screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-11-36-26-amWhen countless Americans sit down to a traditional Thanksgiving feast Nov. 24, they won’t be the first to carve the turkey this month.

Guests at several parishes across the Diocese of Phoenix already have them beat. Several celebrated early. And their meals rivaled what Americans are still slicing, dicing and mashing.

Some 220 people enjoyed a traditional Thanksgiving meal at Blessed Sacrament in Scottsdale Nov. 19. It marked the third year the Vision and Welcome Ministries hosted the meal and the first that families from Title I schools in Phoenix filled two busloads to be guests.

Volunteers lined both sides of the parish hall to dish up turkey, stuffing, gravy, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. They served all of it with a side of friendship.

A third table in the front offered an array of self-serving desserts, fresh veggies and deviled eggs. Several of the boys and young men still in their soccer uniforms devoured the eggs.

Green tablecloths draped each table with freshly arranged flowers, candles and faux fall leaves adorning the middle.

“That’s how it has been with all of our contributors — they will do no less for our guests than they are doing for their own families,” said Pat Hersey, parish life ministries coordinator at Blessed Sacrament.

Volunteers even staffed a craft table where children could read about Thanksgiving, courtesy of the parish’s kindergarten, and make their own card complete with colorful feathers. Lively conversation filled the room for nearly three hours while a small army of volunteers cleared and washed every fine dish and silverware as if they were running a restaurant.

“Everybody wants to give something and they consider this an opportunity, not a sacrifice,” Hersey said of the 80-some parishioners who cooked and delivered the meal. Many would ask, Are you sure that’s all you need?”

The parish also afforded guests the opportunity to take home a second helping of everything— even a pack of mayonnaise and cranberry sauce — so they could indulge in Thanksgiving leftovers, be it Nov. 24 or a different day.

“It’s just the spirit of giving and loving and doing the corporal works of mercy,” Hersey said.

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-11-58-41-amThanksgiving Day

That same spirit is what fills the parish hall at Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Havasu City on Thanksgiving Day each year. The parish, backed by a greater community effort, has been serving a free meal on Turkey Day for at least 20 years. London Bridge Resort donates 20 turkeys, Wal-Mart gives money to buy hams and La Vita Dolce, an Italian restaurant prepares the side dishes at cost with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul donating desserts.

“It’s truly a community Thanksgiving dinner because there are so many contributions form so many different places,” Dan Mathews, an Our Lady of the Lake parishioner, said.

The tradition almost vanished six years ago when the previous coordinator could no longer do it. Mathews stepped in, saying, “You know Father, we can’t let that die.”

Attendance has grown each year. Roughly 175 people dined in the parish hall in 2011. Volunteers delivered another 100 meals to homebound members in the greater community. This year 250-300 guests are expected in the hall with 200 meals delivered to the homebound, including Meals on Wheels clients.

“The community has really come together to make sure this thing happens,” Mathews said, noting the decreased financial load. The county even waived the typical fees required for all 50 volunteers to obtain a food handler’s card.

Guests who dine at the parish are largely older residents who don’t have anyone at home or, have too small of a household to justify the typical spread.

Pre-Turkey Day feasts

The annual Thanksgiving dinner at Sacred Heart Parish in Prescott is more of a potluck with families — primarily in the religious education and youth ministries — providing side dishes. The four-year-old tradition began with formal invitations, followed by an electronic one and brought in 90 people this year.

Candice Fabrie, coordinator of youth ministry, began organizing the meal as a way for families, whose children already know each other, to form stronger bonds.

“Food builds community,” Fabrie said, noting how some guests tablehopped a bit.

Leftover food went to a local men’s shelter. Leftovers from a Thanksgiving feast at San Francisco de Asís School in Flagstaff helped nearby Holy Trinity Newman Center students celebrate Thanksgiving Nov. 18.

The elementary school held its seventh annual Thanksgiving dinner the night before.

Two seatings for the buffet style meal kept crowds down while working with parents’ schedules. Missy Heal, a seventh-grade parent who works at a local restaurant, prepares all of the food with donations coming from Sysco. Other parents helped with set up and cleanup with the students pitching in a different way this year. Each grade made a Thanksgiving banner to display during the meal.

Delivering Thanksgiving

Families and individuals served by the St. Vincent de Paul conference at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tempe got their Thanksgiving fixings hand-delivered Nov. 19. Regular Vincentians and seasonal volunteers spent the early hours of “Turkey Saturday” assembling and delivering more than 200 special Thanksgiving food boxes. That’s roughly double the number of traditional food boxes they deliver per month.

Each family received all of the traditional Thanksgiving fixings plus a can of fruit, two loaves of bread and cake mix and frosting in lieu of costly pies. Parishioners and a school food drive provided the dry goods.

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-11-48-59-am“I’m impressed with the quality of the food that’s given here. It’s a good variety,” Leticia Calderon said while packing a food box.

She planned to just drop her daughter off to join fellow Girl Scouts in service, but decided to help when she saw the size of the operation. Canned goods and fixings for other side dishes lined the perimeter of the parish hall. Volunteers walked around the inside filling all food boxes in 45 minutes.

They grabbed a turkey catered to the family’s size on the way to the car for delivery. Calderon couldn’t stay long enough to deliver, but she sensed that directly meeting the person you’re helping was the best part of “Turkey Saturday.”

“People donate to us all year long to the turkey fund,” said Janet Kovach, a Vincentian who coordinates Turkey Saturday. “Our big things is, they get it in time to thaw it out so they can eat it on Thanksgiving.”