As we close the book on 2021 it would be hard to argue against the fact that, for most of us, this past year started badly and only got worse. That certainly holds true for most of Orange County’s homeless population as well. Despite a great fanfare and presage of programs promising vouchers for all and rapid relief for the unhoused, there are more folks without a place to call home than ever.

But among the few bright moments 2021 was an event that took place on Christmas Day at one of the last food service facilities left in the county that welcome the homeless on a walk-up basis, Mary’s Kitchen. The Kitchen serves the hungry and the unhoused every day of the week rain or shine throughout the year. But on this Christmas day 2021 something special, almost magical, descended over Mary’s Kitchen. A feast of food, good vibes, and interfaith cooperation came together to create for some 300 homeless who braved the cold and rain to participate in, dare we say, “a merry little Christmas.”

On any day of the year Gloria Suess, CEO of Mary’s Kitchen hosts a variety of visiting service organizations, medical and social assistance teams and student volunteers inside her gates. But on this most blessed day Gloria invited the homeless outreach team of Temple Beth Sholom Santa Ana to cook and assist in serving patrons an early morning hot breakfast and an afternoon turkey dinner feast for over 200. It began with a cantor’s prayer and a blessing from Gloria. And it concluded with a visit from Santa himself bearing gifts for all who braved the weather to participate, singing his way through the banquet, blanketing the covered courtyard with added cheer and comforting memories of Christmases past.

Gloria Suess, flanked by members of the Freedom Foundation of Valley Forge, receiving her George Washington Honor Medal award for “exemplary citizenship” in November. The award was particularly gratifying because it was also awarded to her mentor and predecessor at Mary’s Kitchen, Mary McAnena, 31 years ago.

Presiding as always over the feast was Gloria, passing out gifts, motherly smiles, with more than a few hugs of thanks from her patrons on this day. She herself was blessed recently with recognition and an award from The National Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge for “Recognition of Exemplary Citizenship” for her decades of feeding and caring for those whom others in society ridicule and fear. Gloria is particularly proud of the award because her predecessor and the founder of Mary’s Kitchen Mary McAnena won the same award 31 years ago when she launched her first food kitchen in the City of Orange.

Ironically, today as that recognition comes full circle Mary’s Kitchen is faced with the threat of closure by the same City of Orange that has allowed Mary’s to operate at its Struck Avenue location for almost three decades. Gloria and her MK board are now under great pressure, and at least temporary court protection, to seek and secure a new site to relocate Mary’s Kitchen, preferably within the city, she hopes, and provide “a seamless transition” for her homeless patrons living on the very edge of survival.

Hope, as Gloria Suess evokes in the short video documenting Mary’s Kitchen Christmas Day 2021, is the one asset she appears to have in abundance, and the belief that she will be guided to that new site of service to our poorest of our poor sometime soon, because time, unfortunately, is not on her side. Five months into the new year to find, relocate and reestablish services, with little assistance from the City of Orange who have already served her with termination notices.

“Time enough,” Gloria, the soft-spoken rock of Mary’s Kitchen says, “for miracles to happen.” And as her singing Santa says, “Isn’t that what Christmas is all about.”  


John Underwood is a working reporter and media producer in Orange County with extensive background in Orange County based news and public affairs in print, broadcast and online platforms. Past news organizations he has been affiliated with are National Public Radio, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly and various other OC based news publications. His current documentary series NO FIXED ABODE focuses on channeling the voices of the OC homeless and can be viewed on the website

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