Instruments of blessing

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Posted: Wed., Jan. 04, 2017

Staff Writer

The Downtown Pittsburgh streets were quiet on a rather dark Christmas Eve morning, but the joy that filled Lawless Hall of St. Mary of Mercy Parish was palpable.

“God bless you,” bellowed Santa Claus, who bore a striking resemblance to Father Nicholas Vaskov, administrator of St. Mary of Mercy. He was happily handing out gift bags to more than 150 guests at a Dec. 24 dinner for the homeless and underprivileged.

People of all ages and backgrounds were served. There were young couples with babies in strollers, and older people with tears in their eyes. The menu included ham and kielbasa, and a variety of desserts.

“You’re absolutely welcome, brother,” said a volunteer as he served one of the guests with a huge smile. “Merry Christmas to you.”

Nearby, another guest declined an offer for another helping. “I’m trying to watch my figure,” he said with a laugh.

Christmas music filled the air as Holy Spirit Sister Cindy Ann Kibler, apostolic works coordinator at St. Paul Seminary, and other religious joined volunteers in greeting people at the tables. Families with children took pictures with Santa Claus, and the guests happily greeted fellow guests they recognized.

The volunteers included Father Vaskov’s parents, Connie and Gene, as well as his sister, Victoria, her husband and their 18-month-old son.

The gift bags contained toiletries, hats, gloves, scarves, thermal socks and a lunch for the next day. The Ladies of Charity from St. Thomas á Becket Parish in Jefferson Hills provided many of the items.

“You don’t know where they’ve come from, what they’ve experienced,” said St. Thomas member Connie Richard. “When you sit down and actually talk to them it’s amazing — their stories. They love the companionship. They want to talk to somebody — to be embraced.”

She offered a “Merry Christmas. God bless you,” to a guest who gave her a big smile as he left.

Richard has been volunteering at St. Mary of Mercy’s Red Door for the past year and a half, usually two or three Saturdays a month. She noted Father Vaskov’s efforts to increase outreach to the homeless, and the efforts of family and friends who make food and provide items to be distributed.

“I have the time to donate — and to make a difference,” she said.

There were at least two dozen volunteers at the dinner, but Father Vaskov pointed out that “we could’ve had a hundred more.” He noted the many people who made the day successful, from those who decorated the hall, to those who cooked and served the dinner, and those who provided fellowship. He mentioned the sacrifices they made in stepping away from their own holiday preparations.

“This is where God’s heart is at work,” Father Vaskov said. “We are happy to be his instruments.”

Christ came to earth, he added, to show us how to live and how to love. We have a responsibility that comes from that — to be his hands and heart in the world, while seeking nothing in return.

“But let me tell you, we get a lot,” he said. “Our hearts are going to be full this Christmas. Because of this experience and because of the love that is shown right here.”

Father Vaskov noted the patience of the guests as they waited for the doors to open. They set a fine example, he said, for all who patiently waited for the coming of the Christ Child.

The parish’s outreach is much more than once a year, he said. Its Red Door serves the hungry six days a week, and many volunteers come out to serve the ministry. Their love impacts the people who come to the door.

“They trust us and we trust them,” Father Vaskov said. “There’s already a great relationship. We love being able to welcome them into our home.”

The parish opened its doors for a Thanksgiving dinner that welcomed more than 100 people.