When wintertime settles over the Vineyard with its long nights, chilly days, and quieter pace, getting together to eat with friends and neighbors has been a longstanding tradition. A handful of friends gather in a kitchen with casseroles, salad, and wine; families with toddlers join for supper and playtime with their little ones; colleagues head out for beer and pizza after a long workweek; and and there are potluck extravaganzas galore at the Ag Hall or P.A. Club.
But community suppers at Island churches have become a thriving part of that same tradition. Offering hearty sustenance and genial hospitality, the suppers aim to satisfy the body and soothe the soul. Every church hall becomes a warm and welcoming place to socialize at a time when nights can be lonely, moods low, budgets tight, and groceries scarce.
These winter meals are held at six churches across the Island: St. Augustine’s Church, First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, Grace Episcopal Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, Federated Church of Edgartown, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Each supper has its own distinct personality, with its own parishioners and community members who make these mealtimes nourishing and nurturing.
Supplies come from many sources. Some churches rely upon the Greater Boston Food Bank. Others serve dishes donated by parishioners. Some receive contributions from local markets, businesses, and Island Gleaners. Many display donation boxes to help with expenses.
Parishioners pitch in by setting up, cooking, serving, and cleaning up — happy to ensure all Islanders feel welcome and well-fed.
All churches also provide dinners for individuals utilizing the House of Grace Winter Shelter program — an overnight shelter open every night through March 31.
Brightly covered round tables filled St. Augustine’s Catholic Church hall in Vineyard Haven one recent Thursday evening. Tables were set with bowls of chips and dip. A long table offered coffee, tea, water, and cold beverages.
The serving area was bustling as volunteers set out desserts: brownies, pineapple upside-down cake, and coconut squares. In the kitchen, Chef Joe Capobianco prepped pans and filled serving containers. Trays of barbequed spare ribs filled the air with a tantalizing aroma.
Capobianco, facility and event manager for the Good Shepherd Parish (which includes St. Augustine’s), plans menus, procures groceries, and cooks delicious dinners. Capobianco is a former restaurant owner off-Island, and is assisted by Joe Vinci of the M.V. Chowder Co.
Capobianco travels to the Greater Boston Food Bank’s Cape site regularly, picking up orders for the Island Food Pantry, several church dinners, the Good Shepherd’s Warming Center, and food distributions. He plans menus based on what is available from the Food Bank, and begins preparations early Thursday mornings.
Volunteers greeted dinner guests as they arrived. At 5 pm, Father Michael Nagle rose to say grace. Servers chatted with guests while piling their plates high with ribs, rice, buttered corn, and hot rolls.
A smiling Hazel Teagan ladled out steaming chicken soup, and Ann Thifault served crisp tossed salad. Guests dined at leisure as conversation moved from the weather and Island traffic to other church dinners, and even The MV Times’ new subscription policy.
“It’s about community,” said one man. “Sitting together and getting to know your neighbors.”
As remaining food was packed for the Warming Center, cleanup crews moved into action. Teens from the MVRHS hockey team and St. Augustine’s youth members joined in, cleaning with volunteers.
Chairman Mary Ellen Larsen explained this dinner is organized by a six-member committee. One member takes charge each week, lining up volunteer help and dessert contributions. On the third Thursday of each month, the M.V. Hebrew Center sponsors the meal, and volunteers are organized by Carole Early. The Hebrew Center also makes a generous contribution toward the season’s expenses.
Abundance is clear at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, thanks to coordinator Marjorie Pierce and volunteers. Pierce gathers groceries from sources including local markets, the Greater Boston Food Bank, and Island Gleaners. A member of the Gleaners herself, she harvests vegetables and freezes for winter use.
Pierce and volunteers prepare meals in the kitchen. Diners often add sides and desserts. The church turns out some 100 meals each Wednesday, including dinners delivered to Houses of Grace and homebound neighbors.
Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven was one of the first churches to offer free soup suppers in the 1990s, along with the West Tisbury parish. Menus have evolved over time, as they have at other churches. Grace Church serves a varied and hearty buffet dinner Friday evenings.
Theme dinners coordinated by parishioner Leslie Frizzell have included Italian, Mexican, and comfort food nights, as well as a “Thanksgiving Dinner” menu. Guests arrive early to grab a seat, warm up, and socialize. There’s a sense of easy conviviality among the diners, many of them regulars.
The Rev. Stephen Harding offers greetings and the blessing as volunteers line up to serve at Grace Church. Leftover food is packed and sent home with diners.
Community Suppers at Trinity United Methodist Church in Oak Bluffs are also well-known. Volunteer professional guest chefs plan and cook the Saturday evening dinners that draw crowds. Instead of having a buffet line, guests sit as food is plated, and volunteers deliver it to tables, restaurant-style.
“It becomes a social event,” said co-organizer Ethel Tyson. “It’s more than just feeding people. It’s providing that social ingredient that’s important to all of us.”
For hungry lasagna fans, the Federated Church of Edgartown is the place to be for Sunday lunch. The savory after-worship buffet features both meat and vegetable lasagnas — homemade or store-bought. Salad, garlic bread, and desserts complete the menu.
Lasagna lunches began eight years ago, and are supported by parishioners, who donate and serve food. Cash donations are not accepted: Organizers say this luncheon is the church’s gift to the community.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown welcomes supper guests Monday nights. Elizabeth Villard and volunteer cooks prepare meals in the church kitchen. The suppers are sponsored by the United Methodist Church, which began serving community meals at the Old Whaling Church in the 1990s. The Rotary Club has also contributed generously.