Dinner’s organizers among most thankful

Loretta Rinaldi, left, from Waterbury, gets a slice of pie at St. Michael's third annual Thanksgiving dinner in Naugatuck on Nov. 22, 2007. RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — When Michael Lineweber and his wife Anna held the first free Thanksgiving dinner at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church seven years ago, they realized they had a lot to be thankful for.

They were getting ready to buy the food in mid-November when Michael was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had a lung removed and left home for the first time without oxygen to host the dinner on Thanksgiving Day.

“I couldn’t do much, but at least I could greet people with a smile as they came in,” said Lineweber, 59, of Middlebury. “I am clean and clear and getting ready to do Thanksgiving number seven.”

The dinner has grown in popularity every year since its inception, and last year served about 200 people, said the Linewebers’ daughter Michelle, 31, of Waterbury. Organizers are expecting a record turnout this year, Lineweber said.

“I think every year that we do it, more and more people become aware of it, and I think the economy, the way it’s been going the last few years, that has something to do with it,” Lineweber said.

The dinner is not just for those who are unable to afford a large meal, organizers said. It is also for people, such as the unmarried or elderly couples, who would rather spend the holiday in a big group.

Michael Lineweber said he and his wife do not have much family in the area, which contributed to their idea to organize a dinner for people like them.

“Thanksgiving is an American family tradition, and I would prefer not to have people home alone when they can have the company of others on this holiday,” Lineweber said. “It’s not put on solely for the purpose of feeding people.”

The dinner lasts from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at St. Michael’s, located downtown at 210 Church St. Guests are seated at tables set with china and menus, where they order and are served by volunteers.

The menu includes turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, carrots, butternut squash and dinner rolls. Desserts include apple, pumpkin and pecan pie.

Volunteers cook about 14 turkeys every year, which are all donated, Michael Lineweber said.

Organizers also collect at least $600 from local residents and businesses to buy ingredients for the side dishes. Naugatuck Savings Bank and Naugatuck Valley Savings & Loan give money every year, but the rest of the donors wish to remain anonymous, Lineweber said.

One woman recently came into the church office and handed over $100 in cash, Lineweber said.

“She wouldn’t give her name, and she said, ‘This is for the Thanksgivng dinner,'” Lineweber said. “We have no idea who she is or why she’s doing it, but we definitely appreciate it.”

An army of 52 volunteers, most of whom did not belong to the church, helped prepare the dinner last year starting the day before and served on Thanksgiving Day.

“I really don’t even ask for volunteers any more, but they show up like crazy,” Lineweber said.