“God never gives us enough to do what we want to do, but God always gives us more than enough to do what God wants us to do.”
Rev. John Mennell ’87 lives by this motto. In 2020, as the country grappled with the social and economic upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, he saw this dynamic at play in his own community. As pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey, Mennell already oversaw a substantial food ministry called Toni’s Kitchen. In 2020, the service nearly tripled, serving upwards of a million meals to those facing food insecurity.
“Clearly, God wants us to feed people,” Mennell says, “so we will do that.”
In 2019, the soup kitchen was serving about 275,000 meals a year, a number that increased to 1,030,000 meals in 2020. To meet the growing needs of those they served, Mennell and his congregation identified the need to physically expand their space. People could no longer eat at St. Luke’s because of COVID safety precautions, but they could pick up bags of food, and volunteers could bring food to schools and groceries to nearly 400 seniors. The team was creative, spacing volunteers throughout the building to decrease the chances of spreading the virus. The need for space also required the church to store boxes of food in offices and dining room areas to accommodate the dramatic increase in the number of people it served.
Having such purpose-driven work affirms Mennell’s decision to pursue a life of service.
Raised nondenominational Christian and later baptized in the Catholic Church in the chapel of Alumni Hall as an undergrad, Mennell has always sought to be a responsive member of the communities to which he belonged. As a student, he had a conversation with Fr. George Rozum C.S.C. ’61, ’80 M.S.A. of Alumni Hall about entering the priesthood, but felt that was not God’s calling for him at the time. He later married in the Episcopal church and embraced his faith as a very active member of his church community.
In 2001, Mennell accompanied a friend on a silent retreat. An extrovert who loved listening to stories and faith journeys, he decided to embrace the opportunity to simply listen. In this silence, he heard God calling him to priesthood. Though he brushed it off the first night, he could not shake the feeling of vocation, and approached the one person he was permitted to talk to.
“I finally talked to the priest running the retreat, whom I didn’t know at all before, and he said, ‘When you walked in here, I thought you would ask me about a vocation,’” Mennell recalls. “That became an amazing thing. Doors after doors kept swinging wide open.”
These doors took him from suburban Cincinnati — where he had spent 15 years in finance at Procter & Gamble and started his family — to a seminary in New York City, and then to St. Luke’s. The church was already running a soup kitchen, serving three lunches per week. But as food insecurity proved to be just one challenge facing the community, the church began taking extra steps to serve others. For example, they started a backpack program for an elementary school two blocks away. Three-quarters of the students were on reduced or free lunch, so every kid who stayed in the afterschool program received a free backpack of food — no questions asked. Mennell wholeheartedly embraced this expansion of his church community’s work.
“It’s been a dream come true,” he says. “I get to use every single bit of me. It takes the God-focused spirituality that was deeply and wonderfully ingrained in me at Notre Dame.”
This inclusive spirit permeates the Montclair community and has resulted in continued support of the church. During the pandemic, a high school student who lives near the church organized an online concert with her friends and raised enough money to buy another van that the church needed. Each time Mennell looks out his office window facing the church’s parking lot, he sees the van and thinks of the amazing people who fundraised for it.
To support their beliefs that living generously stems from recognizing the dignity of others, St. Luke’s is working to incorporate a choice pantry and delivery option, empowering people to choose what they want to eat. In addition, to prepare to physically welcome people back, the church is clearing out part of the basement to open up about 5,000 square feet and is cutting a door at basement level so the space can be accessed directly without requiring visitors to navigate steps. This transformation will continue through the end of the year — and perhaps beyond — but Mennell firmly believes this is his calling.
“This is a living expression of loving our neighbors as ourselves,” he says. “This is core to who I am, who Notre Dame taught me to be, and how I want to continue to live. What a great opportunity that as the world was shutting down, we were ramping up to love God’s people.”