By Charlie Sahner and Steve Chernoski
The Lambertville Food Pantry, sponsored by the Delaware Valley Interfaith Council (DVIC), continues to search for a new operating space after being asked last October to leave its current location at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church.
And while spokespersons for St. John’s underscored the fact that the food pantry will not be tossed from their current quarters until they’ve found a new home, the church’s decision continued to draw heat last week, particularly in online social media.
“Although there was a possibility that St. John’s would make use of the pantry building about a year ago, we were told that plans had changed and we could stay there. We had absolutely no notice before Monday, Oct. 26, that we needed to evacuate the premises,” read one Facebook post from a pantry volunteer.
Church spokesperson Tim Rudderow paints a much different picture.
“There’s been no timeline given to them on moving. Our intention is not to disrupt their operation. We went to their board a year and a half ago, and told them to start thinking about it. So, this is not bombshell. We’ve had ongoing conversations with them all along,” Rudderow said. “They’re not going to be thrown out until they’ve found a new space.”
Father Robert Kolakowski leads the congregation at the impressive Gothic church, and headed a $2.2 million renovation of the late nineteenth century edifice on Bridge Street in Lambertville.
In a November 2015 letter to St. John’s parishioners, Father Kolakowski explained, “In the weeks and months to come, the St. Vincent DePaul Society will begin to develop a comprehensive service program for the community. We envision emergency food relief, clothing assistance, energy subsides and rent assistance, among other services…we will need space to accomplish our mission, space that is accessible and secure.”
In fact, “They are not part of our membership,” according to Dominic Visco, eastern regional vice president for the National Council of United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul, when asked about St. John’s plans.
“[Father Kolakowski’s] volunteer group at the Parish has been using the name ‘Society of St. Vincent de Paul’ for several years,” relayed Visco. “He just recently found out that they we not part of the Society. I am going to speak to the president of that group in their parish to see if they would like to join the Society.”
Tim and Judy Rudderow of Buckingham, long-time members of St. John’s who helped raise funds for the recent renovation, also pointed out in an interview that many Catholic churches have volunteer groups unofficially named after the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and Visco agreed that instances of parishes inadvertently using the group name without being registered sometimes occur.
Meanwhile, another letter regarding St. John’s decision to eject the food pantry began circulating in November. Penned by Lambertville resident Mila C. Montemayor, it was directed to Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski, who oversees the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., of which St. John’s is a member. Montemayor is a long-time parishioner, a volunteer at the food pantry, a former member of the church choir, and started the English as a Second Language program in Lambertville in 2002.
“The pantry serves 1,200 people per month by providing basic food to those in need,” reads one passage of Montemayor’s letter. “Our weekly recipients consist of the elderly, the handicapped, the low-income families, and a large group of Hispanics. The pantry does not have running water, a sink or bathroom. Before the church renovation, we were able to use the bathroom in the church. Now, the bathrooms are closed to the public.”
Pantry leaders were reluctant to speak about the move to oust them, apparently in deference to the church, and the parishioners who have helped them over the years.
Several pantry supporters were far more vocal, albeit under condition of anonymity.
“This is a broader story,” said one. “It’s about the elimination of the community from this church since [Father Kolakowski] has been here. They’re exclusive, not inclusive –always kicking somebody out, and the pantry is the latest.”
Tim Rudderow disagrees.
“St. Johns has had an outreach for years and years, and it was historically run by an individual, quietly and anonymously, and on an ad-hoc basis, inspired by St. Vincent de Paul,” he explained. “Father Robert has thought about expanding our outreach to more people with more services.
“Historically it helped people with rent money, or money for oil, and it was done in a quiet way,” continued Rudderow. ” Father Robert had a wider vision, and now there’s around 15 people involved, and their scope has been expanded to encompass all kinds of emergency funding that may come up. A key part is that the effort is anonymous and confidential, and the work is not just for the parish, but in the community.”
Rudderow went on to assert that the lack of anonymity he perceives at the pantry is limiting its reach.
“The pantry itself has to abide by government regulations because they get government subsidized food, and people have to register, which is problematic for some people, and line up, which is problematic. The church often helps on an emergency basis, if someone loses their job and they’re having a kid, people knock on the church door, and say ‘can you help me?'”
Rudderow continued, “Gordon’s Alley that runs by the pantry is a city street, and people line up, and it’s not safe. They should be inside. People have to stand up there in public, and it’s is a hindrance for certain people,” he said. “Our goal is to provide anonymous, confidential. non-government assistance. And we want to expand into clothing, diapers, and helping with medical bills.”
