Students from St. Martin School in Gaithersburg bring cans and packages of food to the parish food pantry on Nov. 1 to mark the outreach‚s 20th anniversary.
Students from St. Martin School in Gaithersburg bring cans and packages of food to the parish food pantry on Nov. 1 to mark the outreach‚s 20th anniversary.
On All Saints Day at St. Martin of Tours School in Gaithersburg, third graders dressed as saints went marching in, leading a procession of the school's 232 students to the parish's neighboring food pantry, with each bringing a food item to celebrate the outreach program's 20th anniversary.

The third graders included a little girl wearing pretend armor as St. Joan of Arc; a little boy with a red cape, sword and wings portraying St. Michael the Archangel; a boy in brown robes as St. Francis of Assisi; and many girls wearing veils to portray holy women, including a little Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Behind them marched students in school uniforms, each holding a can or package of food for the pantry, which every Monday distributes a bag of food to about 200 families or individuals who line up there for help.

Msgr. Mark Brennan, St. Martin's pastor, thanked the schoolchildren for their support of the food pantry, and said a prayer of blessing over the children, whose offerings included cans of stewed tomatoes, crushed pineapple and green beans, and boxes of macaroni and cheese that would soon serve as food for someone in their neighborhood.

"Jesus taught us, whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me," said the pastor, who said that by supporting the food pantry, "we follow His example. We feed those who are hungry out of our love for Jesus and our love for them."

The priest encouraged the students to continue serving the poor all their lives. Then Chuck Smith, the coordinator of the St. Martin's Food Pantry, thanked the students for their support. "Thank you very much for your help. We can't do this without your help! God bless you!"

Then the students, one-by-one, handed their food donation to the priest or to the pantry's director, and they walked over to their parish church located beside the pantry for the Nov. 1 All Saints' Day Mass. A banner hanging from the altar read, "We can all be saints!" The third graders, still wearing their armor, wings, robes and veils, read the first and second readings and prayer intentions, led the singing and served as ushers at the Mass.

The St. Martin's Food Pantry is located in a building between the church and school. In an interview, Msgr. Brennan said that central location highlights the importance of that outreach to the parish. St. Martin's also houses The Lord's Table soup kitchen in its church hall, where hot meals are served Monday through Friday between September and June. Both programs are supported by parish, school and community volunteers and donations, including from other area Catholic parishes.

Someone in the community who met Msgr. Brennan and heard he was from St. Martin's said, "That's the parish that feeds people." The priest smiled at the memory, and said, "That's a good reputation to have."

Before the Mass, Holy Cross Sister Sharon Mihm, the principal of St. Martin School, said the students are encouraged to serve, "to help them realize Jesus is within them, and as they give of themselves, they're bringing Christ's presence to one another and to those in need."

The school's annual food drive runs from Catholic Schools Week in January through Holy Thursday. Sister Sharon said that closing date coincides with the day when Catholics remember how Jesus washed the feet of the apostles, setting an example for his followers to love and serve others. This past year's, St. Martin School's drive had a goal of 4,000 food items, and students collected more than 7,000 items, so Sister Sharon made good on her promise to handle a boa constrictor at a school science assembly. In previous years she followed through and kissed a pig, a monkey and a lamb as students exceeded their collection goals for the food pantry.

That lesson of faith and fun is part of the learning experience at St. Martin School. "We learn at a young age how to help others," said Emily Walsh, a seventh grader and vice president of the school's student council.

Nathalie Chavez, an eighth grader there and the president of the student council, said, "Even first graders learn the Catholic faith (and how to) put it in action, not just say it, but do it. Little kids learn, 'I believe in it, so I have to do it.'"

Two artificial trees stand inside the school's entrance, with branches filled with hats, scarves and mittens, many of them knitted by students in the school's knitting club,with tags reading, "Made with love by a St. Martin's School student."

The "mittens trees" are for needy members of the community, who are also supported by St. Martin's annual coat drive that coincides with the Nov. 11 feast day of the parish's patron saint, a soldier who, according to legend, gave up his cloak to a poor man who turned out to be Jesus in disguise. St. Martin's students also collect school supplies for a mission in Togo, West Africa, led by Father Bill Ryan, an archdiocesan priest who served for many years at the Gaithersburg parish.

"In my religion class, our teacher taught us to see Jesus in everyone. We need to see God in them," said Chavez.