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Christmas Dinner Marks Silver Anniversary

For the last quarter century, a group of parishioners at Queen of the Miraculous Medal church in Jackson have given up their Christmas holidays to host a welcoming dinner for others. Working with more than 60 partners across the region, they’ve created a remarkable holiday tradition.

Estelle Clary, a longtime parishioner at “Queens,” has chaired the event with her husband, John, since the event’s beginning. This year will be no exception, and her work preparing for the dinner has been underway for months.

Committees of volunteers have been working since October to prepare for this year’s event, now in its 25th year, which takes place on Christmas Day. The dinner draws more than 300 guests and volunteers from 60 churches across the Jackson region. 

“It was really a result of Bishop (Carl) Mengeling’s ‘Voices Initiative,’” Estelle says. “One of his goals was to get the Catholic churches more involved with other faiths.”

At the time, she recalls, Father Mark Inglot was the pastor at Queens. When he asked about hosting a Christmas dinner, Estelle found herself volunteering to help.

“That’s where the miracle began, because I hadn’t talked with John or anything,” she says. “I just said I would help, never thinking that it was going to last for 25 years or that it would be more than just one dinner.”

Today, the phrase ‘many hands make light work’ holds true, as volunteers from dozens of churches handle everything from advertising to cooking, setup to cleanup. Estelle’s team includes 18 or 19 people, who form the nucleus of the planning team. 

On the day of our interview, Estelle was setting up her dining room with packets for the afternoon meeting.

“It’s been a really neat opportunity to evangelize with other churches,” Estelle says. “And close to half of the people who come for dinner are from other denominations.”

Scores of volunteers are needed to pull off the dinner. Estelle explains one of the main goals from the start was to have a sit-down event where guests are served, rather than having them serve themselves at a buffet or in a cafeteria-style line. There are 42 tables set up in the well-decorated parish social center, and a turkey dinner is served family-style on china with flatware, atop fine table linens. Cloth napkins and season-themed table favors grace each place setting. 

But that’s not all. Guests are greeted at their vehicles, receive boutonnieres, and are escorted to their tables so there is no uncertainty for them when they arrive. After the dinner is finished, each guest leaves with a carryout box containing a second meal.

“We wanted it to be really quite fancy,” Estelle explains. “It’s all about serving our guests and making them feel like they’re royalty, even for just one day.”

Since the first Christmas dinner, the event has taken on a life of its own. Even better, an Easter dinner has been added as part of parish outreach ministries.

“Our focus in the beginning was about those that had lost a loved one because there was nothing in our community that dealt with people that were going to be lonely or by themselves on Christmas,” Estelle says. 

But over the years the event has grown to include those who are down on their luck and had previously gone to locations where free dinners were served. Since many places no longer have these programs, Queens has sought to fill that need, too.

Queens pastor Father Tim MacDonald praised the Clarys and the volunteers who stage the annual event.

“It is so humbling to see that, for 25 years, Queens parishioners and volunteers from many other churches have given up family time on these important holidays to come serve the community,” he says. “For some, this has become their family holiday tradition.  In a world so broken with discord and violence, it is refreshing to be part of these community-wide dinners. We’re bringing people together from so many diverse backgrounds, and we’re giving them a gift that is overwhelmingly positive and Christ-centered.” 

For Estelle and John and all the others who volunteer, the rewards from working on the day of the dinner are amazing.

And Father Tim agrees.

“When I look out at the dinner, I see two groups of people. There are those who otherwise would not have a Christmas dinner, and those who would spend it alone because their spouses have passed or their children live far away,” he says. “Our parishioners and volunteers experience the true joy of these high holy days by being of service to the greater good of the community, making Queen of the Miraculous Medal a shining beacon of hope and goodness for all to see.”