More pictures to come AFTER the party


Family's quest to feed needy has grown, as have the helping hands
This story was published in North Post on Thursday, December 13, 2001.

By Victor Volland
Of The Post-Dispatch
* For the past 15 years, the Christmas dinner hosted by the Gieson family has been held in the spacious gym of Normandy Middle School at 7837 Natural Bridge Road.

The Joan Gieson family is expecting 10,000 for dinner on Sunday, but she's not worried; she's confident that heaven will provide.

"Somehow the food is always there, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ," said Gieson, who lives in Bellerive Acres. Her family has been serving up a bountiful Christmas dinner for the area's needy and homeless for decades.

She and her husband, Frank, started taking in homeless people off the street and feeding them at their home in Bridgeton 40 years ago, shortly after they were married.

About 25 years ago, when they moved to Bellerive Acres, they did the same on a larger scale, through the old Trinity Tabernacle church in Normandy.

The Christmas-season affair grew by adding toys, blankets and other winter items plus extra food to take home for the holidays.

For the past 15 years, it has been held in the spacious gym of Normandy Middle School at 7837 Natural Bridge Road.

Last year, the Giesons, including son Michael of Maryland Heights, daughter Kim Lilley of Bel-Nor and Lilley's two children, Joanie, 10, and Anthony, 5, fed and served about 8,000 people with the help of some 200 volunteers.

"This year we're expecting up to 10,000 of what I call our 'nearest and dearest' to drop by; we're all part of one family in Christ," said Joan Gieson, a former caterer and a self-styled nondenominational missionary who has traveled to South America, Europe and Papua New Guinea to preach "soup and salvation."

For this year's meal, Gieson has the shopping list of an Army quartermaster: 1,200 chickens, 900 hams, 3,000 loaves of bread, 1,200 gallons of milk, 2,700 packages of wieners and 1,800 packages of lunch meat, 20,000 canned goods, 6,000 pounds of white potatoes and 3,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, 162 cases of apples, oranges and bananas, plus hundreds of bags, boxes and packages of spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, flour, sugar, corn meal, oatmeal, dry cereals and crackers - plus soap, detergent, toothpaste and other hygiene products.

Much of this is for families in need to take home for the holidays, along with a toy for each child, and blankets, if needed.

"I have a bill right here for $5,428 for fruits and vegetables and another for over $4,000 for the take-home chickens," said Gieson, who pays for much of the food out of her own pocket.

But "angels" always appear every Christmas season to take up part of the slack. Steve Tornatore of Tornatore's Restaurant in St. Charles County is donating all the pasta.

Mike Daniels of Theodoro Baking Co. in Hazelwood, a longtime donor, is again providing the bread.

Lee Pa of Happy China Restaurant in Creve Coeur will prepare donated food late into the night before the dinner.

But some of the food shows up mysteriously, or as Gieson maintains, miraculously.

She tells the story of the 20 sheet cakes delivered for the 1993 dinner.

The cakes, sliced into 100 pieces each, would feed the 2,000 guests on the gym floor, but the school principal said that there were maybe an additional 3,000 people waiting outside to get in.

"All of us - the volunteers, my family and guests - prayed together, asking God to multiply his bounty," Gieson related. "I told everybody to forget the lack and the negative and have faith. Then I told the principal to open the doors to the other 3,000.

"Somehow we served everybody, and when I went back into the kitchen, there were the original 20 sheet cakes, still in their boxes."

Gieson reminds her listener of the New Testament parable of loaves and fishes, when Jesus fed a multitude of thousands of people with two baskets of bread and a couple of fish and still had food left over.

"I've seen it happen time and again at our dinners; we never come away empty," she said.

For the past several years, Joan Gieson Ministries of Love has had enough left over to send to a food pantry in Arcadia, Mo., that needs extra provisions to distribute to poor families there at Christmas.

Gieson comes by her spirit of giving naturally, she says. Her parents, the late Salvatore "Tutz" and Dorothea "Dot" Palermo were Italian immigrants who used to search the halls of Union Station in World War II and bring homesick soldiers, sailors and Marines back to their home in Jennings for a home-cooked meal.

In the Depression, hoboes always found the Palermos' house along the Wabash Railroad tracks.

"Mom made her own pasta and hung it on a clothesline to dry," Gieson said. "My dad, who had his own fruit and vegetable business, made Italian sausage in a big washtub. Our tiny house was always full of guests at the table."

The Giesons and their friends are praying for more miracles this season, to feed and serve another record crowd.

The feast will begin at 10 a.m. at the school. More volunteers are needed; call Gieson at 314-381-4777 to help or obtain information.

Gieson said that all she wanted for Christmas was a kitchen-equipped motor home, new or used, that she could use to cook and deliver meals to the needy in north St. Louis County and elsewhere throughout the year.

The big dinner

Joan Gieson and her family and friends will be feeding Christmas dinner to thousands of guests again this year at 10 a.m. on Sunday at the gym of Normandy Middle School, 7837 Natural Bridge Road. To contribute or volunteer call Gieson at 314-381-4777.

Reporter Victor Volland:\ E-mail:\ Phone: 314-298-0832

Published in the North Post section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Thursday, December 13, 2001.
Copyright (C)2001, St. Louis Post-Dispatch