On a chilly Monday night, church volunteers, Holy Cross students and hungry people from all across Worcester congregated at the Mustard Seed kitchen on Piedmont Street for dinner. The dining-room tables filled up quickly and the kitchen was a whirlwind of activity, with cooks setting down tray after tray of green beans and meatballs on the counters. At the center of it all, in the driver’s seat, were Mike Benedetti and Nicole Apostola.
“It’s a mix of all kinds of people, and many of the social barriers that you see between different kinds of people elsewhere are either not there or they’re a lot less. The teamwork is incredible on a great night,” Benedetti said.
Mustard Seed was founded 50 years ago by Michael Boover and Frank Kartheiser, who were inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement to provide food and shelter for those who did not have those things. Benedetti and Apostola both began volunteering at the kitchen seven years ago, when Benedetti was asked to manage the kitchen two nights a week and invited Apostola to come with him.
“My father is a priest, and our parish had always been involved in having a meal at the Mustard Seed, but I had never been to the Mustard Seed,” Apostola said. “In the beginning, my role was so much on making sure that we had a safe place for people to eat, a safe place for them to use the bathroom, that 100 percent of our time was devoted to making sure it was a safe place. Now, that’s for granted.”
Benedetti had previously been involved with the Catholic Worker Movement, which is made up of local Catholic groups across the country that aim to combat economic inequality by taking concrete action within their communities. When he moved to Worcester in the early 2000s, he found a spiritual home, first at a house that welcomed unhoused neighbors, then at Mustard Seed.
“The place has been there 50 years, so obviously thousands of people have worked for decades. I’m proud that we’ve been able to build on that work and keep this community a vital one, a loving one, a respectful one,” Benedetti said.
According to Apostola, a typical evening at Mustard Seed begins long before any guests show up, with church groups and other faith-based organizations arriving in the afternoon with ingredients and dishes for the night’s meal. When Apostola walks into the kitchen after a full day at her job, it’s already bustling. As 5 o’clock approaches and volunteers get ready to serve dinner, she fields their questions and helps them set up coffee pots and water coolers.
“My hope is that I can get those folks, especially the young people, to be familiar with this work, the work of hospitality and caring about other people,” Apostola said. “I want them to be comfortable enough with it that they want to do it for the rest of their lives.”
At mealtime, Benedetti stands by the front door to make announcements, run through the night’s menu, and lead the dining room in a short prayer. After that, it’s time to dig in.
“They do everything they can to try and help the people out,” one guest said of Benedetti and Apostola.
The Mustard Seed celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022 with a block party, a dinner for volunteers and a Catholic Worker gathering at Holy Cross, which drew guests from all over the world. The kitchen is raising funds to build a roof over its outdoor dining area and an access ramp for the building.
“The pandemic showed us that we need a protected outdoor space, and we’re hoping to get things underway next spring,” Benedetti said.
While both Benedetti and Apostola have taken on more responsibility at the kitchen over the years, they both keep the entire Mustard Seed community in mind during their Monday and Friday shifts.
“The unexpected is where I’m trying to put my time. For everybody else, hopefully it goes very smoothly and everybody goes home feeling better than when they showed up,” Benedetti said.
“It’s good to look at it through the eyes of someone who’s coming there for the first time in a vulnerable situation,” Apostola said. “I always think about if I were a young teenager, would I feel comfortable coming into this space? I think for the most part, it’s an OK space for someone like that. That feels good.”
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