HAMDEN, Connecticut — On the far right wall of the dimly lit church basement that houses St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen, next to where as many as 100 patrons line up each day to receive meals, a banner proclaims in vibrant green letters: “Let every guest be received as Jesus Christ.”

It’s that message that volunteers and patrons alike say stands at the heart of the soup kitchen, headquartered for decades at the historic Roman Catholic church on Dixwell Avenue. It’s the message, they say, that distinguishes St. Ann’s soup kitchen from others in the area.

“This place goes way beyond just feeding the hungry,” said Patrick Lynch, a regular. “This place feeds our minds, our bodies, our souls. It’s very necessary.”

But with St. Ann’s closure last month, as the Archdiocese of Hartford implements a plan to consolidate parishes into 127 new entities, the community is questioning what will become of the parish’s flagship ministry.

Twenty-six buildings closed under the pastoral plan, including St. Ann and nearby St. John the Baptist. In most cases, regularly scheduled masses will not be celebrated in those churches, but the buildings could still be utilized for other parish events.

St. Ann and St. John the Baptist merged with Church of the Ascension and Blessed Sacrament to create Christ the Bread of Life Parish, using the buildings of Ascension and Blessed Sacrament churches in Hamden.

Parish staff, volunteers and soup kitchen guests say they have been told the soup kitchen will remain at the church “for the foreseeable future,” but that there are no guarantees as the planning process moves forward at the local level.

The soup kitchen was packed and bustling just before noon last Wednesday, its long purple tables lined with people ranging from older men and women to young children. They ate from trays piled with plates of salad, fruit, muffins, rice, beans and hot dogs. Some sipped hot coffee from tall paper cups, while others drank milk from small cartons.

Lynch said he was immediately worried when he heard the news of St. Ann’s closure. Lynch said while there are other soup kitchens and food pantries in the area, “this particular soup kitchen has been everyone’s favorite.

“The people are great. They treat you great here,” Lynch said. “You’re not just a bum. They feed you well. Everybody leaves here with a smile. They make you feel valued.

“I think the biggest thing they need to consider is what this place has done and for how many people it’s done it for,” Lynch added. “If anything, consider that and then consider what would happen if they took it away.”

Diamond McCarter grew up getting some of her childhood meals from the soup kitchen. Although she now works two jobs, McCarter said there are months when her paychecks can’t both pay the bills and buy groceries.

She echoed Lynch’s concerns, saying she feared losing the soup kitchen could plunge her neighborhood further into poverty.

“Innocent people from all walks of life would be hungry,” McCarter said.

St. Ann and St. John the Baptist both boast immigrant roots — St. Ann was founded by Italian Catholics from New Haven and St. John by Irish immigrants — and have histories stretching back over 100 years, when farmland surrounded what’s now an impoverished commercial district of Dixwell Avenue.

The two parishes are small, with just over 250 registered families combined, and stand less than half a mile apart. Sunday Mass attendance averages about 50 people at St. John the Baptist and about 100 at St. Ann.

Parishioner Angela Conte, 76, who has been a member of St. Ann since she was baptized there as a baby, said it’s the intimacy that makes St. Ann and St. John the Baptist such a tight-knit community. She said parishioners often bounce back and forth between the two churches to attend Mass or participate in various ministries.

“You know what the worst part of it is? It’s not just a church. It’s a family,” Conte said. “It’s very disheartening.”

Conte said many fellow parishioners, particularly those who live in the area, have said they will likely no longer attend Mass because the new parish is too far for them to travel to.

“It gives these people no options,” Conte said. “You leave these people who walk to church and live in the neighborhood no options.”

Just days before the church closures, St. Ann’s was quiet and mostly empty at the end of a recent 8 a.m. weekday Mass. The only person in the nave, or the main body of the church, was a maintenance worker, who worked to remove small plaques affixed to the end of pews.

The plaques, engraved with the names of parish donors, were being removed to be returned to the families whose names they bore.

Inventory was also being taken of all religious items and sacred goods in both churches, per the closure procedures recommended by the archdiocese. Among the items being documented was a nearly 90-year-old statue of Mary under the title of Our Lady of Grace, which sits at the right side of the altar at St. John the Baptist. The statue was hand-carved from two different types of European marble and brought to St. John the Baptist in the early days of World War II.

A notable fixture that will stay behind is the pipe organ, built into the walls of the choir loft at St. John the Baptist in the 1950s. It was estimated to cost at least $200,000 to move, parish staff said.

Several parishioners fear the historic buildings will be vandalized or fall into disrepair, and question what will happen if the dozens of religious artifacts won’t be able to find permanent homes in the new parish.

Anne Petrini, 63, has been a parishioner at St. Ann for over 20 years, where she served as an extraordinary minister of holy communion.

Petrini said she still doesn’t know where she will attend Mass now, but she hopes to keep in touch with some of her friends from St. Ann to find out where they go.

“I think many people are going to leave the church because the churches are closing and this is like their home,” Petrini said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They’re not going to know where to go because their home, it’s not there. When you lose your home, you have to start from the very beginning.”

Back downstairs, it was only Nancy Guerrera’s second visit to the St. Ann soup kitchen on Wednesday, but she said she was disappointed to hear of the parish’s closure and was concerned about the future of the ministries headquartered there.

“You look to the church to help you when things are bad and now the church can’t help you because they’re being pushed out,” she said. “Where does it end?”

Jordan Otero Sisson writes for the Hartford Courant

Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com