Soup for southern souls – and bodies

By Jeff Dillon, 11 October 2019
(L-R) Phil Merchant, Pam Robertson, Elizabeth Morgan and Gerry O'Farrell in the kitchen at St Patrick's Basilica, Dunedin, New Zealand. Image: NZ Catholic.


“They also serve who only stand and wait . . .” The English poet John Milton (1608-74) ended his famous sonnet with those words, which typify what is involved in a community-minded initiative that has taken place in South Dunedin over the winter months.

Every Thursday since the beginning of June, a small team has assembled in the foyer of St Patrick’s Basilica by 3pm to provide sustenance in the form of free hot soup and heated buns or bread. There is a selection of three soups from which to choose. On the day of the NZ Catholic correspondent’s visit, the choice was from Pumpkin soup, Cauliflower and Potato soup, or Cream of Mushroom soup. The Pumpkin soup was superb.

The chief soup-maker and originator of this service is parishioner Gerry O’Farrell. This particular community-focussed service stems from the activities of the St Francis of Assisi Dunedin Trust, which the parish set up about six years ago, with Mr O’Farrell as the chairman.

The St Francis Trust aims to help people in need of financial or similar support and assistance. Providing a helping hand to people through a difficult patch in their lives and supporting them with practical solutions, rather than just a handout, is the basic guiding light.

About a year ago, Mr O’Farrell gave up the chairmanship role as he became a part-time employee as a community worker for the trust. It was about the same time that he conceived the idea of providing the special winter service.

From his past experience as a parent with children attending sport practices after school, he perceived the opportunity to provide a service in the cooler Dunedin winter months to busy parents and children and others to foster the sense of community. The idea of free hot soup and buns was born.

The St Francis Trust works closely with Catholic Social Services and obtains donations of free food and vegetables from Kiwi Harvest and Food Share. Mr O’Farrell works his magic with whatever is available and produces three different soups each week.

Thursday was chosen as the most suitable day of the week on the advice from a local principal, who indicated that it was a popular evening for sport practices. Sometimes those practices can spill over into children kicking a ball around in the foyer while parents converse over their cups of soup. Free soup and buns are provided from 3pm through to 6pm.

The number attending averaged between 20 and 30 during June, July and August for its first year. Mr O’Farrell, while pleased with the response, is hopeful that next year the numbers will grow. “Too many people would be a good problem,” he quipped.

The service is attended by some regulars who enjoy the social interaction as well as the soup. So the customers represent quite a range of ages from the fairly young to the very mature.

There have been suggestions that the service should be extended in a slightly different form through other months in the year, but that idea is just a developing thought at this stage.

This article was originally published in Issue 572 (August 25 – September 7, 2019) of NZ Catholic newspaper.

Republished with permission from NZ Catholic and Jeff Dillon.


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