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As church goes, so may mission

Salem pantry in peril if St. Joseph's is closed

SALEM -- As she stood amid racks stacked with macaroni, cereal, and canned vegetables at St. Joseph's Food Pantry, Veann Campbell praised a devout army of volunteers that spreads the faith of an old French Catholic parish across the North Shore.

''None of us are paid," said Campbell, the volunteer director of the food pantry, located in the basement of St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Lafayette Street. ''We're working for Christ."

But maybe not for long. The food pantry, the most active ministry at St. Joseph's, may close if the church closes. St. Joseph's, a 131-year-old French National parish, was recently added to the list of parishes that the Archdiocese of Boston may close as part of a major reconfiguration of parishes. A final decision by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley is due May 25, the archdiocese said.

Another parish would absorb St. Joseph's parishioners, but Campbell is worried that another church won't have the space to run the food pantry.

The pantry, started eight years ago, occupies five rooms in the church basement. It has a $120,000 annual budget, funded mostly by corporate and individual donations, plus grants from anti-hunger organizations such as Project Bread. It is staffed by 56 volunteers, who provide groceries for 1,000 Salem families, or about 3,000 people. Volunteers also deliver food to the elderly, shut-ins, and the disabled, Campbell said.

''It's heartbreaking to think we might not be here," Campbell said, her voice low. ''I remember when we first came down here. It was a dingy, old, dark basement. It needed a lot of work. I almost cried when I saw it. Then I could hear God say, 'Go to work.' "

Work today at the food pantry does more than feed people. The Little Lambs Baby Program helps poor mothers across the North Shore. The program provides baby food, diapers, clothes, and other essential baby supplies often not covered by government programs such as Women Infants & Children. The program is self-sustaining. People contribute $33 per month to sponsor a Little Lamb mother and baby, coordinator Doreen Thomas said.

''The people we serve really wish they didn't have to come to a place like this," said Thomas, a mother of two, who volunteers every day at the pantry. ''Many of them work, but after they pay their rent, they can't afford to buy formula or diapers. They're glad we're here."

A summer program at Mary Jane Lee Park, a public park, brings the food pantry into the heart of the Point, Salem's poorest neighborhood. St. Joseph's abuts the Point, and draws many parishioners from there. The food pantry runs a special program to provide breakfast, lunch, and snacks each day to 150 children who attend the park, run by the City of Salem, Campbell said.

Even if St. Joseph's Church closes, Little Lambs and the summer park program will likely continue, with support from outsiders.

Seven freezers are stocked with bread, meat, dairy products, and other perishables. Bags of pasta and canned vegetables, soup and bottled juices, and water fill steel racks. Much of it is bought at discounted prices at the Greater Boston Food Bank. Donations also come from businesses such as Crosby's Marketplace of Salem and Stop & Shop, as well as Catholic parishes in Salem and beyond. St. Mary of the Annunciation in Danvers, for example, regularly donates to St. Joe's, said the Rev. Lawrence Rondeau, pastor of St. Joseph's.

''Our food pantry is a treasure," said Rondeau, who cited the pantry as a key ministry at St. Joseph's, in a letter he sent to O'Malley. ''We have a minimum of 56 volunteers. Other churches outside Salem are wonderful to us. And most importantly, we make food possible for as many as 1,000 families in Salem. . . . This is what we're called to do."

Kathy McCabe can be reached kmccabe@globe.com.

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