December 5, 2008

A father's gift: Forty years later, family’s holiday outreach continues at Holy Cross Parish

Members of the extended Hammans family help to keep alive the Holy Cross Parish tradition of feeding the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Andrea Hammans, left, Mary Hammans Qualls, Ann Tobin Pliler, Candice Qualls, Lori Hammans Tobin, Amy Tobin Kinnaman, Cecelia Hammans and Kelly Qualls stand with bags of food. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Members of the extended Hammans family help to keep alive the Holy Cross Parish tradition of feeding the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Andrea Hammans, left, Mary Hammans Qualls, Ann Tobin Pliler, Candice Qualls, Lori Hammans Tobin, Amy Tobin Kinnaman, Cecelia Hammans and Kelly Qualls stand with bags of food. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Lori Hammans Tobin has learned to believe at least two realities of Christmas: Sometimes Christmas arrives early. And the best gifts don’t often come in a box.

For Tobin, her best gift as a child came in a phone call, a phone call that left her mother crying tears of joy, and she and her siblings dancing and clapping in delight.

Looking back on that moment, Tobin shares the story of that special gift that changed a person, a family, a parish and the larger community.

It’s a Christmas story that began nearly 50 years ago—with a promise from a father who was dying.

It’s a Christmas story that continues today as that man’s children and grandchildren try to help other families who are struggling in perhaps the toughest and most heartbreaking holiday season in recent economic times.

A father’s promise

In 1960, Francis Hammans was a young husband and father trying to make a good life for his family. He didn’t have a high school diploma because his father had died when he was 15 and he needed to go to work to help his mother and his siblings.

Still, he had a strong work ethic and a deep sense of faith, being a faithful member of Holy Cross Parish on the near-eastside of Indianapolis.

That faith and the family of Francis and his young wife, Jody, became severely tested when he was diagnosed in 1960 with tuberculosis, an infectious, life-threatening disease.

“I was 5 then,” recalls Tobin, one of their children. “He was in the hospital for a four-year period and he was on his deathbed all the time. My mom was getting calls all the time telling her he was about to die.”

Her mom was also struggling to keep the family together.

“We had nothing,” Tobin recalls. “There were six of us kids then, in one bedroom, in bunk beds and cribs. We were living in my grandmom’s house, which was right next to Holy Cross Church. Catholic Social Services took care of us, with a lot of help from family and friends. I remember at Thanksgiving and Christmas how people brought boxes of food, and made sure we got presents.”

She also remembers the faith that her parents showed.

“My mom taught us to pray the rosary, that God hears the voices of little children,” Tobin says. “My memories are of us praying every day to let my dad live. My dad was praying to live, too, so he could provide for his family. He told God that if he was allowed to live, he would serve him.”

By then, his lungs had collapsed and he had kidney failure. His death was imminent. Then came the phone call.

“It was my dad calling my mom to tell her he was coming home,” Tobin says. “The doctors didn’t know how he had recovered. He was a miracle. My mom held up the phone and we just danced and clapped. That’s the day our world changed.”

Keeping the promise

Francis Hammans kept his promise.

At first, he did it by helping people whenever he could. Even though his family was on a shoestring budget after his recovery, he reached into the refrigerator for milk or bread whenever he learned that another family needed it.

Then, in 1968, he helped to start a food pantry for the poor at Holy Cross Parish. That effort led to making special food baskets for families in need at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

It’s a holiday tradition that still continues 40 years later.

On Dec. 22, members of Holy Cross Parish, including a sizeable number of people with family connections to Francis Hammans, will distribute bags of food—plus cookies and candy canes—to needy families at the parish church. All in the hope of making their Christmas more joyous.

That Christmas scene promises to be similar to the one at the parish three days before Thanksgiving this year. On Nov. 24, several hundred people lined up outside the parish hall on a gray, damp, chilly day to take home two grocery bags filled with two turkey rolls, apples, potatoes, green beans, corn, pies and bread. There was enough food to feed 585 families.

Some older people in line relied on walkers and canes while young mothers used blankets to cover the babies they held in their arms and the small children who rested in strollers.

To prepare for the distribution of food, about 500 volunteers worked together on Nov. 23 to sort the food donations and put them in grocery bags.

Thirty-six members of the Hammans family were among the volunteers from parishes and Catholic schools across Indianapolis who helped that Sunday.

“For them, it’s very much a family tradition,” says Father Larry Voelker, the pastor of Holy Cross Parish. “It gives them a sense of pride to be involved in an effort that was started by their father and grandfather many years ago.”

Valerie Hammans has learned the importance of that family connection. She refers to the Thanksgiving-Christmas effort at Holy Cross as “one of the most faith-inspiring experiences” she has had.

“It’s the little things that God does that make some of the biggest impacts,” says Valerie, a 23-year-old granddaughter of Francis Hammans.

‘I’m always thinking of my dad’

One of her parents’ eight children, Tobin is moved by the difference that the special food baskets make to people.

“They’re just all in need,” says Tobin, who is 52. “When they come, you see the tired looks on their faces. Then you see the excitement. Some people cry. Others say, ‘God bless you. God bless you.’ A lady said to me one time, ‘Oh my gosh, there is fresh milk in my bag!’

“We take so much for granted. I’m blessed with my family, my 30-year marriage, my children, my grandchildren, my job. When the bags are being handed out in church, I feel blessed to be there. The people look around. You can tell people are so relieved to have something to provide for their family. They know in that moment their life is being touched. They’re touching us, too.”

That sentiment is echoed by Mike Frazee, a 68-year-old, lifelong member of Holy Cross Parish. Frazee coordinates the special food basket committee on which Tobin also serves.

“Some of these people live in the streets. Some have four or five kids and no father,” Frazee says. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in giving to the people. We also know how lucky we are to be able to help them.”

Frazee is also grateful for having been a friend of Francis Hammans.

“I ran with Francis,” he says. “His kids and my kids ran together, too. Francis was a super guy. You could put him on a pedestal. He enjoyed helping people so much.”

While Hammans died 10 years ago, his legacy lives on in the work of his family, friends and strangers. The people who knew him best insist that he wouldn’t want any special recognition for starting this effort at Holy Cross. For him, the parish was an extension of his family, the spiritual setting that has been home to his family since 1946. For him, the people who rely on the Holy Cross baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas were part of his understanding of family, too.

It’s that attitude from her father that leads Tobin to make sure that Frazee and Mark Scott, another longtime coordinator of the effort, get credit for all the hard work they’ve done through the years.

Still, like her siblings, her thoughts always turn to her parents when she’s in the church preparing the baskets and giving them to people.

She mentions how her mother still provides financial support for the food basket effort.

She recalls her father’s promise to God to serve others.

“I think my dad would be extremely proud and honored that we’re fulfilling the rest of his bargain to serve others,” she says.

“I’m always thinking of my dad when I’m doing this. It always gives me a sense that he’s right there, that he’s at my shoulder.” †

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