Giving trees at Catholic churches bring joy to the needy

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/12/21/giving-trees-at-catholic-churches-bring-joy-to-the-needy/

Catholic churches in the Boston area are giving back this holiday season. Following a decades-old tradition, parishes around the region collect gifts for underprivileged recipients who place their requests on Giving Trees.

Taking their name from Shel Silverstein’s well-loved book, the special Christmas trees are placed inside churches with the desired items written on paper ornaments. Participating parishioners pick one, buy the gift, and return it to the church. An empty tree with plenty of packages is always a good sign.

“What’s been most gratifying is that people respond so generously. Most often, they add something else to the gift request they’ve chosen.”

An example of the program can be found at St. Joseph the Worker Shrine in Lowell, which helps many immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and various Hispanic and African countries. The church’s Giving Tree project collects gifts for four Lowell area shelters. The beneficiaries are usually single mothers and abused women. Their needs are placed on cards that hang on a Christmas tree at the back of the church.

St. Joseph Church Giving Tree. (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

St. Joseph Church Giving Tree. (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

Father Terrence O’Connell, director of St. Joseph’s, is enthusiastic about his parishioners’ participation: “What’s been most gratifying is that people respond so generously. Most often, they add something else to the gift request they’ve chosen. For instance, a mother may ask for diapers, and the giver adds a blanket; or another requests a child’s sweater, and the giver adds mittens and a scarf.”

St. Joseph’s has collected over 500 gifts this year for its Giving Tree – far more than what was originally requested. Father O’Connell added, “I’m edified by the generosity of the people.”

At the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Dracut, organizer Fran DeMontigny keeps a list throughout the year of people who come to the church for assistance. Each October, the church sends letters to everyone on the list, taking requests for children’s gifts to be placed on the Giving Tree.

In the DeMontigny family, making the Giving Tree a success is a family affair.

“My husband makes ornaments on the computer and I write on the back what is needed. You know: ‘Teenage boy. Pants. Pant size.’” If a family comes to the church for presents at the last minute, they get a gift card to Wal-Mart. “We don’t want any child to go without something,” DeMontigny explained.

Giving tree at St. Anthony/St. Mary (joint parishes) (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

Giving tree at St. Anthony/St. Mary (joint parishes) (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

The St. Francis church provides gifts for the Lawrence diocese and for two nursing homes in Lowell as well.

DeMontigny noted that the parish receives at least 500 to 600 gifts each year for the Giving Tree.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said, “but I’ll tell you, it’s very rewarding.”

“The people at St. Francis are very generous,” she added. “You can ask for one gift, but whoever picks it will probably bring three gifts for that person.”

The St. Francis church organizes its Giving Tree program through the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charity. Many parishes send volunteers to the organization to plan their Giving Tree drives and other goodwill projects. DeMontigny is the St. Vincent de Paul volunteer for the St. Francis church.

Our Lady, Comforter of the Afflicted church in Waltham is another participant that organizes its Giving Tree through the society.

Besides providing gifts, the Giving Tree donors communicate a deeper message to the recipients: they assure those who have fallen on hard times that people in their local communities care about them.

“Our Giving Tree has been going on since we joined St. Vincent de Paul’s in 1978,” said Carole Portenoso, the church’s volunteer member. “It’s a very old organization, very quietly done,” she added.

At Our Lady church, every child under high school age in the recipient families may request three gifts, each costing less than $25. The church also gives Giving Tree gifts to several Catholic charities in Somerville that help needy women with children and people with mental disabilities in group homes.

Echoing Father O’Connell at St. Joseph’s in Lowell, Portenoso said that most beneficiaries are single mothers. Like Father O’Connell and Fran DeMontigny, she also noted, “Some people are so generous, they add extra gifts.”

Giving tree at St. Anthony/St. Mary (joint parishes) (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

Giving tree at St. Anthony/St. Mary (joint parishes) (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

Smaller churches also join the Christmas Giving Tree endeavor.  A joint community of two parishes, St. Anthony of Padua in Shirley and St. Mary in Ayer, collected over 300 presents and gift cards in record time.

“All the gift requests were filled within 10 days, which I loved,” said the Father Edmond Derosier, pastor of both churches. “We even have a few spares just in case.”

Father Derosier noted that the program’s beneficiaries are the local food bank, Loaves and Fishes, and disadvantaged children at the Page Hilltop public school nearby. He explained that the school’s social worker sends childrens’ gift requests to the church. The program was so successful that the church is sponsoring a second Giving Tree in honor of the Holy Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis recently inaugurated.

The generosity of parishioners around the region is an inspiring manifestation of true Christmas spirit. Besides providing gifts, the Giving Tree donors communicate a deeper message to the recipients: they assure those who have fallen on hard times that people in their local communities care about them.  Moreover, the program’s rewards are mutual. As many contributors attest, they receive far more joy in giving than receiving.

— Lizzie Short contributed to this article

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