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The spirit of giving: Murphysboro Community Christmas Dinner is on Monday

  • The Murphysboro Knights of Columbus hall is filled each year on Christmas for the annual Community Christmas Dinner hosted by The Murphysboro United Methodist Church.

    The Murphysboro Knights of Columbus hall is filled each year on Christmas for the annual Community Christmas Dinner hosted by The Murphysboro United Methodist Church.
    Courtesy of Jennifer O'Donnell

By Dustin Duncan
updated: 12/22/2017 5:51 PM

Jennifer and Ed O'Donnell wanted to get more involved in their community, and for years the couple found a way to ensure anybody who wants a hot meal during the holidays can be fed.

The O'Donnells run the Community Christmas Dinner through the Murphysboro United Methodist Church. From 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on Christmas Day, anybody who wants a hot meal can come to the Murphysboro Knights of Columbus for turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, desserts and much more.

For the past 24 years, the dinner has had a home in Murphysboro. And while the venue has changed, the Christmas spirit and desire to help during the giving season has been alive and well.

The dinner started in 1993 as an Eagle Scout project by James Hitchcliff. He continued to run the event for the next three years until he graduated and went on the military. From there, his mother, Mary Ann Chambers took control until four years ago when Jennifer and Ed discovered there was an opportunity to get involved.

The couple was already a member of the Methodist Church and spent the last Sunday of every month coordinating a meal called "Our Neighbor's Table," at the church. It's similar to the community dinner, just on a much smaller scale. When rumors started to fly around the congregation that Mary Ann wanted to take something off her plate, Jennifer and Ed scooped the annual dinner off it.

"We just kind of took to it," Ed O'Donnell said. "And we connected with the community. We were enamored with it and thought this works for us and it was something we could do."

Four years later, the couple is still learning new ways to make the dinner better for everybody each year.

"Since we have been doing it, the first thing we realized ... people come and they don't leave," Jennifer O'Donnell said. "We thought people would come eat their dinner and then go home. It's not that kind of event. Everybody comes, including the volunteers, and nobody leaves until the its time to go. Everybody wants to stay."

The event features live music from Donnie Falknor of Herrin, door prizes and a special visit from a man in a red suit who makes his way into the dinner. Also, all the children get presents. Each year, Jennifer solicits donations from the members of the Murphysboro Chamber of Commerce. Individuals and organizations send those donations to the church and she takes the money to shop for presents.

The couple said about 250 people come to the hall to eat, but there's another aspect of the day. Those individuals who can't make out of their homes can have a meal delivered to their house. Jennifer O'Donnell said about 100 people received meals this past year and all it takes is a phone call to have a meal scheduled. She said the Senior Citizen Center in Murphysboro provides the names of individuals receiving "Meals on Wheels," and those people get a meal delivered to their home on Christmas Day.

The meal also wouldn't be complete, or even possible, with the volunteers, the O'Donnells say. About 120 people show up to help during the holiday, including a special person in her 70s, who makes the trip from Galesburg each year on Christmas Day.

Ed O'Donnell said the large number of volunteers is necessary because the meal isn't served like a buffet line. It is a sit-down style diner -- something the couple says is important during the holidays.

"You come in and sit down and it becomes more like a family Christmas to those who come," Ed O'Donnell said. "Most of them don't have any place to go or any family."

The couple said the event is what the Christmas season embodies so they don't mind sacrificing their Christmas Day to help people.

"Jesus said feed my sheep. These are his sheep," Jennifer O'Donnell said. "Whether it be a small family, whether it be somebody off the street, they are our neighbors. If you can't love somebody on Christmas, then you can't love each other at all."

For more information, to volunteer or to inquire about a meal, call (618) 534-3822.

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