Neighbors serve neighbors at Dorchester food pantry

DORCHESTER -- The volunteers at Mary Ann Brett Food Pantry have a wide variety of ages and nationalities among them, but they are united by a common goal: serving their neighbors during hard times -- especially as the holidays approach.

Located at St. Margaret Church of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish, about 25 volunteers come together each week to distribute food and clothes from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturday mornings. The volunteers include Albanian, Cape Verdean, Irish, Polish, and Vietnamese immigrants, as well as people who have lived in Boston all their lives. Some are elderly, others are students or young professionals, and the youngest is a ten-year-old altar server.

"Everyone gets along, and they're all there for the same reason: giving back and helping our neighbors, in a very quiet, unassuming, unpretentious way. They're reaching out to their neighbors and saying, 'I'm here to help you,'" said Jim Brett, who runs the pantry with his wife Pattie.

On Nov. 19, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, volunteers distributed turkeys, gift cards, and bags of Thanksgiving groceries to about 225 families. When they saw that the number of people in line exceeded the number that had registered ahead of time, they acted quickly to put together more bags of food so no one left empty handed.

State Representative David Biele and City Councilor At-Large Erin Murphy came to lend a hand. Other volunteers included students from Boston Latin School, as well as the parish's pastor, Father John Ronaghan, and pastoral associate Sister of Charity Maryanne Ruzzo. Jim Brett's siblings Harry and Peggy, who used to be regular volunteers, also came back to help.

When all the turkeys had been distributed, Jim Brett and Father Ronaghan thanked the volunteers, who stayed to have a pizza lunch together.

"The great gift that began in this parish, way back in 1893, is continuing today because of all of you," Father Ronaghan told them.

He added that although they might not realize it, they were bringing out the Gospel message, "not in any extraordinary way, but to all of us, you are extraordinary, and we have to give thanks to God for that."

Brett, a former state representative and the president and CEO of the New England Council, grew up with his siblings behind St. Margaret Church. They went to school and had their weddings in the parish. His siblings used to volunteer each week at the food pantry, which was renamed after their mother about 15 years ago.

Brett said the food pantry runs like an informal service agency. When people come in to ask for help with problems other than food -- such as paying their heating bills, finding an apartment, or treating an addiction -- the volunteers refer them to agencies that can help.

"I always said, we're not solving poverty, but we are helping an awful lot of families who are our neighbors to get by. That food pantry has given them a ray of hope," Jim Brett said.

Every year, the parish holds a fundraiser on the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day, which allows them to purchase food to supplement what the food bank can give them on a monthly basis. The way Brett described it, a CEO and a janitor might sit next to each other at the same table at this event, which is usually attended by the governor, the mayor, and congress members.

The food pantry almost closed in 2020, since many of the volunteers were elderly and could not risk exposure to the coronavirus. But Brett and his wife decided to take it upon themselves to keep it running, and recruited their friends and neighbors to help them operate it with more limited hours.

"We're not the biggest (food pantry) around, but for that pocket of a neighborhood there in Dorchester, quite frankly, it's vital that it remains open," Brett said.

Prior to the pandemic, the pantry typically saw about 50 people come by for food on a Saturday. Now, as prices rise due to inflation, it tends to be closer to 100 or 125 people each week.

For Brett, a mark of the economic times is that some of the food pantry's past supporters have now become clients.

"I'm a lifelong resident of that parish, so I know these neighbors. It's pretty powerful to see somebody who gave you a donation just a few years ago is now asking for an extra bag just to get by," Brett said.

He said they see more children than ever coming into the food pantry, and that they hope to collect toys to give out at Christmas.

More information about the Mary Ann Brett Food Pantry can be found on the parish website at