When newcomers to Mary’s Closet first arrive, they’re often surprised. That’s because the space — which houses clothing, baby items, household products and more for families in need — feels more like a little shop than a typical social services facility.
“We really, really wanted it to feel like a fun little boutique, like a place where you can have some dignity in picking out the things that you want,” Tanya Singh, who began the ministry, told The Pillar.
Mary’s Closet is an outreach of St. Petronille Parish in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Serving mostly single mothers, some of whom lack housing, it first opened its doors in February 2022.
The idea was a response to the need in the St. Petronille community. Singh — who has a background in social work — was on staff as the parish’s coordinator of Christian service when a mom from the parish school gave her a call: A family at the school needed uniforms, winter coats and shoes.
As she learned more about the situation, Singh discovered that the children — as well as some others in their school community — attended the parish school through a state scholarship program. Some families, like this one, had just come from a transitional housing program.
So Singh began asking around for more stuff.
“Social workers are really good at collecting things,” she said, laughing, “and my office started to look like a thrift shop.”
As the need for greater material support for local families became clear, so did the need for a dedicated space. With the support of Fr. Thomas Milota, pastor at St. Petronille, Singh and volunteers cleared out a room in the basement of the parish that would become Mary’s Closet.
Now, when a mom requests assistance, she can make an appointment to come to Mary’s Closet for items like kids’ clothes, backpacks or laundry detergent. If transportation is a barrier, a volunteer from the parish drives the items to the family’s home or wherever they are staying. The whole process is confidential.
While some clients are transient, many are regulars to Mary’s Closet, said Deacon Peter Robinson, who runs the ministry as the parish’s current coordinator of Christian service. Clients may return every three months, with exceptions for items like diapers, for which they can return more frequently.
Since January of this year, they have served about 18 families per week, Robinson said.
St. Petronille parishioners have responded generously to the ministry, donating items, funds and time. On “donation Saturday” — the second Saturday of every month — parishioners can drop off items in the parish parking lot. Volunteers sort through donations and run them downstairs to Mary’s Closet.
“It was eye opening, I think, for a lot of people to see that even though Glen Ellyn is an affluent community, there are families who don’t live in that stratosphere,” said Singh.
Part of a wider network
Singh sees Mary’s Closet as a piece of the broader landscape of social services in the area, and it cooperates extensively with other social workers and facilities.
In part, this network helps the ministry to offer more robust assistance to anyone who comes their way. During their intake process for Mary’s Closet, for example, they help clients sign up for the local food pantry. And they stock items like toilet paper and other household products that can’t be purchased with a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) card.
But they also receive a lot of calls from caseworkers, as well as from families who learned about them through another service.
“Anywhere a person would settle or look for help, we have our brochures,” said Robinson.
Singh emphasized that a ministry like theirs must be tailored to the needs of the community to avoid duplicating what’s already available.
“It can’t happen quickly,” she advised. “You really have to take your time, get to know your community, get to know the other resources and spend a lot of time thinking about, ‘Where are the gaps? And what can we realistically do to fill those gaps?’”
Singh recommends that anyone interested in starting a similar ministry look to Walking with Moms in Need, an initiative of the USCCB to help parishes become resources for moms in difficult circumstances. While Singh herself did not hear about the initiative until she was well into the planning process for Mary’s Closet, it offers guidance on assessing what local services are already available and what may be missing.
Relying on the parish community
While Singh took her time getting the ministry up-and-running, it has taken off since then.
Robinson said that their team of volunteers — about 35 people, he estimated — has been indispensable. Many of them are retired teachers, he said, who are hardworking, organized and passionate about helping families. They do everything from putting together “new baby baskets” of newborn gifts and necessities to organizing and restocking shelves to keeping the space clean.
Singh noted that it also helps to have someone with a background in social work, who can navigate both the world of social services and the paperwork that keeps things running smoothly.
But the average parishioner at St. Petronille is also part of the mission. A rotating cast of groups help run Donation Saturdays, from the Knights of Columbus to young adults to school children (whom they call “Mary’s muscle” on such occasions).
And, of course, the ministry depends on the generosity of the St. Petronille community.
“They donate money. They donate food. They donate personal care products — I just put a thing in the bulletin for that,” said Robinson. “People really stepped up.”
“Our parishioners have rallied to this ministry,” affirmed Fr. Thomas Milota, pastor at St. Petronille.
Space is the perennial challenge at St. Petronille, though Singh noted that they are lucky to have a spare room at all — even one in a 100-year-old basement that’s structurally “a little weird.”
In spite of its spatial shortcomings, Mary’s Closet continues to be a welcoming environment for families.
“I’ve been to lots of places where people get services, and it often can feel kind of defeating and a little demoralizing. I really just wanted to feel like people could come and just take a breath,” she said.
“It’s all going to be okay.”
This article is part of The Pillar’s solutions-oriented series highlighting parishes across the U.S. You can read more from this series here.