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Joyce Johnson serves up a helping of green bean casserole for Joyce Hudson at the community Thanksgiving dinner at St. Francis Borgia Church in Blair in 2017. JOE BURNS/ENTERPRISE MEDIA GROUP

Blair parish to share large Thanksgiving Day mean

Large family gatherings are common at Thanksgiving. Few, however, compare to the family of 900 expected at the 10th Annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner – on Thanksgiving Day – at St. Francis Borgia Church in Blair.

“It takes a lot of people to put it on, and rather than a burden, people find it a joy because everyone who comes – volunteers and diners – just light up,” said Father James Netusil, pastor.

There is something for everyone, said Jamie Anderson, who helped start the event with his wife, Janell. They were inspired by an uncle, Father Jim Tigges, who hosted an annual Thanksgiving dinner in his parish in rural Iowa, and they saw benefits for Blair and Washington County.

“We have a lot of elderly here. We have a lot of people whose grown children moved and can’t always return for the holiday. We have people who moved here for work and are away from family. For others, their homes can’t accommodate everyone,” Janell Anderson said. “It’s also expensive and a lot of work to cook a big Thanksgiving dinner … and some people just have the day free because they celebrate another time. 

“This gives everyone something to do and a place to go, for whatever reason,” she said.

The pastor in those first days, Father Mario Rapose, now pastor of St. Philip Neri-Blessed Sacrament Parish in Omaha, shared with church and lay leaders in the Washington County Ministerial Association the idea of hosting such a gathering and including everyone. They loved it. In fact, Father Netusil’s primary duty for the dinner, besides wearing his turkey shirt and pumpkin pie hat, is to continue the tradition by inviting all churches in the area to be part of the preparation, or the meal, or both. 

“It’s awesome. All the local churches participate,” Anderson said. “Our slogan is ‘For the Community, By the Community.’ It’s truly a community event that transcends individual religions.”

Hundreds of people in and around Blair, including Fort Calhoun, “show up to prepare the week before, drop off food and money for supplies, make the meal, serve or clean up,” he said. They span the gamut from seniors to small children, and there is a job for everyone.

Younger kids carry trays, push wheelchairs, refill beverages and watch toddlers so parents can help cook, serve and clean. The Andersons, like many volunteers, have brought their four children every year. “Our 10-year-old was just a baby that first year. They’ve all grown up with it and our oldest, Carter, now 20, leads the mashed potatoes team,” Janell Anderson said.

A student at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, their son plans to help again this year. “It’s great to work with all the other churches. Many hands make it easy.” he said. 

This small army is needed to prepare the meal’s 225 pounds of mashed potatoes; 15 gallons of homemade gravy; 60 turkeys; and eight roasters each of stuffing, candied yams and green bean casserole. Hundreds of pies miraculously appear Wednesday and Thursday.

Wendy Rand answered the invitation to participate 10 years ago with her husband, Robert, and their children. Members of Country Bible Church in Blair, they celebrate Thanksgiving the following Saturday because her mom is a nurse and works Thanksgiving Day. 

“We were always free that day, so we thought it would be something good to do,” Rand said. They lead the team for take out and delivery, last year handling 400 meals. This year, online orders also are available using the parish website at www.stfrancisborgia.org.

“It’s fun. Everybody appreciates the company,” Rand said. “It feels like one huge family eating dinner together. It’s not separate bodies of Christ – it’s one Body of Christ.

“The Catholic Church is a huge part because they have a fantastic facility. Nobody feels excluded because all the different denominations participate,” she said.

The meal continues to be free to all, but many people have insisted on contributing just to say thanks. Organizers accept freewill donations. Jane Sheehan, a member of St. Francis Borgia and a longtime volunteer, said any donations above the meal’s needs go to the food pantry, sponsored by the Washington County Ministerial Association. In 2017, the pantry received about $1,700, Father Netusil said.

“People are so thankful to have a place to go and people to share the day with,” Sheehan said. She regularly gives teenagers, including her daughter, Meg, the job of eating with older visitors. Now a senior at Blair High School, Meg said she loves that tradition because she feels so good afterward. 

“It’s amazing when a teen offers an elder sitting alone a piece of pie and asks, ‘Can I sit with you?’ The look on their faces … it’s amazing what kindness can do for both the giver and the receiver,” Sheehan said. “Grace flows both ways.” 

 

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