In Lower Paxton Township, not far from the Diocesan Center in Harrisburg, Maryellen Santanna is known as “the soup lady.”
A member of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Harrisburg, Santanna has been putting her culinary skills to work for the benefit of Catholic Charities and its programs that provide help and create hope for people in need.
In the past six months, Santanna has chopped, diced, rolled, sliced and boiled to create1,000 quarts of soup – 800 of which have been sold to raise a total of $5,100.
From beef barley and chicken tortellini to minestrone and sausage with gnocchi, she’s done it all from her own kitchen, with quality ingredients that she purchases out of her own pocket.
“I haven’t kept track of the amount of ingredients I’ve bought, because I’ve done it over such a long period of time,” Santanna said from her kitchen on a recent Friday morning, the scent of meatballs emanating from a pot of Italian wedding soup while cobs of corn simmered in another.
“I think the thing people like about my soups is, I’m not stingy at all. It’s a full quart,” she said. “I like soup that is very hearty – I don’t like a lot of broth – so all of my soups you could almost eat with a fork.”
Santanna’s efforts of making soup to benefit Catholic Charities began four years ago, when she responded to a parish bulletin announcement seeking volunteers to assist with the non-profit’s annual Souper Bowl Sunday Sale.
Held annually in conjunction with the NFL’s championship game, the Souper Bowl Sunday Sale typically takes place in several parishes, with sales of homemade soups supporting Catholic Charities’ Homes for Healing: Evergreen House for women in recovery from addiction, Lourdeshouse Maternity Home and the Interfaith Shelter for Homeless Families.
Every year since joining in the effort, Santanna has increased the amount of soup she makes, including adding baked goods to increase profits.
“My goal was always, ‘If we can make this much this week, how much more can we make next week?’” Santanna said of her competitive nature.
Last year’s sale at Holy Name netted $4,000 for Catholic Charities among the parish’s soup makers – an amount she topped single-handedly. Due to the pandemic, Catholic Charities didn’t hold the Souper Bowl sale this year.
Santanna initially set out to raise $2,500, a goal that increased along with demand – a demand that started in October, when neighbors familiar with her soup-making skills began inquiring about her menu for the season. It’s an extensive list of 20 types, from Autumn squash to Zuppa Toscana.
When neighborhood sales netted $700 for Catholic Charities by December, Santanna decided to advertise her sale on the Neighbors of Lower Paxton’s Facebook page.
She wasn’t expecting the overwhelming response that followed.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know most of these people. Who is going to order soup from someone they don’t know?’ But I was blown away with orders,” Santanna said.
In advertising the sale, she explained the work of Catholic Charities – particularly the three Homes for Healing – and the organization’s work to help people in need, regardless of their religious affiliation.
“So many of the people who came to pick [the soup] up know the good that Catholic Charities does. When you mention the causes Catholic Charities supports, they see how wonderful it is,” she said. “Some people didn’t want the change that I owed them, or added $5, $10 or $20 dollars to it.”
One generous man in her neighborhood ordered four quarts. When Santanna saw that the man had given $400 online instead of the $28 he owed, she sent him an e-mail to notify him of the error. He wrote back, “It wasn’t a mistake. I think you are doing something really great, and I wanted to donate.”
On March 24, Santanna presented a check to Catholic Charities for $4,400, to total $5,100 in donations so far.
“On behalf of Catholic Charities and me personally, I cannot thank Maryellen enough for her tireless efforts to support our soup sale,” said Dr. Mark Totaro, Executive Director and CEO of Catholic Charities. “Maryellen has been an ongoing supporter of the soup sale and Catholic Charities for many, many years. She really puts into practice the Corporal Works of Mercy.”
“Our annual Souper Bowl Sunday Sale has become more successful each year, and the event has raised thousands of dollars for our Homes for Healing. Maryellen has been involved with the sale for many years, and we appreciate her wonderful efforts,” said Chris Meehan, Director of Development for Catholic Charities. “Her work this year, especially given the challenges with the pandemic, is extremely impressive.”
Santanna isn’t finished with her fundraising effort just yet. She will donate at least an additional $200 from sales made since the recent check presentation.
“Catholic Charities is a wonderful organization, and I thought it would be good to help them out. This year, I thought it would be even more helpful because they usually have seven churches participate in the soup sale,” she said.
“Even in difficult times, there are ways that you can make an effort to help, and to think outside the box. I hope people will start thinking of ways to help – not only for Catholic Charities, but for every organization,” she said.
Her sales continue, with 200 quarts in her freezer, waiting to be sold. Will she continue cooking beyond that? It remains to be seen. She thought she had reached a stopping point earlier this year.
“I’d get to a point where I’d say, ‘Ok, I’m not to making any more this season,’ and I’d wake up the next morning and start making more,” Santanna said. “I never, ever thought I would get to this number. With my competitive nature, I’ll have to start planning for next year.”
(Kitchen photo by Jen Reed, check presentation photo by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness