ELLSWORTH, Maine — Even before the doors were scheduled to open at noon Thanksgiving Day, the Riverside Cafe on Main Street began to fill with people from all walks of life: homeless families, widows, workers hoping to fill their bellies before heading off to their jobs.
Michael Towsley, 46, of Hancock just wanted to be around people.
“It’s a beautiful day. It’s like a little get-together here, like a big family,” he said while seated at a table inside the restaurant. Towsley had his own family dinner to attend later in the day, but he saw no reason he couldn’t have both.
For the second consecutive year, the Riverside Cafe partnered with the Emmaus Center, a local homeless shelter, to host a community dinner on Thanksgiving. The shelter has prepared such dinners for 16 consecutive years, but had outgrown its space at the corner of Water and Main streets. In its final years of holding the meal at Emmaus, diners were eating in the hallways.
“I also think there was a stigma associated with having the meal at the shelter,” said Director Sister Lucille MacDonald. “So we started to look elsewhere.”
Around the same time MacDonald was searching for another venue to host Thanksgiving dinner, Danielle Chatto was looking for a way to do something special on the holiday.
“I went down to the shelter and spoke to Sister Lucille about what we could do,” said Chatto, dining manager at Riverside Cafe. The restaurant owner agreed to open the doors on Thanksgiving Day and a new tradition was born.
Last year, 75 meals were served. This year, organizers hoped to double that, and by 1 p.m. Thursday they were well on their way.
George Lirarkis played guitar and sang songs by Harry Chapin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Billy Joel. Visitors made heaping plates of traditional holiday fixings and some volunteers made meals to go, which were delivered to area shut-ins. The warmth inside the restaurant was palpable.
“It’s really an opportunity for people, for a community, to come together,” MacDonald said.
It’s not just the homeless seeking a holiday meal and company, MacDonald said. The perception that everyone must have somewhere to go on Thanksgiving is simply not true.
“A lot of people don’t have someone,” she said.
As the nights get colder, more and more people find refuge in crowded shelters. The Emmaus Center, the only family shelter in eastern Maine, has been filled for months and a lengthy waiting list has formed, MacDonald said.
But on Thursday, they didn’t dwell on their living situations. They sat and ate and listened to music and enjoyed the company of others. The various reasons that brought each of them there didn’t matter in that moment.
“We all have something to be grateful for,” MacDonald said in her welcome address before the meal was served. “But think of others who are less fortunate. Anyone who has to be away from family and loved ones.”
Once people began to eat, MacDonald walked from table to table greeting people, a satisfied smile on her face. Dangling from her neck was a simple cross, etched with a single word that summed up the event: Mercy.