Industrial Harvest


Fraternite Notre Dame by sarah kavage

On Monday, I went to visit the Sisters at Fraternite Notre Dame, a convent in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s far west side.   FND was one of the first flour recipients – back in early July, they took a ton of all-purpose flour to use for their food pantry and kitchen.  Not only do they run a soup kitchen, they fund the soup kitchen by selling French pastries – tarts, croissants – at farmers’ markets around Chicago (The pastries turn up in the soup kitchen too).  I’d been wanting to see their operation all summer and finally, during my last week in Chicago, we were able to arrange a visit.

Having worked with nuns in the past, I am never quite sure what to think of them.  Put mildly, they’re a throwback to another time, and these nuns, not only nuns but French, seem especially out of place.  I hold pretty negative opinions about the Catholic church, but did want to acknowledge the strong commitment to service that these women have.  And all of this made me even more curious to check out what went on in their kitchen.

I arrived as the nuns were in the middle of serving up their daily lunch for the homeless and poor in the neighborhood.  Austin is a neighborhood with a long history – originally a (generally) working class white neighborhood that experienced a long, and especially infamous, transition into one that was (and still is) largely black.  I just began reading Amanda Seligman’s book Block by Block, which chronicles the history of racial transformation in Austin.  The author’s thesis is that systemic disinvestment in the neighborhood, lack of political influence, and neglect of the building stock go back long before the racial changes and white flight began.  The nuns (French, from a breakaway sect of the Catholic church) moved into this melieu about 10 years ago and see about 200 people a day come through their doors for lunch.  When I asked if they ever had to turn anyone away, Sister Marie replied “how can you say yes to one and no to another?”

In the kitchen at Fraternite Notre Dame

In the kitchen at Fraternite Notre Dame

FND, like most of the other agencies I’ve talked to and visited, have seen the number of people in their soup kitchen line grow and grow over the last few years.  The nuns start their day early in the morning with mass, then cooking in the soup kitchen, then serving and cleaning up (people line up for lunch starting at 10 am; lunch starts at 11 and goes till 1).  Once that’s done, they begin making pastries.  Sometimes they work till midnight, sometimes even later if there’s a market the next day,  because the pastries need to be fresh.  They  go through about 400 pounds of flour a week.

pastries to go

pastries to go

As part of my visit, Sister Marie brought me to an upstairs dining room where there was a table set with some juice and a platter of a dozen or so small pastries in white paper nests.  For me.  I was a little dumb-founded – charmed by the decidedly European-style over the top hospitality and the beautiful treats, foggy with a killer head cold, and feeling a little dash of guilt brought on by knowing that in the dining room just below me, people were eating what might be their only meal of the day.  It was a little uncomfortable to be treated like such an important visitor, but I do like pastries.  I did happen to be hungry.  And I didn’t want to be rude, so I wolfed down several  as I told the Sister more about the story of the flour and where it was all coming from and tried to emphasize that I’m not rich or anything.  Then the rest of the pastries were packed up in a little white box, and another white box appeared – this one with a whole, perfect berry tart – and was placed into my arms.  The nuns showed me politely to the door, and there I was, all sugared-up, back on the streets of Austin.

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