John McDonald knows firsthand how children feel when they do not receive presents at Christmas time. As a youngster in the 1940s, growing up in New Haven, McDonald’s father was very ill and out of work. There was no money for gifts for McDonald and his brother and sister.
“We had no gifts at Christmas, we had virtually nothing,” remembers McDonald. “We took the Holy Bible, wrapped it and gave it to my sister, unwrapped it and wrapped it and gave it to my brother, unwrapped and wrapped it and gave it to me. That’s the only gifts we had at Christmas.”
That may have been many years ago, but McDonald vividly remembers those days and the result is the St. Margaret/St. Martin de Porres Christmas Family Sharing Program. He works every Christmas season to make sure St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church families share the Christmas spirit of giving with families from St. Martin de Porres Church, about ½ mile from where he grew up.
Originally the idea of a former pastor at St. Margaret, The Reverend Joseph Flynn, McDonald has been spearheading the Family Sharing Program since it began in 1978.
Celebrating its 34th year this year, the program has delivered Christmas gifts to 5,223 needy families. “A normal family is like five people, so you’re talking about 15,000 people,” said volunteer Lou D’Auria, proudly.
No family that is presented to St. Margaret will be left out. Every single request is filled.
“In 34 years and 5,223 times, we have a success rate of 100%,” said McDonald. “Now in business that’s impossible, but with the Holy Spirit everything is possible.”
McDonald explained that St. Martin de Porres is responsible for choosing the deserving recipients and has become very adept at choosing the families that participate in the program.
“We are responding to the needs that are given to us,” said McDonald. “These people are screened by a group in their parish. They’re very good at screening the people who are established parishioners of St. Martin de Porres.”
Anonymity is a cornerstone of the program. St. Margaret families choose from an array of profiles, including first name, age and clothing size of each St. Martin de Porres family member participating in the program.
While every gift, no matter how big or small, expensive or inexpensive, is important, there are suggestions of what to wrap up. These suggestions include individual gifts, family gifts, Christmas dinner fixings or anything else likely to make Christmas brighter for another family.
The bulk of the work is done by McDonald, with assistance from two other parishioners, D’Auria and Art Koczak, who lend a hand in making sure all St. Martin de Porres family members are accounted for.
In addition, the Knights of Columbus lends a hand the night the gifts are delivered, boxed and labeled, to the parish warehouse. “No one knows what’s in those boxes,” said McDonald. “It’s not a question of value. It’s that someone here thought about someone that they don’t know, and will never meet, and yet thought of them at Christmas, that’s the central part of it.”
When all the gifts have been delivered to the warehouse they are loaded into a truck, provided by Deacon Joseph Regan’s company, Regan Metal Corporation of New Haven, and delivered to New Haven.
“We used to do it out of the back of a pickup truck, pouring rain, snow,” recalled D’Auria. “We had so much fun,” he added, chuckling.
“After the gifts are delivered we all get together and we pray,” said McDonald. “Deacon Regan, who has been a deacon for over 30 years is very inspirational in his prayers and it’s a very emotional and uplifting time.”
McDonald feels like he has gone full circle when all the packages are delivered safely to St. Martin de Porres.
“It’s a joyful time,” said McDonald, reflecting on his visit to St. Martin de Porres to deliver the gifts. “And it’s a time for me to come back to New Haven and to come home. It's a very joyful, emotional time."