'Dinner made me see things very differently,' says hostel resident after church hall hosts festive feast
It was a different kind of Christmas dinner - one that had a profound effect on its recipients and will, hopefully, provide food for thought for the rest of us.
It was cooked by renowned, high-profile ex-Europa Hotel chef, Gerry Rosato, but festive overindulgence and gastronomic finesse were not on the menu at St John's parish hall in west Belfast on December 18.
Hope, however, was.
The traditional banquet was organised by Fr Martin Magill for people living in hostels and victims of so-called punishment attacks in the run-up to Christmas.
Naturally, the 50 guests enjoyed a sumptuous meal - thanks to volunteers from the community who pitched in - yet the real starter for them was the inspiration for a better life in the future.
For these lesser-fortunate souls, the only way is up.
Fr Magill said participants came from various hostels, including Rosemount House, Regina Coeli, Stella Maris and Morning Star, adding that "the place looked really well".
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He said: "The tables were beautifully set, the lights were down, the decorations were up in the hall, it was lovely and warm and the 20-plus volunteers had created a lovely atmosphere."
Fr Magill, who won a standing ovation at St Anne's Cathedral for his stirring address at murdered journalist Lyra McKee's funeral last April, said he was delighted that his Bible-inspired idea got "a really good response from people".
"I made a point of talking to diners that night and everyone seemed to enjoy it," he said.
"What struck me was that some people had been through very difficult times and were still going through very difficult times so, from that point of view, being able to offer this very small event was very worthwhile."
He added that help was also on hand from children and teachers at St Kevin's PS, St Louise's choir and leaders and children from St John's youth club.
Gerry Rosato - whose wife, Mary, read about the priest's event in this newspaper and got her husband and two daughters, Aine and Eve, involved - said it was about "doing something for less fortunate people".
He presided over a menu of traditional vegetable broth, turkey, ham and all the trimmings, as well as a selection of desserts.
"We started at noon and were home by 9pm and the leftover food was taken to one of the hostels, so there was no wastage," said Gerry, who owns and runs the Old Rectory bed and breakfast in south Belfast,
"It was sad to see so many people in that situation, but I think the event brought a bit of Christmas cheer to everyone."
Gerry added: "Obviously, there was no alcohol because it was a dry event, but everyone seemed to enjoy it and hopefully Fr Magill will do it again next year."
Charlie McGarry, who manages Rosemount House -an establishment for men with alcohol and drug addiction and mental health problems - said residents from his hostel attended the dinner.
"It was a change for some of the lads to be welcomed into a community set-up and I know they really enjoyed it," said Mr McGarry.
Ian (68), a Rosemount House resident who asked for his surname to be withheld, said the banquet gave him the boost he needed to keep battling the alcohol addiction which cost him his 43-year marriage and led to the breakdown of his relationship with his grown-up children and grandchildren.
"For me, Christmas was going to be very different this year because of the family situation," the father-of-two said.
"I wasn't looking forward to it, but then this invitation came in."
The former engineer said it was "nice to go out somewhere with some of the other residents" and be "treated like human beings for the first time in a while".
"It was about being out and feeling part of people's plans; it threw me a lifeline to get on with 2020," he said.
"I'm not sure what this year holds for me, but I'm starting to see you don't need alcohol to have a good time.
"Drinking is not the answer at all. Drinking broke everything I had and I know for sure, drinking is definitely not going to fix anything now.
"I was feeling very down beforehand. Every day it's a struggle to stay off alcohol. But that dinner made me see things differently. There was a genuine warmth about it."
He added: "It gave me the strength to keep on fighting this battle. It gave me hope."