SIDNEY — It’s been almost 20 years since Pat Luthman, of rural Sidney, got the job of managing the Holy Angels Soup Kitchen.
The only director the program has ever known will retire within a few weeks. After two decades of making sure Sidney’s hungry get a good lunch at least three days a week, Luthman is now training her replacement, the soup kitchen’s second director, Judy Smith.
In the summer of 1999, the church was looking for someone to establish and manage a soup kitchen.
At the time, there was no regular source of lunch for the city’s less fortunate residents. The occasional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner or a lunch offered every now and again by one church or another and the Alpha Center’s daily breakfast were what was available. A Holy Angels parishioner, Karen Potts, worked as a case manager at Dettmer Hospital in Troy. She managed outreach to homeless people in Shelby and other counties, and she was aware of a soup kitchen in Troy that was successfully run by a Dettmer colleage, Dick Steineman.
“He said he could get one started in Sidney,” Potts said. Conventional wisdom dictated that when a church was getting a new priest, it was the wrong time to try to get a new program started. Holy Angels was getting a new priest. But that didn’t stop Potts.
“I went to Dad and asked if he and his friends could give me (seed) money. They chipped in $1,000 each,” she said. “If you go to the church with money, they’ll say, ‘Yes,’” she recalled. Potts and Steineman presented it to the new clergyman, the Rev. Gerald Bensman. They were ready for a “No,” but he surprised them by agreeing to the plan.
Another colleague of Potts was one of Luthman’s daughters. She suggested that her mom would be a good candidate to get the project going. She was right.
“I’ll have it open in two weeks,” Luthman assured the men who comprised the first board of trustees. And she did. The Holy Angels Soup Kitchen served its first meal in the Alpha Center, Oct. 9, 1999.
Potts said there was never a plan to create a new building for the program. The Alpha Center was already open and had a kitchen, she noted, and “everything just fell into place.”
The program was established as a nonprofit organization, separate from the church. It has its own board and donations to it are tax-deductable.
Luthman is grateful for many, many donations of food and of money by individuals and businesses throughout the years. They have meant that the soup kitchen has never missed providing a meal at lunchtime on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“Dick Steineman told me, ‘You never have to worry about running out of food.’ How true he is,” Luthman said.
Salad comes from Freshway Foods; catering leftovers come from the Spot, the Palazzo in Botkins, Sidney’s Knights of Columbus and the fire department in St. Paris; Panera Bread in Huber Heights, and Agape Distribution, Bob Evans, Subway, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Sidney all provide food on a regular basis. Luthman drives to Lima to pick up donations by the West Ohio Food Bank.
Members of churches in Sidney, Russia, McCartyville, Fort Loramie and Newport make casseroles to be served by the soup kitchen.
Monetary donations permit the purchase — at greatly reduced prices — of food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We pay by the pound,” Luthman said.
In the beginning, the director would develop menus for the week, but as years went by, she found it was better not to be too wedded to plans. Donations would come in and have to be used immediately before they spoiled.
“So I stopped menus. I have an idea in my head,” Luthman said.
At first, she made cakes and other desserts and fried all the meat in her kitchen at home. Food was stored in three freezers in her garage. Now, there are coolers and freezers in the Alpha Center. And it’s a volunteer, Becky Roberts, who makes the desserts at home. She’s been doing it for almost 12 years.
In addition to her gratitude for the donations, Luthman is thankful for Roberts and the many other volunteers whose help keeps the program going. Parisioners from throughout the county and beyond, Boy and Girl Scouts and 4-H members donate their time to cook, serve and clean up. Luthman coordinates the schedules and teaches them how to prepare lunch for 100 people.
That has led to some amusing incidents.
“One year in the summer, we had nine boys come down from Celina. They did the coooking. We had two pans of baked beans. I told them they had to put a pan underneath because the pans with the beans would buckle. One boy didn’t. He pulled that out (of the oven) and we had beans all over the place,” she laughed.
Another time, a volunteer found Luthman to ask, “Pat, do you have any more tomato soup?”
“Are you out?” Luthman asked.
“No. We burned it,” came the answer.
Yet other volunteers didn’t follow instructions when Luthman told them how to make dumplings.
“There was a recipe in the Dayton Daily News. I tried it at home,” she remembered. Luthman tested every recipe at home before she made it for diners at the Alpha Center.
“We had to have 20 or 30 dozen eggs. We cracked all these eggs. We mixed in the flour, the baking soda, got the chicken broth going. I told them, ‘Drop a teaspoon (of dumpling batter) in and it will come to the top.’ They came running back crying, ‘They’re too big!!!” Luthman said. The cooks had used tablespoons instead of teaspoons and the dumplings were the size of baseballs.
“Just cut them in half,” Luthman told them.
One volunteer who has helped Luthman from the very beginning is Margaret Helmlinger, of Sidney. It was Helmlinger who taught Luthman how to make lamb roasts when they were first provided by the food bank in Lima.
“I lived on a farm and raised sheep, but I had never cooked lamb,” Luthman said. Helmlinger said to cook them in beef broth with fresh vegetables. Diners thought they were eating beef stew, and one even commented that it was the best beef stew she’d ever had.
“Margaret always says we have to serve a nice, colorful plate. She’s a good cook. I learned a lot from her,” Luthman said.
Now, it’s Smith’s turn to learn from Luthman. Hired in November and hand-picked by Luthman, herself, Smith has worked for the last 35 years at Pizza Hut. She will continue waitressing there on Thursdays.
Smith thinks Luthman’s dedication to the soup kitchen is her mentor’s most important contribution.
“I can’t begin to tell you how dedicated Pat is. Her determination to get out there and do this — she’s a very good Christian lady and it just pours out of her,” Smith said.
She is quick to add that Luthman’s knowledge and thoughtfulness are worthy of mention, too.
“She’s very supportive and understanding and patient. She truly cares, which is where I hope I can follow suit and follow in her footsteps,” Smith said.
The new director looks forward to “getting to know the people better.” She also wants to meet the challenge of preparing the large amounts of food required at the soup kitchen. Luthman has promised to stay on until Smith feels comfortable in the job.
“She keeps telling me she’ll stay until I feel OK,” Smith said. “I say to her, ‘I’m never going to kick you out of this kitchen. This is your legacy.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.