By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 3, 2023
KENNESAW—Sitting at an indoor picnic table and watched over by a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, Elena Hamrick finished a plate of enchiladas alongside rice and beans.
The 17-year-old student juggled precalculus, microeconomics and French classes on a recent Wednesday. Hamrick is a home-school student also enrolled at Kennesaw State University.
She is at the KSU Catholic Center twice a week, one of a growing number of young people visiting.
“I get to study in the library and spend time with Catholic friends, and I get a free lunch,” said Hamrick.
Mariam Kennel just finished her job as an aide to a blind woman and was checking in with friends gathered around a table crowded with empty plates. She’s a 21-year-old nursing student.
The center was a lifesaver in the spring when she overbooked herself with work and classes.
“One thing I didn’t have to worry about was packing lunch. I could just come here go to Mass, which would relax, calm down my brain, and pray to God and then come and lunch. This really saved (me) that semester,” said Kennel.
The center, a 10-minute walk from the heart of the campus, has seen a surge of students. The young adults come to the converted three-bedroom ranch house four days a week for the no-cost lunch. The abundance of mouths to feed pushes the volunteer chefs to fill more plates.
Leslie McCloskey, 61, spent two hours catering to the crowd with several aluminum pans of Mexican food.
“I think when they’re away from home having a home-cooked meal is kind of nice,” said McCloskey, a retired preschool teacher who worships at nearby St. Catherine of Siena Church. She likes to mix up her dishes; last time, she brought chicken marsala and alfredo penne.
“My goal is to make a lot of food, so that’s just my personality. I want to make sure everybody gets a full plate,” said McCloskey.
The hungry horde of students swells at the start of each semester as they line up for the midday meal. The lunch rush has not dropped off as in past semesters. Twenty students would have been expected for lunch at this time last year, but now it’s closer to 35.
Students cite financial savings, and a feeling of community as draws. They save money eating here instead of campus dining and connect with friends.
“It’s when everybody is around. It’s when I get to see the majority of my friends,” said Megan Lopez, 20, a junior studying English.
Beloved tradition continues
Volunteers known as the Linus Lunch Bunch have delivered meals for students since the early 2000s, continuing a beloved tradition. Even with parking at a premium, the center has reserved a spot for the person dropping off the meal of the day. Students are responsible for setting out dishes, bussing their dirty dishes and cleaning.
The group gets its name from the late founding director, Franciscan Father Linus DeSantis, OFM Conv., who served for a decade until 2006. He cooked for the small number of students himself, preparing Italian dishes for the most part, along with a salad, iced tea and sometimes dessert. Volunteers took over in 2006 and have served students 1,091 meals.
Many contribute because they see the students as their own.
“My wish is that they feel that somebody really cares about them, that they took the time to make a meal especially for them,” said Pam Haeger, the longtime organizer. She once worked as an assistant pastry chef at Atlanta’s highly regarded Canoe restaurant.
Haeger, 52, finds the volunteer cooks at nearby parishes like St. Catherine and Transfiguration Church and her own St. Joseph Church in Marietta. She organized the first volunteer cooks in 2006 to thank Father Linus, who helped lead her to join the church. This work is all done with about a dozen cooks, but Haeger would like to add to the number.
While living alone in college for the first time may tempt young adults to stop practicing their faith, “the Catholic Center gave them someplace to hold on to that. Father Linus gave them a reason to want to stay in the faith, stay connected, and an opportunity to be with other students who believed in what they believed in,” Haeger said. “Food connects people in the most incredible way. We understand that everyone now that brings a meal is making a huge gift because food is expensive.”
Maturing into the faith
“It’s like a coffee house atmosphere,” said Father Robert Fredrick, who assumed the role of center director three years ago. Students talk a lot here, having conversations about classes and their understanding of life and faith, he said. His goal is for the center to be a place where young people become grounded in Catholicism and grow as individuals.
“It’s another little extra incentive to come and celebrate one of the sacraments with confession or Mass,” he said about the lunch.
With the happy problem of more people showing up, the volunteers are stretched. So, the center has to respect their time and may need to be creative if it becomes too burdensome, he said.
Father Fredrick recently introduced a second Sunday Mass to the schedule, which together attracts about 70 people. Unlike a typical parish, he said this place is alive during the week with activities and speakers. About two dozen students and others fill the pews for Mass daily.
Growing up, Ian Chorne’s friends were of other Christian denominations or nonbelievers. But at the center, the 22-year-old has connected with folks his age who are Catholic. Chorne, a software engineer major and co-president of the Catholic Student Association, wears a “Be Not Afraid” sweatshirt, part of the merchandise sold here.
Chorne wants to make the faith his own.
“Catholicism has a lot of answers for questions I have about life, about being human, about our purpose in life,” he said.
The lunch at the center, attending Mass and seeing friends are anchors for the day.
“You can kind of just sit at any table and feel welcomed,” he said.