If you were a time traveler from 1961 visiting Reno in 2021, you’d likely be overwhelmed by the changes you saw—from the high-rise towers in downtown Reno to the electric cars silently zooming on its ever-expanding freeways.
However, amid all that change, there would be one constant—that St. Vincent’s Dining Room of Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada would be there to feed those in need.
“Catholic Charities has adapted over time,” said Marie Baxter, chief executive officer, Catholic Charities. “Throughout all the changes that happen in the world, the one thing you can count on is Catholic Charities is going to feed the hungry.”
That core philosophy has anchored the organization’s commitment through every change that’s come to Northern Nevada over the past 60 years. In the face of wars, economic crises, social movements, technological innovations, and even a global pandemic, St. Vincent’s has adapted while staying true to its mission.
In the beginning
St. Vincent’s is no stranger to changing times—in fact, it was born into it. In 1961, the same year that the Catholic Welfare Bureau opened Reno’s oldest soup kitchen, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space, Freedom Riders took buses into the South to challenge segregation, and East Germany began construction of the Berlin Wall.
“It’s a tradition, and it’s also giving back to the community that supports us.”
The dining room opened 20 years after the founding of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, which would later become the Catholic Charities. The bureau, founded by Rev. Thomas Collins, distributed 4,500 hot lunches in its first year, according to its annual report.
When St. Vincent’s served its first meals on April 13, 1961, at its 205 E. Second Street location, about 82,000 people lived in Washoe County, and more than 11 percent of them lived in poverty. Then, a new home cost about $19,000 in the United States, and the average new car cost just less than $4,300. Milk cost $1 per gallon, eggs $.57 per dozen, and bread $.45 per loaf.
That same year also marked the beginning of a decades-long partnership between St. Vincent’s and the Nugget Casino Resort to serve holiday meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This collaboration continues to this day through the changing ownership of the property.
“It’s a tradition, and it’s also giving back to the community that supports us,” said Randy Kennedy, director of marketing communications at the Nugget Casino Resort. “It’s something that the community definitely needs, and we appreciate being able to do it and continue it for all these years.”
Throughout its six-decade-long history, St. Vincent’s has served the community from various places in the heart of downtown Reno.
“It’s been in multiple locations, and it has seen all sorts of interesting and challenging times in our community over those 60 years,” Baxter, a Reno-native, said. “We’ve had all kinds of evolution, just down to the growth in our community.”
By December 1977, the dining room moved to its second location on 5050 W. Third St. That building was 6,500 square feet and, the inside was remodeled to put in a walk-in and a freezer, small living quarters, one room, and then the kitchen.
Rev. Chuck Durante, the rector at Saint Thomas Aquinas Cathedral and a board member of Catholic Charities, remembers sending those in need to that location.
“I grew up here in Reno,” Durante said. “When I was working here at the cathedral when I was in high school and through college years, we would often be sending people to St. Vincent’s.”
During the decade of double-digit inflation, the dining room adapted for one of the first times to a national economic challenge—and it wouldn’t be the last. The need for the dining room and Catholic Charities’ other services dramatically increases when economic conditions worsen.
“Our adaptability has to be quick and reactionary to the economy,” said Nick Rossi, a Catholic Charities board member who began volunteering with St. Vincent’s in 1991. “We always have a steady clientele that needs our transitional housing. They need our food, emergency services, what we call our public meals, which is where St Vincent’s really shines, and then our food pantry. When the economy shrinks, or we have a crisis, that’s when our client’s needs dramatically increase. So, when the economy bursts, we boom, and we need to be there, and we need to be ready.”
When the dining room opened its current and third location at 325 Valley Road in 2005, another economic hardship loomed on the horizon.
During the Great Recession from 2007-2009, Nevada had one of the homelessness highest populations in the country, the highest rate of unemployment, and three of its cities ranked first, second, and third for the highest foreclosure rates in the country.
