Providence church carries on 103-year-old parishioner’s wish to help the less fortunate

Street Stories

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — What started as an idea to help those living on the margins 40 years ago has blossomed into so much more for 103-year-old Elsie Nickerson.

Thankful for all that she had, Nickerson started a soup kitchen at Saint Peter’s and Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church back in the 1970s.

“I felt there was a need for it,” Nickerson said.

She never thought that, four decades later, it would also become a food pantry, thrift store and so much more.

Every Saturday morning, roughly 100 families visit the church with shopping carts to pick up free food and purchase discounted items for their homes.

Rev. Maryalice Sullivan said the community support has been overwhelming.

“I usually well up with tears,” she said. “I’m always amazed about what happens here.”

Sullivan said the community continues to live by the words of the church’s original preacher, who delivered his first sermon more than 126 years ago.

“The preacher said, ‘Remember, it’s not just about people sitting in the pews. You are part of a community,’ and that’s the DNA of this parish,” Sullivan said. “I received a check from a shut-in who lives in a nursing home and they have so little money, but she had gathered $100 in her account and sent it to the church.  That’s pretty amazing to me.”

Donations come from various places, according to Sullivan, including the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, The Grace Church in Providence, and even students at Rhode Island College.

Sullivan said those students learned of the food pantry when they heard that one day, the church had no milk to distribute.

“The milk didn’t get delivered, and a sorority showed up with the milk out of the goodness of their hearts,” Sullivan recalled. “You can’t make that up.”

Sullivan hopes the church will carry on Nickerson’s wish to help the less fortunate by offering services like cooking classes, tutoring and job training to those in need.

In the meantime, Nickerson said she’s grateful to be back at church after being cooped up at home due to the pandemic.

When asked what the secret is to a long and wonderful life, Nickerson simply said “good genes and no coffee.”

“Just three mugs of tea a day,” she explained, adding that she also reads three books a week to keep her mind sharp.

Anyone interested in volunteering with the food pantry or thrift store can contact Sarah Karlavage Rocchio by emailing sekrocchio@gmail.com.

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