Eight-year-old Olivia pushed open her front door. Her mother wasn’t home yet, but that was not unusual. Since it was a Friday she didn’t expect her mother home until late, after she and Lucas were in bed. Carefully, she reached up and put her backpack on the table and helped her little brother do the same.
Olivia enjoyed going to school. Her favorite parts were recess and lunch. Weekends were fun because she got to play more. Sometimes, though, weekends with little food in the house were too long. Her mother worked a lot, but at times they had only enough money for rent and medicine. Olivia opened the fridge to see what she and Lucas could eat for supper. Sigh. It was going to be another long weekend.
Children hunger everywhere
Although Olivia and Lucas are fictitious, they are representative of children everywhere who go hungry all too often, even in areas where poverty doesn’t appear prevalent.
Consider Anderson, Indiana, population 58,817 (2021). A few years ago, the Tenth Street Elementary School realized that 92% of its students were on free or reduced cost lunches. School officials further recognized that nearly half of their students passed their weekends in homes where there was not adequate food. When they reached out to the community to seek a solution, the local hospital stepped up. Soon, they were organizing and funding weekend food supplies for at-risk schoolchildren.
"In Anderson's 46016 zip code, the overall poverty rate hovers at 40%
with the child poverty rate around 50%. The county rates, by comparison,
are approximately 15% and 25%, respectively."
Birth of the weekend backpack program
Sister Eileen Flavin, CSC, along with Elizabeth Hart, Mission Services coordinator at Ascension St. Vincent Anderson Hospital, and many other volunteers are working diligently to ensure that children like Olivia and Lucas do not go hungry on weekends.
Hart explains that the Anderson area (zip code 46016 in particular) is a food desert. Not one grocery store sits in this zip code, only convenience stores with limited food items. Data collected in 2021 shows the overall poverty rate in Anderson hovering close to 40% with the child poverty rate around 50%. The county rates, by comparison, are approximately 15% and 25%, respectively. Public transportation is unavailable, and many people in the area find private transportation unaffordable. For people who must walk everywhere, getting to a grocery store that is a distance away is out of the question. For these and other reasons, parents have a difficult time providing food for their children when school is not in session.
To help fill this gap, Sister Eileen and her team stuff the children’s backpacks full of food for the weekend. Included are the ingredients for two family meals, one for Saturday and one for Sunday, plus healthy snack and drink items such as applesauce, pudding and juice boxes. The hospital and donors to the Sisters of the Holy Cross’ Ministry With the Poor fund cover the cost of the food.
Holy Cross sisters start first hospital
The Sisters of the Holy Cross have a long history with the city of Anderson, having founded St. John’s Hospital, now known as Ascension St. Vincent Anderson, in 1894, as well as two schools. Between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, the little burg of Anderson boomed with the expansion of the railroad and the discovery of natural gas.
John and Maria Hickey had benefited from this prosperity. Irish immigrants, they came to Anderson in 1853, opening a restaurant and a grocery store. As their income grew, they bought parcels of land. The discovery of natural gas on their property greatly boosted their wealth.
In 1893, Maria Hickey became seriously ill with pneumonia. The town still had no hospital, so John looked for a nurse to care for his wife. He learned about Sister M. Victoria O’Keefe, CSC, who, along with three other Holy Cross sisters, taught at a fledgling Catholic school. Sister Victoria had been a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. She agreed to help the Hickeys, staying at Maria’s bedside and tenderly caring for her until she died on January 11, 1894.
During this time, Sister Victoria called Mr. Hickey’s attention to the desperate need for a hospital in Anderson. He responded generously by donating his modest two-story farmhouse and 10 acres of land to the Sisters of the Holy Cross for use as a hospital. His only stipulation: that he continue living there until his death. Sister Victoria had the hospital up and running 69 days later.
The next year, the sisters arranged for a two-story brick addition. In 1900, they expanded further with a three-story, 40-bed addition. Nearly every dollar for the additions was provided by Mr. Hickey. Benevolent to the end, he burned all the mortgages, bills and notes due him in his fireplace prior to his death.
Fruits of Holy Cross
Every month, Fruits of Holy Cross shares the good news of the ministries of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Our “fruits” are nourished not just by the sisters’ labors or the seed of faith planted by our founder Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau, they are watered by our many prayer partners, donors and benefactors—by you.
Sisters’ charism carries on
From such humble beginnings blossomed today’s Ascension St. Vincent Anderson, a diversified health ministry that serves Anderson and the surrounding area with a 182-bed hospital and many critical health services.
The charism brought by those early Sisters of the Holy Cross remains strong, however. The hospital and its associated foundation continue to be alert to the needs of those around them, particularly residents who live in poverty and are marginalized.
Hands and feet of Jesus
Tenth Street Elementary School’s weekend food program provides 36,000 meals annually to students and families in need. Recently, the program has been reorganized to include at-risk students from two additional schools. The difference this food is making to these children and their families is immense. There have even been some unexpected ripple effects.
In one of her reports to the Ministry With the Poor fund, Elizabeth Hart wrote, “This program has been spotlighted throughout all of the 160 Ascension hospitals, locally in our newspapers, and has opened up avenues to talk about ways that [it] can be implemented in other schools and ways that organizations can help.”
She added, “Thank you for providing funding that helps touch so many lives and ensures that these children get food throughout the weekends. The Sisters of the Holy Cross still have a presence in Anderson, just as they did [more than] 125 years ago. We are still serving and caring for others by being the hands and feet of Jesus. The Sisters’ mission and good works will always live within us as we carry the torch forward.”