There may have been a little Christmas chill in the outside air on Monday, but inside The Gathering Place on Military Road in central St. John’s, there was plenty of warmth being distributed on Christmas Day.
And it was all in the name of family.
The Gathering Place hosted more than 300 guests to enjoy a complimentary turkey dinner on Christmas Day, as more than 100 volunteers gave up the early hours of Christmas Day to let those “marginalized” community members come together in one big family and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and enjoy Christmas Day.
The meal was led in prayer by Sister Eileen Penney.
Joanne Thompson, executive director of The Gathering Place, while pausing with a big smile on her face when queried, said, “You know … this is a very comfortable place that they’re used to coming in every day, and that’s really nice. We all go home for Christmas dinner and this is really the same thing, it’s just so wonderful.”
As the guests were gathered in a downstairs common room of The Gathering Place, which once housed the Mercy School — run by the Sisters of Mercy — upstairs in the preparation area things were a beehive of activity with volunteers preparing the meal, and gift bags and treat bags for the guests to take with them afterward.
You could feel the heat of the kitchen area as the industrial dishwasher was put to good use for the dinner plates and as the ovens and stoves cooled down once the food was cooked and ready to be served by volunteers donning oven mitts and hairnets.
For Gathering Place guest Gerry Ryan, 59, an injured worker and a native of Cape Broyle on the Southern Shore, the day was very special.
“This is my second year coming to The Gathering Place,” Ryan said. “I got injured at work and I got put off on workers compensation that put me into a low income category. So The Gathering Place is there for people who find it hard to keep themselves in enough groceries and food to eat.
“Most people these days can just barely afford to pay the rent. So I started coming here to meet some friends and see what was going on, and I help out as much as I can. I think it’s a great place, just one big family.”
In praising the chefs, Ryan gave a big thumbs-up.
“The meal is excellent, the turkey is delicious and compliments to the cooks, they done a great job. For a lot of people this is the only place they got to come to today, and after I’m planning on going to visit members of the family and see how my nephews and nieces are doing with their gifts,” Ryan said.
“Christmas Day to me is exciting for the children and that’s what I look at — you want to make it happy for the kids and it’s nice to sit down with friends also and have a turkey dinner.
Ryan also praised The Gathering Place.
“The folks at The Gathering Place … they’re a great bunch of people that come here and it offers a lot of services for these people, and if it wasn’t here, a lot of them wouldn’t be able to avail of the services,” he concluded before digging back into his meal.
Another regular guest of The Gathering Place, who wanted to use only his first name, Adam, said it meant the world to him on Christmas Day.
“It gives me a place to go and hang out with my friends and enjoy Christmas Day today,” said Adam, 59. “I come here just about every day and hang out with my friends and I recommend it to anybody.
“It means a lot to me because I ordinarily don’t have family here in town, and this is a good place for people who don’t have any family. The Gathering Place is comfortable and I thank them for putting this off, and it would be nice to see more events like this all year round on special occasions,” Adam, a native of Victoria, Carbonear, said with a huge smile.
Before she went back to milling around The Gathering Place crowd on Christmas Day, Thompson said, “I certainly want to thank the staff here and all the volunteers for putting this off. We’ve been three full days getting ready for today, and weeks of planning. It’s been a real community effort from the people who have come in and helped out, and the community groups that have stepped up to provide this meal and other valuable things.
“We couldn’t have done this without them. It’s a fabulous effort. It’s wonderful.
“Our staff and volunteers see these people every day and so to see them here on Christmas Day and to know that you’re a big part of Christmas Day for them and to see the community come on board and be with us, it’s just so joyous.”