Feeding the hungry is her calling
Sister Concepta Najjemba, who has been running Brother’s Keeper Soup Kitchen for the past 20 years, left, and Rosemary Reilly, right, who has volunteered there for 11 years, prepare Thanksgiving dinners to be given to homeless and needy people at Brother’s Keeper Soup Kitchen. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Every day of the year, hundreds of homeless and hungry people line up for a free lunch at Brother’s Keeper soup kitchen near downtown Ocala.
The meal they receive is lovingly prepared by a team of volunteers, led by Sister Concepta Najjemba.
“Hey, nun!” they sometimes call to her.
“Hi,” Sister Concepta replies with a smile that comes from believing she is the one who benefits most from helping the needy.
“I thank God every day,” she said. “They know I am here to serve them, and I know that it’s God’s work.”
The petite nun in her 70s runs the soup kitchen – a ministry of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church – with ease.
But 20 years ago, she admits to being out of her element.
“I never cooked. I’m a professor, not a cook,” she said with a laugh.
She holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate. She spent the first 30 years of her sisterhood as a teacher moving up from teaching grade school to university.
But she and two fellow nuns from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Reparatrix in Uganda were invited to Ocala by Blessed Trinity Pastor Fr. Pat Sheedy to assist with the church’s school. The two other sisters soon began work at the school. But Sister Concepta took a different path.
“Because the greatest need was the soup kitchen, I chose to come to the soup kitchen even though I could teach anything,” she said.
When she first arrived in 2000, the facility was feeding around 40 people a day, with two or three volunteers serving up canned soup and a piece of bread to people who ate standing up.
She knew she needed more helpers with cooking experience and enough donated food to serve the needy a proper meal.
While teaching Sunday school, she met mothers who knew how to cook and had community connections. They helped her solicit food donations from area businesses.
“Publix responded quickly,” Sister Concepta said. “So we could get bread. We could get all the goodies, doughnuts, pies. We started updating our menu. And instead of opening the cans and dumping it in the pot, we started making real good soup.”
The volunteer cooks taught her to start with carrots, onions and celery. The French call the combo mirepoix, and it’s the base for dozens of soups.
“When I cook, that’s all I start with, without knowing what I’m going to cook,” she said. “I start with celery, onions and carrots. And it works.”
As donations increased, the menu expanded to casseroles and salads. Clients increased to 200-300 a day.
But after COVID-19 restrictions started in March, they stopped serving hot meals in the small dining room, switching to sandwiches and snacks in brown bags.
Still, about 150 people show up each day and get two sandwiches – one meat and cheese and the other peanut butter and jelly – a piece of fruit, crackers, cookies and a bottle of water.
“We put our love in those,” Sister Concepta said.
She misses serving hot, home-cooked food, but even more, she misses sitting down and talking with the clients. She listened to their stories and prayed with them.
“It is a blessing to be able to help another person,” she said. “Because even though we get so tired working, when you go to sleep, you feel lucky. You know you made somebody survive for the day. What the volunteers are learning, they are doing it in the place of Jesus.”
Sister Concepta is grateful to the volunteers.
George Margitan, who has volunteered every Monday for the past 10 years, called Sister Concepta an angel.
“I get more out of it than I put in because it’s helping other people,” Margitan said. “I’m retired, and my wife’s passed away, so I’ve got nothing but downtime, and this helps me.”
Sister Concepta tells volunteers: “If you are here to help me, you’d better go. Because you are helping Jesus to serve, so it’s not me. I need help, of course. But it is the work of God. And we are very blessed.”
When she runs into a colleague or grad school classmate, many of whom are serving in high-ranking positions within the church, Sister Concepta lets them know that she thanks God every day for the soup kitchen.
“I say this is a blessed place to be, and I thank God every day for giving me this blessing. All the volunteers are my brothers, my sisters. It’s really a very, very nice family here. It’s a little heaven for me.”
For more information about the Brother’s Keeper Soup Kitchen, visit bkocala.org/soup-kitchen. Located at 435 NW Second St., they serve lunch at 12 noon, 365 days a year. Donations of sliced meat and cheese, peanut butter, jelly, mayonnaise and mustard are currently needed and are accepted between 8 – 11:30 a.m.