“There’s lines at the pantry because we don’t have enough room for everyone to fit inside at once,” commented Montemayor. “We have more food than we’re able to put out because there’s not enough space. There’s women with kids waiting in line, but there’s another garage that would solve the problem next door.”
Montemayor said that as she wrote her November 2015 letter to Bishop Bootkoski, to which he never responded, a pattern became apparent to her.
“After I started English as Second Language, the increasing number of Hispanics in the community continued, mostly from Mexico,” she wrote. “At that time, the late Msgr. Leon was very supportive of our efforts, along with his commitment to increasing the volume of recipients of the pantry.”
But since then, “These organizations have been moved out of St. Johns: the ESL class, the church choir made up of parishioners (instead of professional singers), termination of the use of the church for the Riverside Symphonia (a local orchestra), moving the Spanish mass from St. John to St. Agnes (where many Hispanics do not have transportation), and moving the food pantry out after 34 years,” wrote Montemayor.
“I don’t see it as a pattern,” countered Rudderow. “Father Robert makes decisions based on what he sees as the best needs of the parishioners, and that’s what the church is for. Things come up, things change.
“We’re part of the diocese in Metuchen,” he added. “The English as a Second Language (ESL) class did not carry liability insurance, and it’s an absolute requirement of the diocese that they have insurance.”
Montemayor acknowledged that ESL didn’t carry liability insurance, but asserted, “It wasn’t a problem before Father Robert came, then suddenly it was a requirement. Many small volunteer groups don’t carry liability insurance. I think they should have put the classes under their [policy] because it’s part of the ministry.
“So is there a pattern, she continued. “Father Robert wants his own way, and his own group of people. We used to be friends. Then, with the school, I called him and said we wanted to stay, and he said he wanted to save money. ‘If I go elsewhere, the other churches would love it, and it won’t be Catholic,’ I told him. He said ‘I don’t care.’
“Now some of my Hispanic clients are being recruited by other churches because they can’t go to church in Stockton — there’s no transportation, Montemayor added. “Many live within a block or two of our pantry. How will these people come to get their food? They have no ride. They come with baby carriages.”
The ESL is now being housed at Centenary United Methodist Church in Lambertville, during which hot meals are often served by the church, according to Montemayor.
St. John’s Rudderow takes a different view.
“The difficulty of holding a Spanish mass is in getting a Spanish-speaking priest — mass was previously held by a priest from Trenton who said he could no longer do it,” Rudderow said. “The only guy we could get was a priest from Flemington, who could only do the mass at 11 a.m., the same time we hold our main Engish mass at St. John’s. It’s formal and has to occur in English. So, Father Robert’s solution was to move the Spanish mass to Stockton, where we have St. Agnes.
“We’re the only church in the area with a Spanish mass,” continued Rudderow. “We understand it’s not the most convenient, and it was maybe not best possible thing that happened, but it was the best choice under the circumstances.”
In terms of changes at the choir, Rudderow said, “When Father Robert arrived, the choirmaster abruptly left, and we had to scramble to find an organist for Easter. A call was a put out to former choir members, and we received very little response, so it never happened…not to say it won’t happen.”
Montemayor says the choir was dissatisfied due to the departure of its director. “Tom had been there a long time when I joined. There were 15-20 of us. He left because Father Robert wanted to choose the music, which is what the director does. After he quit, the whole choir disbanded.”
Rudderow used the closure of St. John’s preschool as another example of a difficult, but well-considered decision that didn’t fit a pattern.
“The preschool closed down last year because only five kids were registered, including our grand kid,” he said. “Father Robert made the decision that they couldn’t properly be educated and socialized. Now, the building is being used for offices of the parish, AA, parish events, and religious education for K-8.”
Judy Rudderow explained why Riverside Symphonia needed to move. “We had to decide how other outside organizations use our space. After renovating, and with our parish growing, the parish council needed to vote on a policy as to whether or not outside, secular organizations could use a holy space. The parish council voted on whether to continue in the vein of letting others use religious space, and it was voted [for St. John’s] to keep the space.
A person involved with Riverside Symphonia operations said of the situation, “Being asked to leave hurt us badly. It was not very neighborly. They wouldn’t even talk about the decision. But we were taken in by St. Martin of Tours in New Hope with open arms.”
Concluded Tim Rudderow of recent church actions, “The parish paid over $2 million to renovate the church, which is a jewel in the middle of the town. The number of parishioners is going up, and that’s a very positive development and a testament to our work.”