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Thanksgiving dinner planned for St. James in Sewickley

| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 8:55 p.m.
Volunteers serve the 2011 Thanksgiving Day dinner at St. James Church in Sewickley.
Volunteers serve the 2011 Thanksgiving Day dinner at St. James Church in Sewickley. Submitted.
Joann Matten, pictured wearing an apron, and others pause for a blessing prior to the 2011 Thanksgiving Day dinner at St. James Church in Sewickley.
Joann Matten, pictured wearing an apron, and others pause for a blessing prior to the 2011 Thanksgiving Day dinner at St. James Church in Sewickley. Submitted.

Several years ago, Sheila Clark found herself alone on Thanksgiving.

With most of her family living out of state and because of various circumstances, Clark decided to go to a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post for dinner that day.

Her experience got her thinking.

“If it happened to me. It must happen to other people, too,” she said.

So, she emailed the Rev. Dan Valentine, then pastor at St. James Church in Sewickley. She told him of her idea to have a Thanksgiving dinner for those who couldn't be with family or who were new to the area.

Although she didn't hear back from the pastor right away, he didn't forget her request.

He asked church members Joann Matten and Patty Peilert to organize the event and announced it to the congregation three weeks before Thanksgiving.

“He was pivotal in all this. He took the ball and ran with it,” Clark said.

That was in 2007, and the dinner has been offered in the St. James cafeteria every year since for close to 100 people. It's always on Thanksgiving Day, not the weekend before or after, which Clark she feels is important for those who are missing the celebration with family that day.

Clark, who helps to set up and clean up and also has dinner at St. James every year, started out by helping to peel the potatoes, one of the biggest jobs.

Matten said each year, volunteers peel 50-pounds of potatoes donated by Parkway West Rotary through Rick Strong, a St. James member.

After giving to families in need first, the Rotary also donates nine, 20-pound turkeys ­— the most that the St. James ovens can handle — and some of the bread for the dinner. The Moon Rotary also gives a cash donation each year.

Montour School District, which has a canned food drive each year, contributes green beans, corn or peas to the dinner, after food is given to needy families first. What Matten can't use is given to the St. James Food Bank for delivery to local families in need.

Those attending also are encouraged to bring a dessert.

Matten said prep work for the turkeys is done the day before, and a volunteer comes to the cafeteria at about 7 a.m. Thanksgiving Day to put the turkeys in the oven.

“Everything is made that day on site,” she said. “It's all from scratch. We wanted to keep it as traditional as possible.”

Even the gravy is homemade by Christine Bal of Moon, who said it was funny she was asked to make it because in the past, gravy definitely has not been her specialty. So, the thought of trying to make it for 100 people was a little daunting.

With that in mind, Bal, who will volunteer for the third time this year, said she did some research on the Internet and now, “not to pat myself on the back,” but “it's really good.”

Bal, originally from Oregon, and her husband, John, originally from New York, usually see family at Christmas, but can't make the trip on Thanksgiving. Matten suggested they came to the dinner. Her husband, John, helps set up as do their children, Annie, 13, and John, 15, who also help some of the elderly people with their plates as they go through the food line and help them to their seat.

While there, they also get to work with some other friends and volunteers from Moon, such as Andrew Gribben, a Moon Township supervisor, and Christianne Gribben. Andrew Gribben makes the green bean casserole, and Christianne also helps cook.

Janet Daugherty, owner of Tapas in Sewickley, also volunteers, as does John Herbst, a World War II veteran who owns Herbst Gas Station in Sewickley. He peels potatoes and entertains the other cooks in the kitchen with funny stories.

Matten's own family members, most from Perryopolis, has helped since the beginning. Her brother, Andy Rudge, and his children are greeters and help to set up. Her sister, Mary Rudge, helps cook, and her parents, Art and Donna Rudge, are greeters and help organize desserts. Also volunteering are her husband, Fran, and children, Jack, 16, and Eve, 14, students at Sewickley Academy and former students at St. James.

“They all really look forward to it,” she said.

After everyone has received a plate of food, served on the “nice” plates also used for the St. James fish fry, Matten said, participants then can go back through the line to get seconds or take food home in provided containers.

“It's always nice to have leftovers,” Matten said smiling.

The dinner draws people not only from Sewickley but surrounding areas as well. Although the majority of diners are widows and widowers, Matten said the first year, a family from West Virginia came before seeing off a relative, a soldier who was about to be deployed. Another year, the dinner helped a family who had just moved to the area. They didn't know anyone, and their kitchen was in disarray.

This will be the first year with the Rev. Thomas Burke, new pastor at St. James. Matten said when he was asked if he wanted to continue the dinner, he was all for it.

“He said he didn't want to break tradition and he would back it 100 percent,” Matten said, “because no one should sit by themselves at home on Thanksgiving.”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or

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