Mary Joesten, founder of Faith Mission, in the food pantry she...

Mary Joesten, founder of Faith Mission, in the food pantry she operates in Mineola. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Mary Joesten is 88 years old, but people just meeting her would never guess it: She runs a food pantry that serves nearly 300 families.

Every Thursday and Saturday, she is at the center of action in a Mineola church while a dozen or more volunteers organize and hand out cans of soup, boxes of pasta, meat, produce and other items to immigrants from Latin America and Portugal.

She’s been running a soup kitchen or pantry since 1969, moving from South Jamaica to Hempstead to Elmont and finally to Mineola.

It’s all part of her Catholic faith, serving the neediest among us, she says.

“If you paid me a million dollars to do this, I would refuse,” she said. “For Jesus Christ, free of charge.”

As Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week for thousands of Christians on Long Island and millions worldwide, the Oceanside resident is an inspiration to many around her — both for her remarkable energy and her devotion to others.

“She exemplifies Catholic faith in action,” said Rick Hinshaw, a former editor of The Long Island Catholic newspaper. “She really lives the beatitudes and reflects Jesus’ teaching that whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”

“At 88 years of age, she is just a dynamo of energy, and it’s all about serving others,” he added. “It just comes naturally to her. It’s just who she is.”

Ran soup kitchen in Queens

Joesten’s project, called Faith Mission, began in 1969 when she and her late husband, J. Edward Joesten, a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, opened a soup kitchen in South Jamaica, Queens.

“I had a nice life and I knew that the people in South Jamaica were suffering,” said Joesten, who along with her husband worked in real estate and insurance. They raised five children.

Friends of hers cooked chicken soup in large pots at home and delivered it to the storefront operation, along with sandwiches.

When she and her husband moved to Long Island, they brought the soup kitchen with them.

They operated out of a closed Catholic school in Freeport, and added a food pantry. Later, they moved to the Salvation Army building in Hempstead, and then the vacant St. Vincent de Paul school in Elmont.

When that space was no longer available, they landed at the Lutheran Church of Our Savior in Mineola two years ago. They could not operate a soup kitchen there due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The congregation that welcomed them now needs the space back, so Joesten is looking for another location — preferably in the same area, so they can keep serving the same families.

“I don’t want to feel like I am abandoning them,” Joesten said.

Food comes from various sources

The pantry’s clientele has grown exponentially, from about 50 families two years ago to nearly 300 now. She expects it to hit 400 in the near future.

The food comes from various sources: the nonprofits Island Harvest and Long Island Cares, along with donations from groups such as Kiwanis and Rotary, businesses, including Dalton Funeral Home, and local residents, she said. Her group buys some food with money that is donated or with their own funds.

They also give out clothes to people in need, with many donations coming from neighborhood residents, said Jessica Landaverde, one of the leaders of the pantry.

One client, a teenage immigrant from Ecuador, showed up in 20-degree weather this winter wearing flip-flops and no winter jacket. The volunteers got him proper clothing, she said.

They have gotten to know the clients, and Joesten even promises “treats” to children if they get good grades in school. The kids arrive and show her their report cards, she said.

The pantry handed out 250 backpacks this year filled with school supplies.

On Thursday mornings, she and her volunteers receive the truckloads of donated food that arrive at the church, and sort them into boxes to be given to the families.

Finds services for veterans

Then, on Saturdays mornings, they place tables outside the church and load them up with the products as the immigrants come by to pick them up. If it rains, they set up canopies or hand out the goods through the door.

Joesten also devotes some of her time to finding services for veterans, some of them homeless.

She attributes her energy and good physical condition to healthy living, and her faith — she attends Mass seven times a week.

She doesn’t drink, smoke or eat sweets — largely because she has celiac disease. She takes no medications, she said, just eye drops occasionally.

“She is one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met,” said Andrea Nagrotsky, a retired state Supreme Court reporter who volunteers at the pantry. “She’s very inspiring — her faith, her kindness, her hope, really opened my eyes.”

Joesten says the food pantry has “been my life. I love it. I wish I could help more people than we do help.”

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