SKOWHEGAN — The cars continue to line up and roll through, while others walk up wearing masks.

The images of this weekly labor of love look different than they did just eight months ago, but it’s Thursday night, which means a free dinner is available to all who need one thanks to the volunteers at St. Anthony’s Soup Kitchen in Skowhegan.

“It’s going well. Our numbers increase every week,” said Aldea LeBlanc, coordinator of the kitchen.

St. Anthony’s Soup Kitchen, located in the parish hall of Notre Dame de Lourdes Church on Water Street, offered a free, sit-down, hot meal for anyone in need every Thursday night prior to the start of the pandemic in March. The ministry is entirely volunteer run.

“The meals were suspended until early June when the soup kitchen resumed again,” said Nora Natale, office manager at Christ the King Parish, of which the soup kitchen is a part. “Most of the crew was more than ready to see our guests again.”

“The need is so great here,” said Fr. James Nadeau, pastor of Christ the King Parish.

The diners are currently not allowed in the parish hall due to the pandemic, but nobody involved was willing to give up this important ministry that has helped thousands of community members through the years.

Now, volunteers wear masks and practice social distancing, the meals are served in a drive-thru format in the parking lot of the church and other recipients participate through take-out service.

While the delivery methods have changed, what has not is the appeal of the meals, which have included pork chops, barbecue chicken, and many other delectable choices.

“We also provide a vegetable and fruit of some kind, as well as donated desserts and bread,” said Aldea. “The meals are served from 4:30 to 5 p.m. to anyone who comes.”

Established in 1991, the soup kitchen shut down briefly in 2017 while the parish sought funding and someone to lead it. 

Aldea stepped forward, along with Steve Watrous, and the kitchen began serving meals again in November 2018.

Patrons not only come from Skowhegan but from surrounding communities such as Athens, Bingham and Canaan.

The soup kitchen is funded through several sources, including donors as well as partners like the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Additionally, Walmart provides a $50 gift card each month, which is used to buy food or supplies, and Hannaford donates food for the meals, as well as bread for the guests to take home.

“If there is any food left over, it gets donated to a homeless shelter in Skowhegan,” said Aldea.

Like many ministries, St. Anthony’s has been diligently planning for the colder months ahead.

“There are two separate doors to the kitchen. One of our ideas is to have people come one at a time to pick up their food from one door and exit the other door,” said Aldea. “They could tell the volunteers what items they want so they wouldn’t need to touch any of the food items. Anyone who cannot pick up this way, we will bring the food to their car like we are doing now.”

Organizers look forward to the day when they can once again offer sit-down service and the in-person community it helps build.

In the meantime, regardless of the protocols they will have to adhere to, you can bet this dedicated group of volunteers will find a way to ensure the doors are open each Thursday.

“We welcome anyone,” said Aldea. “And we’ll always thank them for coming.”

For more information about the St. Anthony’s Soup Kitchen or to learn how you can help, contact the parish at 207-474-2039.