WARSAW — The Jay Harris Council #8620 Knights of Columbus hall on Wildcat Drive has been abuzz with activity all week.
Cooks, headed up by Knights member Howard Sullentrop, have been in and out all week preparing to feed the masses for the 29th straight year. Sullentrop and a group of about 40 volunteers woke up early Christmas Day and began manning the kitchen for the annual celebration, offered for free by the group to those in need of a hot meal or just a little Christmas fellowship.
People began showing up at the hall just before the meal’s start time of 11 a.m. By 11:30 more than 250 people had passed through the food line, taking away healthy servings of turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied sweet potatoes, rolls and dessert. By noon, seating was full and volunteers were busy bringing in additional tables and chairs as folks continued to queue through the door.
Bruce Brosnahan, the hall’s Grand Knight, told the Democrat they saw some 325 people come through the door at last year’s meal, and expected about 400 by the time things wrapped up around 2 p.m. Wednesday.
“We have seen a steady increase of 15 to 20 percent each year,” Brosnahan said. “The economy has a lot to do with that, plus we have a lot of retirees in the area whose family live somewhere else, so they come here to see old friends and enjoy the fellowship.”
While the Knights have overseen the meal for most of its history, Brosnahan said this year saw increased volunteerism from members of the Warsaw Chamber of Commerce and community members.
“We welcome everyone. What we do as far as fund-raising and charity stays here in Benton County. This is just a day for everyone to come and participate,” he said.
Volunteering at the meal is a family affair for the Brosnahans, with Bruce overseeing the event with assistance from his wife, Patty, son, Marc, and daughter, Megan all lending a hand on Wednesday.
“Megan got up this morning and opened a couple presents and then said ‘OK, let’s go to the hall.’ She was ready to go,” Brosnahan said.
For longtime hall members Don Wilde and John Walterscheid, there would be no tradition at all if it had not been for Knights Bill Weaver and Leo “Doc” Porter, who helped launch the meal as a means of serving the needy in the community.
Wilde and Walterscheid said this is the first year that Weaver has not been able to attend the meal due to ongoing health issues. The two men stepped away from the meal midday with carry-out boxes loaded up for a trip to visit Weaver.
“If he ever gets down and you want to raise his spirits all you have to do is bring up the Christmas meal,” Wilde said of Weaver. “This all really started as an outpouring of his love for being around people.”
At the back of the hall Diana Gazarek was busy setting out a host of desserts, many baked by the wives of hall members or members of St. Ann Catholic Church in Warsaw.
Like Weaver, a number of volunteers and supporters have left a lasting mark on the meal, Gazarek said, including Ester Tardino, a volunteer who passed away this year.
In her memory one of the ladies prepared “Ester’s Pie” a favored dish that includes cream cheese, cool whip, roasted nuts and a graham cracker crust.
“We just thought it would be a nice way to honor her,” Gazarek said.