Carolyn Pieciak is the retiring founding leader of St. Brigid’s soup kitchen in Brattleboro.
Kevin O’Connor/
Carolyn Pieciak is the retiring founding leader of St. Brigid’s soup kitchen in Brattleboro.

Serving hungry people with kindness and empathy

Carolyn Pieciak, retiring as co-founder of Brigid’s Kitchen, says that the 200 or so people who visit on a given day are not who you’d think. ‘Probably the biggest misunderstanding is they’re all homeless,’ she says.

BRATTLEBORO-Carolyn Pieciak can tell you how she made peanut butter, jelly, and Fluff sandwiches for her son, State Treasurer Mike Pieciak, long before he sank his teeth into Vermont's financial ledgers.

But the 78-year-old Brattleboro resident would rather chew over the smorgasbord of meals she has coordinated as founding leader of St. Brigid's, one of the region's largest soup kitchens.

"They say to cook chicken to 165 degrees," she began a recent interview, "although dark meat isn't fully done at that, so we cook it to 175 to 185 degrees - until it's falling off the bone."

After four decades serving up such facts, Pieciak is retiring as the lunch spot's director. She spread the news one day this month as she welcomed dozens of people into its Walnut Street dining room.

"Probably the biggest misunderstanding is they're all homeless," she said. "Instead, 76% are low-income elderly who worked their whole lives, are living on Social Security, and are struggling."

Pieciak's peers statewide have reported a similar shift in clientele.

The need was there - out of sight

Times have changed since Pieciak was a Catholic schoolgirl in West Springfield, Massachusetts, during the post–World War II boom.

"I can clearly remember feeling that God wanted me to work with the poor," she said.

Pieciak moved to Brattleboro in 1970 and was head of the peace and justice committee of St. Michael's Catholic Church when the pastor noted a growing number of visitors requesting food.

"A lot of people didn't see the need," she recalled.

That's because those seeking help were either transients catching rides along the nearby train tracks or former mental health patients holed up in apartments after their release from the Brattleboro Retreat.

Pieciak and fellow volunteers soon were raising money, ordering and obtaining ingredients, and creating space at the church's former convent to prepare and serve food.

Then came the hard part.

"We had to name the kitchen - and had our biggest fight," Pieciak said. "Someone wanted St. Francis House of Bread. Someone else wanted Martha's Kitchen, because Martha got a bad rap."

(Martha, according to the Bible, worriedly made a meal for Jesus, only to be told to stop and instead marinate in his teachings - but that's another story.)

Amid the debate, someone thought of St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland who is celebrated for her compassion and charity.

"Everybody loved it," Pieciak said.

'We thought this was a temporary fix'

The newly named soup kitchen opened on St. Patrick's Day 1982, and it was soon serving an average of two dozen people a day, including the local coal shoveler, who always arrived with ashen hands.

"We thought this was a temporary fix - we never thought it would last," Pieciak said. "Things were not good then, but they're horrible today."

St. Brigid's now feeds more than 200 people each lunch hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, with approximately 100 volunteers preparing an annual total of 45,000 meals.

"It's like catering a big wedding four days a week," Pieciak said.

The local influx of older patrons mirrors the situation statewide. According to a report on senior hunger by Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, an estimated 8% of Vermont elders are considered food insecure.

"We know that inflation and the increase in food prices have hit people on fixed incomes hard," said John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank. "It's not just older Vermonters, but also working families."

'God was right here doing most of the work'

Pieciak credits the food bank for help with provisions and funds to purchase kitchen equipment. That said, she believes St. Brigid's benefits most from something else.

"I couldn't have remained if I didn't have strong faith that God was right here doing most of the work," Pieciak said. "Sometimes we shouldn't have succeeded - we did something wrong, we agonized about what was going to happen - and it would just get solved."

Take the building's recent $250,000 renovation. Or when volunteers, following COVID-19 safety protocols, kept the kitchen open for takeout meals during the pandemic.

Pieciak remembers the calls from her three grown children urging her to close.

"This went on for weeks and weeks," she recalled, "and so one time I yelled at Michael and said, 'St. Brigid has been watching over us for years and she certainly isn't going to stop now.'

"That's why I think we were absolutely blessed," she continued. "I don't think we could have lasted as long or as well without that."

Her son had only good words for his mother when he spoke at a recent local panel on poverty in his capacity as state treasurer.

"Thank you for all the work you've done for the Brattleboro community," he said as the audience offered her a round of applause.

Pieciak will continue to volunteer periodically when she's not devoting time to her husband, children, grandchildren, or "one needy German Shepherd." For their part, the three people required to take over her position keep asking for a list of everything it entails.

"You just have to have kindness and empathy for the people that show up," she replies. "If there's anything we need now, it's those two things."

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VTDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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