.- In July 1999, when Tony Cecere was approached by then-pastor Father Roy Pollard to start a group for seniors at St. Mary of the Assumption, in Wilmington, Delaware, Cecere wasn’t sure how the idea would materialize. A decade later, however, it has far-exceeded his expectations.
“You go to church and as you leave you say 'hi' and 'bye,' but we wanted to give seniors the chance to really socialize,” said Cecere, who then served as the parish's director of social ministry. “I thought maybe we’d have some soup and sandwiches, work on some crafts, watch some TV. But it really didn’t happen that way at all.”
That October, Cecere, along with a committee of six, organized a luncheon for 42 senior parishioners. The group then decided to convene for monthly luncheons and “from there we just multiplied,” said Shirlee Steenkamer, now the group’s co-chair along with Phil Donohoe. “We knew we didn’t want to just stay around and play cards and bingo.”
On Oct. 7, the senior group, known as the Sages of St. Mary’s (the name “sages” means “old and wise”) celebrated a decade of food, fellowship and service with a special Mass and catered luncheon. The pastor, Father Charles Dillingham, was the chief celebrant of the Mass, which was concelebrated by three other priests. Father Dillingham called the Sages, which now has more than 300 members, “a shining jewel of faithfulness” for the parish.
The Sages committed to meet monthly in the parish hall for a luncheon. Though Father Pollard told the Sages the parish could allocate funds to support the group if necessary, the group opted to completely self-support using money from non-mandatory donations to purchase food.
Lunches ranged from stews and pasta dishes to turkey with all the trimmings, which, to this day are all prepared by Cecere.
In addition to sharing a meal, the Sages enjoy postlunch entertainment, whether it’s a performance by singing jazz duo Cloud 9, or a speaker addressing a health-related topic for seniors.
“I just feel like I can identify with a lot of these people,” said Michael Alvares, 66, of Wilmington, who has been a Sage for about five years. “I would see them at daily Mass before joining but now it’s more than that.”
Travel is an integral part of the group — they travel somewhere at least once a month, sometimes filling up to two busloads.
Destinations range from one-day visits to Lancaster, Pa., to a four-night stay in Nova Scotia, to several mystery trips per year — “no one ever knows where we’re going until we get there,” Steenkamer said.
Annual retreats are also hosted at the Jesus House in Wilmington.
Equally vital to the camaraderie provided by having a group like this is their desire to give back to the community. Over the past 10 years, the Sages have donated food, money and other basic-need items like clothes and diapers to charities, including the West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington.
Frank Fountain, 67, of Hockessin, joined the Sages four years ago when he retired from his job at Hewlett Packard. “The fellowship keeps me here, this great group of people.”
Printed with permission from The Dialog, newspaper for the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.