In 2010, the Rev. Dr. Patrick “Father Pat” Close, then-rector at Grace Church in Haddonfield, received a call from the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, asking for help on behalf of another Episcopal community:
St. Wilfrid’s in Camden had begun providing free health screening to struggling residents in its surrounding community, and could use some volunteers to get it going. Would Close’s church members be willing to lend a hand?
St. Wilfrid’s, housed in a small stone building since 1884, had become the locus of charitable community efforts, driven by locals.
After meeting with representatives from St. WIlfrid’s, Close reached out to a church of a different denomination — First Presbyterian, located right cross the street from his own parish. Together, both congregations agreed to help launch and support the clinic, which would offer free monthly health screenings to area residents.
When Close announced during a Sunday service that the effort needed volunteers, “I thought we would get three or four,” he said. When about 15 turned up to help, Fr. Pat knew he was on to something.
Once everyone saw the depth of need among those who visited the clinic, its mission quickly expanded to include food and clothing giveaways, too.
Over a decade later, the Open Door Clinic at St. Wilfrid’s — and the ecumenical partnership that started it — is still going strong, an entirely volunteer-run organization supported by a few dozen helpers from every walk of life.
“Any time you have a collaboration between Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches and get those two diverse groups to work together, it’s a miracle,” said a laughing Fr. Pat, who is now retired.
The miracle only strengthened this past year. While the pandemic forced the clinic to suspend its health screening services, the monthly food services went weekly, offering groceries every Saturday morning.
Pennsauken resident Norman Valentine, 69, a lay leader at St. Wilfrid’s, has been with the project from the start. He rarely misses a week and finds deep satisfaction in the reaction of those the clinic helps.
“The people are so grateful for everything,” said Valentine, a retiree.
Fellow long-time volunteer Nora Bollinger, a retired nurse and member of Grace Church, said Valentine is “the heart and soul” of the clinic.
“Norman is the one who makes it go,” said Bollinger, who is as moved as Valentine by the volunteer experience.
“There are days I leave there and cry, because I see us doing so much good and I see these people who have little or nothing,” Bollinger said. “The people who come are so joyful.”
Volunteer Gladys Rodriguez, a retired Camden prosecutor, often acts as a translator for the clinic’s many Spanish-speaking recipients. On a recent weekend, she lent her skills to Open Door recipient Agustin Vasquez, 66.
“Times are very hard,” Vasquez said in Spanish, which Rodriguez repeated in English. “To have this nourishment is very helpful.”
Samuel Velez, 55, who lost his home in a fire, visits Open Door each week, for food.
“It helps me a lot,” he said via Rodriguez, “I depend on this and am so thankful.”
So is Rodriguez herself, for whom Open Door’s mission has become so important.
“I feel this is a calling for me,” said Rodriguez, who lives in Haddon Heights.
Delpine Salazar, who lives near the church, visits Open Door every week — not for herself but to help a friend in need, a mother of four kids.
“There is no way she could come here with four children,” said Salazar, 80, a retired state worker. “The people here do such a great job and it is so much needed.”
While the public has been generous in supporting Open Door’s food mission, donating canned goods and other items, the organization received a major boost last May from the Food Bank of South Jersey, which is now the main provider to the pantry.
“Without the Food Bank, it would have been almost impossible to keep up with the demand,” said Alex MacMoran, a longtime volunteer from Grace Church.
Emily Beyer, agency network manager for the Food Bank of South Jersey, has been impressed by Open Door’s dedication.
“The past year has required a lot of flexibility and St. Wilfrid’s really dove in head first,” said Beyer. “They’re a great group to work with and have been very attentive to the needs of their community.”
First Presbyterian member Rose Guthrie organizes the food pickup.
“They pick up food from our marketplace several times each month to ensure they have enough products to meet the demand,” Beyer said. “Rose will reach out occasionally to ask if we have more of a particularly popular product, but generally they just do what they do best — serve the community.”
Guthrie, who lives in Blackwood said, “When we started going every week, last March, we were giving out about 55 bags of food and then it increased to the next week to 61 and by the end of April it was 80.”
Now it’s over 100.
What has made everything work for more than a decade is a spirit of giving among the group.
Case in point: While the food baskets are prepared indoors at St. Wilfrid’s, the baskets need to be distributed to recipients outside the church, because of pandemic social-distancing policies. Last winter, volunteers saw that many recipients waiting in line lacked appropriate cold-weather outerwear. They were quickly able to find and donate more than 100 coats, along with boots, hats, and other winter gear to those in need.
Such a straightforward act. Such a profound result.
“We believe we are doing God’s work,” said MacMoran, about Open Door’s mission. “He’s our boss and that is why we are successful.”