Heart community. Her favorite part of school is her morning aide hour with the second-graders.
“Each morning, they have a prayer circle, and each student has a chance to say a special prayer about whatever they want,” she said.
Topics range from pets and loved ones to people across the world, and even for each other.
“It’s a blessing to be a part of and to see how their teacher, Mrs. Bentch, teaches them so well about the love of Christ and the power of prayer,” said Miss Caton.
She said she’s grateful to be Catholic.
“It means that I get to receive Holy Communion each and every time I attend Mass, and that is the greatest gift I could ever accept,” she said.
She plans on remaining actively Catholic beyond high school.
“I am currently in confirmation classes, working to become a true Catholic adult and grow my relationship with God even more,” she said.