The church ladies who make up St. Mary’s Guild are quick to tell you that they can’t do anything of huge consequence for the exhausted caregivers on COVID’s front lines.
They can’t stop the pandemic or speed up the vaccine. They can’t force others to wear masks and behave responsibly.
But they can bake. And for months they’ve fired up their home ovens every week in hopes of providing even a brief moment of pleasure for Dallas hospital workers.
It’s a small act, done with big love — and humility.
When I reached out to the guild, which has been around almost as long as its 75-year-old Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, the women protested that their work was hardly worthy of public attention.
That was a big clue that I was talking to authentic doers of good. Women who could teach the rest of us a thing or two.
“We can’t reduce the number of people with COVID showing up at their hospitals,” St. Mary’s Guild member LaRee Stein told me. “But we can show them they aren’t forgotten.”
The guild bakers are as diverse as the treats they distribute each Monday: Women with high-powered jobs, retirees, mothers with young children, seniors battling their own health problems, even a few older teens. Many are second- and even third-generation St. Mary’s bakers.
The guild formed in 1950 around an idea that was ahead of its time. Designed for women with jobs outside the home, the group met in the evenings and the work it asked of its members required only a few hours of their weekend.
Since its earliest days, that work was baking — providing sweet bites, which originally sold for 10 cents each, for church-goers to enjoy as they milled about between Sunday services. The proceeds are donated each year to local charities, usually those that support women and children.
Until COVID forced the church to move online, you’d always find the guild’s bake tables strategically set up in one of the busiest spots within Saint Michael’s.
The 75-cent snacks not only are tasty, the work “represents that joyful collision that we celebrate every Sunday,” the Rev. Dr. Chris Girata, the church’s rector, told me. “They have provided this moment of deep connection.”
Credit for retooling the Sunday tradition into a free bounty for staff in local hospital emergency rooms and COVID operations goes to St. Mary’s member Paula Calise.
When Sue Spellman called Paula in early July to ask if she would help make some cookies for an acquaintance who worked in the Baylor emergency room, she had no idea what she was about to set in motion.
“Not only do I love to bake,” Paula told me, “but I knew 50 more people who love to bake. And I was born to organize.”
The pandemic “had left us all feeling like we were floundering because we couldn’t do our baking outreach,” guild member Cissy Humphrey recalled. “This was just what we needed.”
St. Mary’s Guild is now in month five of its members baking and individually wrapping 50 to 80 dozen treats that they deliver each Monday, on a rotating basis, to Baylor University Medical Center, UT Southwestern Clements Hospital, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and Methodist Dallas Medical Center.
Most of the guild’s 45 members are part of the team, as are a handful of women such as Sue from outside the church. Each treat includes the label “Thank you, health care heroes! St. Mary’s Guild and Friends.”
“I just happened to say the right thing at the right time,” Sue recalled. “That just felt like my calling at that particular moment.”
The effort may have started on the fly, but it now runs like clockwork. The women, organized into two teams, bake whatever they love most and get the items to the sorting-and-sacking volunteers at the church by Monday morning.
A half-dozen women piled this week’s smorgasbord of treats into individual mounds on tables throughout the church parlor and briskly filled big white bag after bag with a selection of each.
Monday they packed 21 bags with about 60 treats each.
That’s a lot of baking.
Just a few of the labels I had a chance to read: Sour cream coffee cake, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, “just plain great chocolate cupcakes,” cranberry pomegranate and orange bars, snickerdoodles and strawberry cake.
Guild co-president Sandra Hughes told me she just wished her team could do more. “Who is working the hardest? The emergency workers — like those at the hospitals. I just wish we could help them all.”
Once the women loaded the bags of sweets into two cars, they headed for Baylor, where on this Monday nurse Ellie Baas met them under one of the hospital porticos.
Ellie’s mask didn’t cover up her exhaustion — she’s one of scores of health care workers who has worked more overtime than she can keep track of in recent days. Nor did she try to hide how touched she and her colleagues are by the homemade kindness of St. Mary’s Guild.
Even after all these weeks, the baked goods are always special, she said, especially now when everyone is so very tired and feels overwhelmed. “When I tell the staff that the church ladies are bringing goodies today, there are huge smiles and they feel the love from the community,” Ellie said.
Father Chris, of Saint Michael’s, is well aware that the guild members are quick to say, “All I do is bake some cupcakes.” But they are accomplishing what people of faith are always called to do — to see light in the darkest places.
“These women have understood they have agency even when the negative, horrible things going on in the world seem so significant,” he said.
By doing their small thing together, he said, they remind “the health care heroes in our community that we do not forget them and we appreciate every day that they put themselves at risk in order to take care of strangers.”
The guild’s work brings to life the slogan on “the church has left the building — be the church” yard signs that Saint Michael’s distributed in the spring, a message first voiced in Father Chris’ Easter sermon.
In those first March weeks of shelter-in-place, the rector could hear the pain in his congregation’s voices when they talked about the church being closed. “They were making the very, very common mistake that the church is the building when the church is the people.”
Father Chris, who previously pastored in Memphis and is familiar with Elvis lore, borrowed from those roots to end his Easter sermon like so: “The church has left the building. Thank God for that. So go be the church.”
That’s the sentiment that drives the guild’s work — well, that and the fact that this way the women get to do the baking they love without the tempting snacks sitting around in their own kitchens.
Shannon Callewart, guild co-president, said what binds St. Mary’s women together is their yearning to do useful, constructive work that might make a little difference in someone else’s life.
She’s well aware that many within the guild’s own ranks also are struggling. “Many of these ladies are busy with their own jobs, but many also are elderly or have other health challenges,” Shannon said.
Yet they all find time to bake for people they likely will never even meet. And they have no intention of stopping.
“If we can bring some comfort, if we can bring a smile,” Paula said. “If somebody says ‘yum’ in the middle of the day who wouldn’t otherwise have had reason to say that, we’ve done our job.”