For more than a quarter century, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at St. Luke Catholic Church parish hall in Belleville has fed the needy, the homeless and the lonely.
Kathy Roylance, of Swansea, has helped put on the dinner since its inception in 1985.
"It's definitely a public, community dinner and it was from the very first," she said.
Roylance said the dinner originally was founded to give public school religion class students at the Cathedral of St. Peter a way to volunteer and perform service hours. Since then, it has grown into a tradition.
In 1985, about 75 people attended.
Last year, more than 1,200 dinners were served. This year, more than 1,500 dinners are expected to be served.
Melanie Schranz was 16 in 1985 when she and a few other members of the St. Vincent De Paul Youth Group helped come up with the idea of the dinner.
"We were all teenagers and looking back now, I think if we tried to pull off today what we did back then, we would be stopped in our tracks by too-many daunting logistics," she said.
"That's the good thing about teens, they just go for it and think about the consequences later," she continued. "In this case, it worked out pretty well."
Her mother, Jeanette Schranz, a parishioner at Cathedral for years who lives in Swansea, volunteered at the first dinner and continues to do so.
She has vivid memories of the first year when gangly and shy teenagers were asked to speak at the pulpit of weekend Masses to ask various congregations for donations. The Holy Spirit must have been with them, Jeanette Schranz said, because the teens spoke with authority, showing no nerves, and the parishioners responded. "The people were great about doing it," she said.
That first year Melanie Schranz did a little of everything, carrying in donated items, cutting pies, serving food, greeting guests and cleaning up.
"We didn't have many volunteers that first year, just a few of us in the youth group and our adult leaders, so we had to do it all," she explained.
She said as a teenager, she was sure that she would've rather slept in on that Thanksgiving so many years ago. But volunteering and helping others were things her parents valued, so she volunteered. It ended up teaching her what "faith in action" really meant, she said.
"We were active Catholics, attending church, and I was a student in the local Catholic schools, but I was a doer, a seer, a feeler -- reading about my faith or hearing it just wasn't doing it for me, I needed to see it, touch it, feel it," she said. "At this dinner I saw it, I touched it, I felt it.
"I saw people who were hungry. I saw people who were dirty. I saw people who were lonely. I saw people who didn't have a home," she said.
"There's no amount of sleep that I could have had that day that would have done what volunteering at that dinner did for me," she said. "It ignited my faith and changed me as a person."
She volunteered again the next Thanksgiving. But after that she went away to college and then moved out of the area. She lived on the east coast for 20 years. When she came home for future Thanksgivings, it became her job to stay at home and cook, so her family could volunteer at the dinner.
"Here I was the one who got this thing started and I had to stay home and cook, so they could volunteer," she said.
Last year, she moved back to the metro-east and had an opportunity to volunteer again.
"The dinner is a family tradition at our house and if you are around, you help, so I helped," she said. "I was also really curious about how things had changed and what the dinner was like today."
In a lot of ways, it had not changed. The dinner continues to provide a meal and companionship to those who needed it.
But the dinner had grown -- and not just by the number of guests, how many turkeys were cooked or how much stuffing was needed, she said.
It had grown in the number of volunteers. While St. Vincent de Paul is a Catholic-based organization, the dinner has volunteers from other churches, from restaurants and other groups.
"This dinner had grown into an ecumenical effort," she said. "I loved that -- so many people of different faiths coming together to serve those in need."
Restaurants and other parishes will donate more than 30 turkeys. Volunteers from Christ United Methodist Church in Fairview Heights will staff the kitchen.
Members of nine metro-east Catholic parishes will bring side dishes: Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady Queen of Peace, St. Henry, St. Mary, Cathedral, St. Luke, St. Teresa, Holy Trinity and St. Augustine.
Students from St. John the Baptist in Smithton and St. Clare schools in O'Fallon made cards to wish diners a happy Thanksgiving.
In addition, Melanie Schranz was surprised by the number of carryout dinners.
"I think that first year we might have delivered one or two carry outs, and that was probably done by my dad or our other adult leaders on their way home from the dinner," she explained. "They now have a whole table and operations and lots of volunteers with vehicles delivering food."
Joan Winkelmann, a volunteer from Swansea, helps organize the carryout meals -- the bulk of the dinners served. Last year, more than 800 meals went out the door.
"We try to make it like a restaurant; we pride ourselves on fast delivery," she said.
The to-go dinners include traditional Thanksgiving dinner fare: turkey and dressing, mashed and sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, a roll and one dessert, usually pumpkin pie. If there are enough donations, it also will include Jell-O or cranberries.
An assembly line is set up to make the dinners, Winkelmann said. Volunteers use an ice cream scoop to quickly and efficiently place the food in Styrofoam containers.
"We've really tried to streamline our process to really meet the needs of the community, so it's a hassle-free approach, open to anyone," she said. "We don't require any kind of documentation. ... What we don't want is to turn someone away."
Winkelmann said she volunteered with the dinner as a college student and "20-some-odd years later, I'm still involved."
She stressed that no donation or volunteer will be turned away.
"If you're looking for something to do, we're never going to turn away a volunteer," she said.
If you've got a last-minute hankering to contribute to the dinner, cooked side dishes or non-perishable food items should be dropped off at St. Luke's parish hall by 9 a.m. Thursday. The dinner is from 11 a.m to 1 p.m.
Any leftover food is taken to Cosgrove's Kitchen in East St. Louis, which also puts on a Thanksgiving dinner through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The nonperishable items will be taken to a food pantry.
No food will go to waste, volunteers said.
Melanie Schranz said the dinner is about more than feeding the needy, it's about community, she said.
"Sure, the dinner satisfies the physical hunger, but it also satisfies those who are lonely and looking for companionship. It satisfies so many needs people have -- people who come to eat and people who come to volunteer," she said.
"And that, I think, to use a food analogy, is the icing on the cake."
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at email@example.com or 618-239-2460.