Meet the Irish woman feeding 200 New Yorkers for Thanksgiving
Every year, Barbara Murphy organises a community dinner for those who have no family close by to share the day with
Barbara Murphy: ‘Knowing that even the new Irish are so willing to help out is just great; it’s embedded in our DNA I think.’
All across the United States today, families and friends are gathering for a special dinner to express their love for one another and gratitude for the good things life has brought them.
But for those who don’t have family around, Thanksgiving can be a lonely time. For the past seven years, Barbara Murphy, who moved to New York in 1989, has organised a Thanksgiving dinner for all the people in her parish who might not have anywhere else to go.
Fifty people turned up for the first dinner in the school hall at St Stephen of Hungary in Yorkville in 2009, and popularity has grown each year as word has spread. This year, Barbara and her team of volunteers will feed 200 people from all across the Upper East Side.
“The dinner is open to anyone who wants to come, not just to parishioners. We would never turn anyone away,” says Barbara, who has spent weeks arranging tickets, organising volunteers, and shopping for ingredients for the feast with her co-chair, Roz Panento.
“One year we had a family who just came in off the street, with three young kids. That was the year of the big storms. We don’t ask any questions. We have people from all over the world. We call it a community dinner, which is open to whoever wants to come. A lot of the same people come back year after year.”
Barbara had her own ageing parents in mind when she first came up with the idea.
“I always thought of my parents on their own. My mum wants to stay in her own area at Christmas, she wants to be comfortable, and so many other elderly people are the same; they don’t like to travel too far from where they live. We get a lot of older couples who just can’t travel to their families, or who have lost touch with family, and don’t want to be alone.”
The Upper East Side was a popular area for Irish immigrants in the 1960s, so although St Stephen’s was originally a church for the Hungarian community, many of the parishioners are Irish.
Diners will be served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, mixed veg, gravy and cranberry jelly.
Gathering the ingredients is a “true community effort”, Barbara says: $450 worth of food has been donated by the Community Emergency Relief Team, while six turkeys were given by the local butcher, and grocery shops and delis supplied complimentary fruit, vegetables and fresh bread.
For dessert there’s a choice of pumpkin pie, pecan pie or apple pie, and a selection of American cookies and pastries, all made by parishioners or donated by the local bakeries.
The head chef is Mike Hartigan, whose day job is in the kitchens at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Barbara’s husband Ray, who moved to the US from Galway in 1990, helps out in the kitchen, while their three kids serve up the food with the help of six other families who help out year after year. This year, six young Irish men and women in their early-20s, who have recently arrived in New York from Ireland, will all be rolling up their sleeves to give a hand.
“Knowing that even the new Irish are so willing to help out is just great; it’s I embedded in our DNA I think,” Barbara says. “I am so looking forward to meeting them all, and so is our parish community.”
The volunteers began cooking the turkeys on Monday. On Tuesday they peeled and boiled hundreds of potatoes, and yesterday, 20 students from the local girls’ high school, St Vincent Ferrer, helped to decorate the hall and set the tables.
“On Tuesday I spoke to some of the ladies and gentleman that helped us peel potatoes, and I asked them what makes this community dinner special for them. They said helping the community, feeling part of it, and sharing a meal with neighbours. Some said they didn’t want to be by themselves.”
Barbara was 21 when she left Finglas in Dublin for New York in 1989.
“I came for a vacation, to visit my sister who was a nurse here, and I never left. I loved New York from the moment I arrived. It’s so multicultural. The city is in my blood now.”
Having worked in restaurants for most of her life, Barbara didn’t usually celebrate Thanksgiving herself, but the day has come to mean more to her the longer she has lived in the US.
“It was always a very busy day and very difficult to take off, but as my family grew and years have passed, the meaning of Thanksgiving has grown for me,” she says. “I am truly grateful for my wonderful friends here in New York, and my family.”
So how will she celebrate Thanksgiving, once the dinner is over, the last plate has been cleaned, and the 200 well-fed diners have all gone home?
“We go to the movies every Thanksgiving night to watch the new release. This year our movie is Hunger Games Part 2 Mocking Jay.”