“During that time, we saw a massive increase in people coming for services as a whole and the dining room as well,” Baxter said. “We were seeing and are continuing to see people who were two-income families who were totally making it. And, all of a sudden, one or both of the individuals in the family lost their jobs. Well, they still have mortgages, and they still have car payments, and they still have things that they were committed to before circumstances beyond their control derailed their lives. Those are the kind of folks that we start to see when there are crises. They need short-term help because they’re ultimately going to get back into being employed, and they’re going to get back to being able to make it on their own. But boy, in that interim, that’s when we can create an ‘all are welcome space.’ And people feel comfortable reaching out in that.”
More than a decade later, the dining room and the greater community would face a social, economic, and healthcare challenge that would require a quick response and adaptation—the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the years between the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, the team at St. Vincent’s was unknowingly preparing for one of the most substantial challenges the organization would ever face.
Before the onset of the pandemic and its ripple effects, the dining room and its kitchen completed a significant renovation supported by private donations. With new ovens, a new ice machine, and other new equipment, the facility was even more ready to prepare and serve hundreds of meals per day. The dining room also served as a warming center for individuals in the early morning hours of winter.
“St. Vincent’s opened its doors and served hot oatmeal and donuts and coffee, so people could stay warm and be present there until the other shelters opened,” Durante said.
The warming center stayed open through the winter of 2019 and into 2020. Then, COVID-19 changed everything. As a statewide stay-at-home order brought the economic engine to a stutter and caused an unprecedented 28 percent unemployment rate in the state, Catholic Charities responded quickly while never closing its doors.
“We were in a situation where all of a sudden we couldn’t serve public meals for those who might not be able to get a meal anywhere else,” Rossi said. “So, our dining room did what so many restaurants did in the area. We moved to a version of takeout or grab-and-go. We had a tremendous amount of success in continuing to meet the needs of our clients, adjusting to a strategy where the dining room may be closed, but our food outreach is not closed. And I think that was probably one of the best examples during COVID of what I consider to be one of our finest hours.”
In addition to increasing services to seven days a week during this time, St. Vincent’s also added to-go meal deliveries to the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality (RISE). As a result, in 2020, St. Vincent’s fed an average of 1,000 people per day and served more than 130,000 meals.
“With the pandemic, rather than just shutting doors and saying, ‘Well, we can’t do anything,’ the dining room quickly shifted to having these prepared boxed meals,” Durante said. “I thought they were amazingly adaptable.”
During this sudden shift, the leadership at Catholic Charities sought to preserve the sense of community that St. Vincent’s provides. Before the dining room closed due to COVID-19, it was a place where Catholic Charities’ staff and clients could interact in a low-pressure setting. Often, it was the first way individuals and families learned about the other programs the organization offered to help people rise out of poverty and overcome the barriers to self-sufficiency.
To keep this vital line of communication open, Catholic Charities opened an outdoor satellite office of its resource hub in the courtyard adjacent to the dining room.
“We have our case managers right there,” Baxter said. “So, as people are getting their grab-and-go’s, there are walkup services they can access.”
This is one example of how the staff at Catholic Charities quickly adapted to their client’s needs during COVID-19. And some of those changes will likely continue.
“There’s a saying—don’t waste a good crisis,” Baxter said. “COVID made us look at our models differently out of necessity. But there’s a lot of things that we’re like, “We should maintain that. That worked well.”
The Present and the Future
As it celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2021, the dining room has become an integral part of the social safety net in Northern Nevada. It now serves a free hot takeout style lunch to nearly 1,000 people a day, seven days a week. The dining room provides lunch and dinner at Reno-Sparks’ new homeless shelter, called the Nevada CARES Campus.
“We are the original soup kitchen,” Baxter said. “We’ve learned a lot of great lessons over the last year and looked at things really differently. But, we continue to ask, ‘What are our clients’ needs? How do we meet those needs?’”
However, while St. Vincent’s will continue to change and adapt how it serves those in need—its commitment to doing so will never waver.
“We will continue to feed the hungry because that’s core to the mission of Catholic Charities,” Baxter said.
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