Plowshares, the Ukiah community dining center, is marking its 40th anniversary with an open house Friday, and a special message from Sister Jane Kelly, the iconic Catholic nun who led to its founding.
At age 93, Sister Jane is being cared for by her order, the Sisters of The Presentation in San Francisco. Age is taking its toll, but she easily reminisces about her time in Ukiah and her role in the founding of Plowshares, according to longtime friend Martin Bradley.
Bradley, his wife Debra Meek, and activist Susan Crane, now with the Catholic Worker in Redwood City, visited Sister Jane recently.
“She remains Sister Jane,” said Bradley.
The trio talked with Sister Jane about her role in the Plowshares legacy, and the times they spent together leading a community effort to feed the poor, and provide services including showers, clothing, and bag lunches on the weekends.
Bradley said the hope is that the recording of a greeting from Sister Jane can be played during Friday’s open house at Plowshares from 5-7 p.m. It is a celebration of 40 years of advocacy, community service, and hundreds of thousands of meals served to those in need.
Besides the community dining room at 1346 South State St., Plowshares operates Meals on Wheels, personal care, and community service/work release programs.
Bradley, Meeks, and Crane’s visit with Sister Jane in San Francisco provided a joyful reunion, and many moments of reflection.
“How could we not feel deep gratitude for what we accomplished together to help others?” asked Bradley.
Plowshares is a community based organization that is modeled after the principles of the Catholic Worker Movement, launched in 1933 during the Great Depression in the U.S. The movement is a collection of autonomous communities of Catholics and their associates founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin with the aim to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.”
In Ukiah, Sister Jane, Martin Bradley, Debra Meek, and Susan Crane led a coalition of faith-based individuals in April 1983 to open Plowshares.
The group organized pickups of surplus food from local grocery stores, and each day of the week a different church or organization cooked and prepared lunches. They included St. Mary’s of the Angels, Ukiah United Methodist, Holy Trinity Episcopal, the Coalition for Peace on Earth, and the Potter Valley Methodist Church.
The first day Plowshares opened – Nov. 15, 1983 – 20 people were served. By Thanksgiving of that year, 50 people were served a traditional dinner.
Martin Bradley provided a copy of an old photo Jane has of the first meal about to be served at Plowshares.
There were questions in the beginning about whether a prayer before the meal was appropriate.
Sister Jane gave the directions. “We want to welcome people with no questions asked. We will not hold people hostage by their bellies; we will not make people pray in order to eat.”
In the early years, fundraising for Plowshares was a challenge but the community always responded. “Early heroes” included Ann Near, Mary Rice, David Patton, Jay Holden, Buddy Eller, Dorothy and Al Anderson, according to Plowshares.
Plowshares dining room was in the old Social Services building on Main Street. Then in 1984 it had secured a former church building on Luce Avenue. There was no kitchen, but local cabinet makers and craftsmen volunteered and built one. One hot lunch a day was offered, and then expanded services for the homeless including showers, laundry, haircuts, mail service, and personal care items.
In 2001, Plowshares launched a five-year capital campaign to design and construct the current 6,000-square-foot facility on South State Street. It raised $3 million. About one-third was from private donations, another one-third from foundations, and the last from a Community Development Block grant.
A volunteer building committee led by retired engineer Gary Smith, board member Jack Daniels, and architect Bob Axt was able to get the new center opened in January 2008 on time and under budget.
Today Plowshares has more than 100 volunteers and six staff members, working to serve hot meals every day for at least 100. Saturday meals have recently begun as a pilot program, thanks to Adventist Health volunteers and donations, and plans are being considered for expanding the program to Sunday as well. Plowshares volunteers are delivering about 200 Meals on Wheels daily to disabled, homebound seniors.
Martin Bradley and Debra Meek are still involved in Plowshares although not intensely as in the beginning.
“We walk in now, look around and are grateful that we helped make this happen,” said Bradley.
Crane is living at the Catholic Worker center in Redwood Center. An anti-nuclear activist arrested numerous times around the globe, Crane still faces prosecution in Europe for her work.
Sister Jane, the beloved feisty nun who turned the Diocese of Santa Rosa on its ear during a financial and sexual abuse scandal in the 1990s, is living a quiet life today, surrounded by devoted members of her order who care for her.
“She is remarkable. When we visited with her, it was almost like time had stood still,” said Bradley.