Twenty years have passed since Heather Maynard volunteered to peel vegetables for the first free Thanksgiving dinner at Most Holy Trinity Church in Saco.

She has come back every year since. She likes to talk with the guests who also come back year after year.

“It’s like extended family,” Maynard said.

Volunteers said that first Thanksgiving meal two decades ago drew fewer than 100 people. Last year, more than 800 meals were served in the church hall or delivered to nearby homes, and they expected to surpass that number this year.

OVER 200 POUNDS OF POTATOES

Preparation required 52 turkeys and more than 200 pounds of potatoes. The annual event is now hosted by the Good Shepherd Parish and the Knights of Columbus. “Christmas is great, New Year’s is wonderful,” said Michael Bolduc, one of the organizers. “But Thanksgiving, to me, is the tops.”

Don Bisson, another organizer, called all the guests to attention Thursday morning.

“Is everybody in a good mood?” he asked.

Everybody in the church hall clapped.

“Is everybody hungry?” he continued.

The applause was even louder. A priest said a blessing, and then the meal began. Flutes of cranberry juice greeted guests as they took their seats. Volunteers in bright blue aprons peeled aluminum foil off their trays to reveal carrots, turnips, stuffing and more fixings.

The buffet line snaked between the tables and guests piled turkey onto their plates. People walked around with trays of pie, offering slices to eaters digging into their main course.

“We give them kindness and a smile and a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ first, and then the food,” said Bisson, who has been involved with the free dinner for eight years.

CAMARADERIE – AND DESSERT

The kindness and the food both brought Irene Iezzi back to the dinner this year.

Iezzi said she is a Biddeford resident and a longtime member of the parish, and her family has attended almost every Thanksgiving dinner since 2003. Earlier this year, she wasn’t sure whether she would make it to another one. She spent nearly two months in the hospital, battling the flu and other health problems.

“I’m thankful I’m here,” she said.

So this year more than ever, her favorite part of the Thanksgiving dinner is sitting around the table with her children and grandchildren, Iezzi said.

“And the dessert,” she added.

Wearing a colorful apron, Brad Goulet surveyed the hall and snapped a picture on his cellphone. He has been the lead cook for 19 of the dinner’s 20 years. He likes giving back to his community, and the dinner is a tradition his son loved before he died in 2010.

“It’s gratitude,” Goulet said. “That’s what Thanksgiving is about.”

Andrea Lariviere drove up from Manchester, New Hampshire, to spend the holiday with her parents. The family sat at a table with neighbors from a nearby retirement community. As the group chatted and dug into their slices of pumpkin or blueberry pie, Lariviere’s mother passed an extra spoonful of whipped cream to one of her friends.

Lariviere said she and her parents attended the dinner last year as well. They returned because the hospitable touches made them feel special and welcome.

“They treat you like family,” she said.

 

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