Feeding the homeless: a mission of love for Notre Dame and chef volunteers
August 3, 2018

Photo by Troy Heinzeroth
Chef Dan Kopanke and Cathy Flens (center), along with volunteers, prepare food at Notre Dame de Chicago Parish.

By Susan S. Stevens

Twice per month, parishioners at Notre Dame de Chicago Parish meet in the church kitchen to cook for hundreds of people.

“It just felt right that we do it for the good of others,” said Lesia Panepinto, who with her husband, Joe, sliced mounds of onions on a recent Saturday afternoon. “It is very rewarding.” The Panepintos are among the volunteers recruited by chef Dan Kopanke to prepare meals for the homeless.

In the kitchen of Notre Dame rectory at 1335 W. Harrison St., they baked 80 pounds of chicken and boiled 50 pounds of potatoes to feed dinner to 200 people at Franciscan House, a 257-bed shelter with separate men’s and women’s dormitories at 2715 W. Harrison St. Dessert was fresh blueberries.

After they finished cooking, they brought the food to Franciscan House.

“I enjoy feeding people,” Lesia Panepinto said. “At home, it is just me and my husband.”

They showed up one day to volunteer, and they kept returning. “We thoroughly enjoy it,” she said.

Kopanke retired from nursing after 39 years. During most of that time, he worked in the rehabilitation unit at Rush University Medical Center.

He said when he was looking for something else to do, his wife, Cathy Flens, asked him, “Why don’t
you go to chef’s school? It’s something you’ve wanted to do your entire life.”

Kopanke enrolled at Kendall College in Chicago and loved it. He graduated in 2012, and the couple started Wit’s End Catering, which now serves only a few customers such as old friends, as they noted that they do not need the extra income. “Basically, my pension is great,” Kopanke said. Meanwhile, Flens is marking her 25th year as a nurse.

Devotion to serving others

Feeding the needy comes naturally to Kopanke. His mother was a Salvation Army officer who believed that you “put your feet to your prayers,” he said. “That is a lot of what influenced my life.”

A Roman Catholic the last eight years and a Notre Dame parishioner, Kopanke also cites Pope Benedict XVI’s writing as an influence. “His emphasis on serving the poor helps me activate my faith,” Kopanke said.

Rev. Kevin Hays, pastor of Notre Dame, welcomed the idea when the couple suggested they cook food for the needy at the church. “I saw this as a way we could go, following Dan and Cathy’s lead,” he said. “I think it is a really important activity.”

Since the church kitchen began seeing more action in February, about 20 parishioners have volunteered to help prepare the food. Others support the endeavor financially.

Kopanke, Flens, and volunteers cook meals at the church on the second Saturdays and fourth Thursdays each month.

“We are just getting started,” Fr. Hays said, noting that Notre Dame is seeking kitchen supplies through outreach.

Photo by Troy Heinzeroth
Dan Kopanke and Cathy Flens serve delicious food to residents of Franciscan House, a shelter on Harrison Street.

Notre Dame feeds the hungry

Notre Dame feeds the needy in many ways. Besides the effort spearheaded by Kopanke and Flens, the church held a Lenten food drive for needy students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which brought in 350 pounds for the UIC Pop-Up Pantry that serves students facing food challenges, and collected $1,300 for overseas Catholic Relief Services.

At Franciscan House on Harrison and its four other locations, “we serve more than 249,000 meals a year,” said Laura Reilly, development and marketing director. “We have many, many volunteers,” she said, but noted the shelter always can use more.

Franciscan House can house 342 men and women nightly and provides 120,000 nights of shelter annually. It also offers health care, counseling, and transitional services. “We help folks with everything they need,” Reilly said.

Kopanke and Flens do not rest after cooking at Notre Dame and helping out Franciscan House. Two or three times a week, they take sandwiches and bottled water to more than 30 people in homeless encampments along and under the Dan Ryan Expressway. In addition, they cook for about 40 people at Lincoln Park Community Services, which serves individuals facing homelessness and poverty.

To volunteer or contribute to the work done by Kopanke and Flens, contact Kopanke at (773) 633-5219 or d.kopanke@hotmail.com. To help at Franciscan House, contact Reilly at (773) 278-6724, ext. 21, or laura@franoutreach.org.

For more about Franciscan House, log on to www.franoutreach.org/shelter. For more about Notre Dame, call (312) 243-7400.