April 28, 2020

'Working Feverishly' to Feed Albany's Hungry People During Coronavirus

Sister Mary Ellen Owens waits to hand a guest a homemade meal consisting of a grilled chicken sandwich, salad, fruit punch and brownies.

Getting enough food to hungry people during the coronavirus crisis is overwhelming at times for Sister Mary Ellen Owens, who oversees two parish food pantries and a parish soup kitchen in Albany, New York.

At one food pantry and soup kitchen she is seeing more families and more children; at the other, frightened men and women who are homeless.

“My mantra has become, ‘Life has changed, not ended.’ But it’s hard,” says Sister Mary Ellen.    

Upon awakening, she prays to God and to Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, for strength for the day ahead. “I say to God, ‘I know you are watching over me. I say to Catherine, ‘You walked the streets of Ireland and helped people in great need. I know you are watching over me too.’”

Once she’s out the door, she’s fine, Sister Mary Ellen insists. Despite the physical distance that she, guests and volunteers must keep from each other at historic St. Mary’s Parish—New York’s second-oldest church—in downtown Albany, and Sacred Heart Parish in North Albany, everyone focuses on the task at hand. “The ‘thank yous’ and smiles on guests’ faces give the volunteers and me the energy to continue with our mission to ‘feed the hungry,’” says Sister Mary Ellen.

The need she encounters has turned Sister Mary Ellen into activist who petitions City Hall for help. “I’m getting brave in my old age,” she quips. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Mercy Associate Kathy Purello making lunch


St. Mary’s has long been a haven for people who are homeless because of its central Albany location. It provides not only a food pantry, but also bus passes, personal toiletry items and clothing like jeans, T-shirts, underwear and socks to people in need, thanks to support from the Sisters of Mercy’s Northeast Ministry Fund. Its clients struggle with life’s challenges under the best of circumstances, but Sister Mary Ellen is seeing something new.  

“The homeless men and women who are coming into St Mary’s are scared,” she says. “What they want is conversation.” Sister Mary Ellen and her helpers do their best to connect with guests, talking with them from six feet away as they come into the pantry, one at a time, to collect a pre-packed bag. St. Mary’s is still providing clothing and other items but has had to cut back its hours due to fewer volunteers.   


Sacred Heart, located in a poor North Albany neighborhood, has for decades drawn people dependent on disability checks and subsidized housing; its parishioners include immigrants and multi-generational families where grandparents are raising grandchildren. In addition to its food pantry, the parish offers a weekly lunch at its Friendship Table soup kitchen, where Mercy Associates prepare and serve the meals, now for takeout only.

The desperation of North Albany’s “forgotten step-children” led the nun to plead with Mayor Kathy Sheehan for help.

Noting the area’s lack of grocery stores and an accessible lunch program for children home from school, Sister Mary Ellen wrote, “I am working feverishly to provide extra breakfast and lunch items for the families to help them at this time.” She pointed out that, with churches closed, she was not receiving the usual amount of food donations, and added, “I love these families and consider them part of my family.”   

Her email got results. The lunch program is now at a conveniently located public housing site, and on Holy Thursday and Good Friday—days that Sister Mary Ellen had planned to take off for prayer—two large donations of food came in, enabling parishioners to receive several bags of fresh vegetables and fruit. “Those days were great,” she says.


Associates Martha White, Pat Meehan and Mary Bousquet prepare food bags for Friendship Table take out.

What keeps her going is support from sisters around the Northeast and the nation. “I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness for all the calls I’ve gotten from sisters beyond Albany, who are calling just to say, ‘How are you?’”

Especially meaningful to Sister Mary Ellen are the check-ins she receives from Sister Peg Sullivan, her best friend and former housemate with whom she once shared the outreach ministries. Sister Mary Ellen, who previously served as an elementary school principal for 24 years, reminisced with Sister Peg by phone recently about how her school community came together around the September 11 terrorist attacks. “I told Peg that this is harder because we can’t be physically present to each other right now. That’s why all the phone calls and messages mean so much.”  

What sustains Sister Mary Ellen as the days unfold is knowing that her ministry is helping to keep mercy alive for Albany’s hungry people during the coronavirus pandemic. “What’s important to me is that the work of mercy goes on,” she says.

Messages to: Catherine (Cathy) Walsh - Communications Specialist, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Northeast

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