BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church again opened its doors to anyone who wanted a free Christmas meal with all the fixings, plus the company of more than 100 “friends.”
It’s the 32nd year the Locust Street church has hosted a Christmas meal, said the meal’s coordinator for the past 12 years, Bob Ferris of Essex. The dinner, which is free and open to all, has grown into an ecumenical event with the Danvers Clergy Association and Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody.
The church was the site of one of several free Christmas meals served across the North Shore yesterday by organizations and churches in Peabody, Salem, Beverly and Lynn.
The church, located in a bucolic part of town, provided an “over the river and through the woods” setting for the early afternoon Christmas with Friends dinner, an event that featured plenty of turkey, ham, trimmings and desserts, along with the singing and playing of Christmas songs.
“Compliments to you all,” said a gentleman who peeked his head into the kitchen as Ferris spoke with a reporter.
Those attending said the meal provides company for those with no family or friends to spend Christmas with, or just a hardy meal to those who cannot afford to cook one. The dinner provides a way for volunteers to give back, and it also provides a warm welcome back to those who have not attended the church in recent years.
Folks came from around the region, many of whom were seniors from Danvers, Beverly and Peabody. Some had other places they could go to spend Christmas, but they said they preferred being at the meal.
“When you are alone, you want to be with people,” said Pauline LeBlanc of Peabody, who has a son who lives in Florida. She is a regular attendee. “I just want to be with people. I’m a people person, you know.”
“There are many people here for the sociability as much as the food,” said church member and meal volunteer Leonard Swanson. His wife, Judy Putnam, is the musical director, and she was also a volunteer.
Ferris, the dinner’s coordinator, said brochures go out to councils on aging, and many attendees come from senior housing in Beverly and Danvers. One man started coming to the dinner when he was homeless, Ferris said. He ended up getting an apartment in Portland, Maine, but he continues to come back, and he has done so for the past two or three years.
“It meant so much to him then, and he still thinks of us,” Ferris said.
Ferris said the meal started 32 years ago as a gathering of church members and acquaintances. About 20 years ago, the church began to work with area clergy to host the dinner. It’s drawn as many as 120 people, with people sitting out in the foyer eating their meals. This year, with volunteers, about 100 people showed up.
“We host it, but all the churches donate food. We also will put in a plug for Henry’s Market in Beverly, which also donates a bunch of food to us every year,” Ferris said.
The churches also supply 20 volunteers to staff the dinner, and the temple provides free transportation to those in need of a ride. Volunteers not only wait on those who attend the dinner, but they also provide some Christmas cheer to those who may be alone at this time of year.
The Rev. Gerard Dorgan, retired pastor of St. Mary of the Annunciation of Danvers presides, and he brings along a group of musicians. Other churches also bring along some entertainers, Ferris said.
Thomas Gale of Salem said he and Leonard Swanson helped start the Christmas with Friends meal as part of the church’s social action committee, and he is pleased to see it continue.
“They have done a great job keeping it up,” Gale said. While Gale now attends church regularly in Marblehead, his “heart is here at the Danvers church.
“I have friends here that are still members of the church, like Leonard. As we are getting older, it seems we are getting new people in to keep it going. We’ve always had a great time, a great community effort.”
Gale said when door was thrown wide open to anyone who wanted a meal, it was a risk.
“We were afraid that first year we wouldn’t have enough turkeys, but the turkeys showed up,” Gale said. “They were cooked, and I don’t believe in the religious miracle, but it was like a miracle that people can help, do help, when it comes to this time of year.”
“There have been people out there who are homeless, and we don’t see them. To have an occasion like this makes them visible,” Swanson said.
When asked why this gathering was special, Swanson said: “It’s meeting a need. The need is so easily overlooked.”
Writer and graphic designer Bonnie Hurd Smith, a member of the Unitarian church in Salem who is active in her church, decided to volunteer for the Christmas dinner in Danvers for the first time this year, and she said she made a lot of new friends yesterday.
“It’s been a beautiful afternoon, a lot of grateful, happy, well-fed people,” Smith said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.