EDGARTOWN, Massachusetts — Lobster rolls and oysters on the half shell quickly come to mind when one imagines the gastronomic delights on Martha’s Vineyard, a top vacation spot for American presidents and power brokers.
Few would conceive that there’s also a hidden population of hungry parents and children often masked behind the small island’s elite golf courses and manicured lawns.
Yet for Father Mike Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish — which encompasses the Vineyard’s three Catholic churches — responding to and making folks aware of that veiled reality is an essential part of his mission.
Nagle has served on the island for the past 26 years and in recent times he’s helped launch a number of initiatives to help parishioners live up to the parish’s name of being good shepherds.
“It surprises the heck out of people when they hear about these kind of needs here,” he told Crux as he described the parish programs focused on feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless.
Among the most successful of the programs has been a children’s food and backpack program that the parish launched in 2017 in conjunction with the neighboring Episcopal church when one of their parishioners told Nagle that many of the island’s schoolchildren go hungry on the weekends since they lacked the availability of school meals.
“I hadn’t even thought about that,” said Nagle.
Their solution: On Fridays, the parish now stuffs backpacks full of food for the kids to take home and enjoy over the weekends. On Mondays, they return the backpacks and then the routine is repeated again, week after week.
“The backpacks are a way of removing any stigma associated with it,” Nagle said. “You just come by, grab a backpack and go, and no one thinks anything of it.”
On Monday mornings, a staff member takes a 5:30 am ferry ride over to Harwich, Massachusetts on Cape Code, loads the truck full of that week’s supplies from the food bank, and returns to the island by noontime to unload at the parish center.
During an average week, they’ll hand out between sixty to eighty backpacks, and in 2019 alone, the parish was responsible for giving out over 75,000 pounds of food to over 2,500 households, thanks in large part to a partnership with the Boston Food Bank.
Last year the diocese of Fall River provided a grant to purchase a freezer so that the parish can also store and deliver frozen meats and soups.
Despite a population of only 17,000 full-time inhabitants, that number soars to more than 200,000 during the summer. Often overlooked in that population are the families struggling to get by, and the church is playing a critical role in helping them along the way.
“It’s just like anywhere else in terms of needs and hardships,” Nagle said. “It’s a real mix of people.”
In addition to the food distribution, the parish — in conjunction with the other churches on the island — opens up their doors to provide shelter in the winter.
“There isn’t a single dedicated homeless shelter out here,” Nagle told Crux, “so we all take a turn one night a week. People can come here, and we provide them a cot, blankets, pillows, a hot meal and a shower.”
While some of those who rely on the parish services were born on the island, Nagle says that others have found their way here by circumstance, often a mix of substance abuse issues, mental illness, or those just down on their luck.
“We just have to do what we can to help them and provide for their safety,” he says. “It’s like Pope Francis’s field hospital. This is triage.”
“We can’t do everything, but we’re chipping away,” he adds.
Nagle said the more fortunate in the parish have been generous both with their time and their treasure in order to help the ministries grow.
“It’s another way in which we are Church,” he said, noting that there’s no Catholic litmus test for their ministries.
“Whoever comes, gets what we’ve got. If you’ve got a need, we’re here,” he said. “It’s a real positive thing that the Church is doing — and it’s the gospel in action.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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