The parish hall kitchen at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport buzzed last Wednesday afternoon as half a dozen volunteers prepared a weekly meal for guests of the North Fork Community Supper program.
That night’s main dish, ratatouille, bubbled away on the stove next to a pot of Swedish meatballs and another filled with rice. The volunteers, wearing purple latex gloves, sliced bread, tossed a bowl of greens and neatly set tables in the hall, each complete with a small vase of flowers.
It was, they joked, a sort of “last supper,” as it would be the final time program founder Alice Culver and her husband, Hal, would run the weekly event. After more than two decades, they had decided it was time to retire.
Ms. Culver, a Peconic resident, started the program in 1995 when she and former husband Charles Bennett, who died in 1998, wondered if there were any local soup kitchens or places to feed the hungry.
“There was nothing east of Riverhead, South Fork or North Fork,” she said.
They contacted Jean Kelly, executive director at the Hempstead-based Interfaith Nutrition Network, for guidance. They started by serving weekly meals at First Presbyterian Church in Southold. After 10 years, the soup kitchen moved to Greenport.
Ms. Culver still remembers the first night. There were seven guests, including one young woman who wanted to pay for the meal. Ms. Culver reminded her it was free, but the woman insisted and paid a small sum.
“We’re free and we serve anybody who’s in need,” said Ms. Culver, who was honored by INN in 2011 for her service. “After we started doing it for a while in Southold, more and more people came.”
At times over the years, 50 to 60 people would attend the supper, but in the past few months, the number of guests each week has dwindled.
“We’re lucky if we get 20,” said Mr. Culver, who was recruited as a volunteer while on a second date with his future wife.
Ms. Culver said the lower numbers could be a good thing, and noted that there are additional resources for those in need in the community, such as the church’s food pantry and the pantry at Community Action Southold Town. The Culvers also alluded to the possibility that recently, given political tensions surrounding the country’s immigrant population, some members of the community might not feel comfortable coming.
“Our motto is to treat everybody with dignity and respect and ask no questions,” Ms. Culver said.
While dinner is served just one night each week, the work does not begin and end on Wednesday. Time is spent planning the meals and shopping for ingredients, the Culvers said. Local restaurants, supermarkets and farms donate to the cause, Ms. Culver said.
The weekly meal will continue, with the support of St. Agnes Church, and with its consistent volunteers. Blake McNamara of Ridge will take the helm.
“I’m not going to stop any time soon,” Mr. McNamara said. “It’s all about service and giving back and I’ve been very blessed over the years, so this is my way of giving back to the community.”
He said he’s happy for the Culvers to be taking the next step after dedicating so many years to the kitchen.
Both Culvers said that, apart from the fulfilling feeling of being able to help others in the community, it’s the volunteers they’ve met that kept them going.
“I’ve had a wonderful life and I know you get to a certain age and you retire and you play all the time, but I can’t do that,” Ms. Culver said. “I have to have a project going. This had just become a big part of me and I think that feeling of feeling good is number one, but meeting over the years the volunteers that we’ve had — they have been phenomenal.”
“The people you meet in doing this and the satisfaction you get, really, from giving back,” Mr. Culver said. “I guess we’ve had success.”
Ms. Culver suspects, as do her fellow volunteers, that she’ll go through a “withdrawal period” and will continue to stop by the kitchen from time to time.
“I’m not going to believe it until I see it,” volunteer Ronnie Read of Greenport said of her retirement.
As 5:30 p.m. neared, the volunteers gathered for a prayer. A few minutes later, the parish hall door beeped as it opened and the first guests arrived to friendly hellos and full plates.