From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
In 1983, Blessed Sacrament Church on Cathcart Street began advocating for the creation of a local soup kitchen, what would ultimately become known as the Sault Ste. Marie Soup Kitchen Community Centre.
The project was driven by Reverend Donald J. MacLellan and pastoral assistant (and future politician) Tony Martin. Their proposal, written by Martin, went to the Catholic Action Council in the hopes that they would provide funding for employees. While the funding application was denied, that didn’t stop Blessed Sacrament from pursuing its goal. As Martin said, “We will get the soup kitchen going one way or the other.”
The city had entered a recession and economic times were tough. Unemployment was high, and the United Way and Salvation Army were the main organizations through which people could seek emergency food supplies. There was a concern that if things got worse, the demand for meals would grow.
However, not everyone was in agreement – the United Way director was quoted in the Sault Star as saying, “We don’t have people with no fixed address, who spend the day on the street, their nights in a flophouse and get meals from soup kitchens.”
Ultimately, the soup kitchen project received $10,000 dollars in diocesan charity funds and opened to the public on Oct. 31, 1983. While the soup kitchen was run out of Blessed Sacrament Church, it involved multiple parishes in Sault Ste. Marie, and people coming in for a meal would not experience any “preaching.”
Tony Martin promised people would have access to a free sandwich and bowl of soup. And he encouraged people in the community to come out to the soup kitchen for a meal and leave a donation – this would support the soup kitchen and help to destigmatize taking advantage of the service.
By the end of December 1983, the soup kitchen was serving lunches to over 50 people daily. This grew to 220 people by April 1984… along with approximately 300 volunteers to help serve them. The soup kitchen held annual Christmas dinners, with turkeys, hams, and side dishes, with a promise that no one would be turned away.
Numbers only continued to go up from there, up to hundreds of people per day. Along with a hot meal, people could drop by for employment counselling and socialization. As Martin said, “we want to help people beyond a bowl of soup.”
A local steelworker, Gordon Currie, even donated his garden at Leigh’s Bay Road so that the soup kitchen could grow its own fresh produce. Extra funding allowed them to run a children’s summer camp at Camp Korah.
And, of course, the soup kitchen was supported by generous donations from local individuals and businesses. For example, Bluebird Bakery provided 40-75 loaves of bread every week free of charge, and Coral Coffee Shop, the General Hospital, Mount St. Joseph, and Muio’s donated soup regularly.
There was even an instance in 1986 where hunters who killed a cow moose without having the correct tags had their meat confiscated and presented to the soup kitchen.
There were also numerous fundraisers throughout the years, including large-scale events such as community dances and other creative projects. In 2006, the Honourable Ray Stortini partnered with the soup kitchen to publish his memoirs, with half of the proceeds going to the organization; the soup kitchen has recently published his second volume, also as a fundraiser.
In 1991, under the leadership of Soup Kitchen committee president Loretta Chartrand, the soup kitchen struck a deal to move to the old LCBO outlet at 172 James Street.
There was opposition to the decision – some felt it was not a central enough location, some felt that people would feel self-conscious taking advantage of the soup kitchen’s services when it was located in a residential area, and some feared that the soup kitchen would bring crime and vandalism to their neighbourhood.
There were formal complaints and petitions, along with letters of concern to Premier Bob Rae.
“We are not opposed to the soup kitchen,” said one resident. “We’re just opposed to where they’re putting it and how it’s being run right now.”
Nevertheless, the move was finalized, with organizers believing that the James Street location was the best place to reach the people who needed them most – and had the added benefit of more food storage space.
Students from Sault College’s cabinet-making program volunteered their time to renovate the facility. And in July 1992, the new soup kitchen opened its doors.
Since 1992, the Sault Ste. Marie Soup Kitchen Community Centre has remained on James Street. A much-needed service in the community, it has thrived in part thanks to the generosity of its donors, the many partnerships with local businesses and other community organizations, and the dedication of its many volunteers.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.