Members of St. James' Episcopal Church in Old Town staff the "drive-thru" table at one of the church's free monthly meals. Although the coronavirus pandemic has changed how churches across the state offer suppers, it has not stopped the tradition entirely. Credit: Courtesy of St. James' Episcopal Church, Old Town

Turkey dinners, beans and franks and almost always pie.

In Maine, church suppers are important, both as a fundraising opportunity and a time for fellowship. They’re when church and community members sit together and catch up as they slather butter on fresh-baked rolls, eat more turkey than they ought to and admire the vast assortment of desserts on offer.

As with so many other traditions, the pandemic changed how church suppers could be held. But it didn’t stop them altogether.

Lots of churches around the state have figured out how to keep important aspects of the suppers alive even when it hasn’t been safe or allowable to sit closely together in parish halls with friends, neighbors and strangers.

For example, take the Searsport United Methodist Church. On the second Saturday of the month, more than 100 people come to the church to pick up to-go turkey dinners and take them home. The $10 price is right and the food is hearty and plentiful, according to Pastor Helen Shaw.

“Gravy, stuffing, hot biscuits, cranberry sauce, all different kinds of pies, homemade, from scratch,” she said. “They just love the pies.”

But to her, there’s another reason why the monthly suppers are so special. Even though the sit-down aspect is not possible right now, it’s still a chance for the community to gather. That’s important, she said.

“It’s a wonderful fellowship. Folks come in and have an opportunity to see their neighbors,” she said. “It means a lot to them, it really does. They catch up on news. Find out what’s happened that’s good, or not so so good. A lot of laughter goes on. … What we’re dealing with today, with COVID, it’s extremely important that we have that fellowship in our communities. That they find that sense of humor and laughter, because that’s very healthy.”

Other churches have found the same thing. Even though the suppers look very different than they used to, they still matter.

In Guilford, Diana Hobart and Deborah Catell began heading up the supper committee last spring after the death of the long-time committee chair, Linda Zimmerman. When the pandemic began, Hobart and Catell scrambled to figure out how to keep the tradition going.

“We’re trying to do what we can and think way outside of the box, because the box has been broken wide open this year,” Hobart said. “That box has been smashed. We have to come up with different ways to do things. I’ve seen it with restaurants and small businesses — the ones that have been really creative have flourished.”

Their takeout suppers, which are offered a few times a year and must be pre-ordered, have been averaging about 90 people per meal. That’s even better attended than the indoor meals used to be.

So far, they’ve offered meals like shredded chicken and gravy with a baked potato and a vegetable and pulled pork with baked potatoes and applesauce. Their next supper will be a lasagna dinner on Saturday, June 19, and will feature homemade bread, garlic butter, tossed salad and cheesecake.

The suppers cost $8 or two for $15 and help the church pay its share of the United Methodist Conference mission. They’ve also been a way to help connect people during an isolating time.

“One lady said, ‘I don’t attend, but I’ve always thought of this as my church,’” Hobart said. “She gave us a hefty donation. Our mission is to reach out to people. We’re trying to reach out, and serve God.”

Those goals are also on the minds of those who organize the free monthly meals at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Old Town. For “years and years and years,” church member Carol Gregory said, the church held those meals inside. In March 2020, the notice advertising the supper already had run in the Penobscot Times when the pandemic began in earnest.

Church members didn’t want to disappoint anyone, but they also wanted to be safe.

“We had an emergency meeting,” she said.

Finally, they decided to turn the hot, inside meal into a to-go brown bag lunch. They made sandwiches and turned the church’s parking lot into an ad hoc drive-thru. People came, and the church kept on with the meals, offered the fourth Friday of every month, with the exception of November and December

“It works out pretty good. We’re getting a system,” Gregory said.

The church members started cooking hot meals again, with chefs getting particularly good feedback for the month they made taco chili and the Thanksgiving meal they served up in October. She’s expecting the meals to remain in the parking lot for some time to come.

“I don’t think we’ll be ready to be indoors for awhile,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Frankfort Congregational Church, which has a well-known monthly turkey supper from May through October, also has successfully pivoted for the pandemic. People come to the church to pick up their to-go meals, complete with mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing and pie.

“Boy oh boy, do people like them,” Tom Seymour, the church pastor, said.

He’s enjoyed seeing how the attendees have found ways to connect with each other, even if it’s just in the parking lot outside.

“People are happy and they see each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of joking. It’s great, it really is. That’s what it’s all about.”