Passing the Yuletide torch

Volunteer Bruce Tumyol of Naugatuck serves up eggnog during a Christmas dinner at St. Michael’s Church in Naugatuck last year. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — The organizer of a long-standing Christmas tradition in the borough is passing the torch.

For the past 18 years, Mike Kelly, a Naugatuck resident, has overseen the annual Christmas Day dinner at St. Michael’s Church. Kelly is stepping aside this year due to personal family obligations — a decision he said was tough to make.

“It’s been our Christmas for 20 years,” Kelly said.

Naugatuck residents John and Maureen Ford started the dinner over 30 years ago to show their children the true meaning of Christmas. About 100 people turned out for the first dinner at St. Michael’s Church.

Now, the dinner serves 150 to 200 people at the church, with another 150 to 200 meals delivered to homebound residents, Kelly said.

Kelly first got involved with the dinner about 20 years ago with his wife, Eileen, and their daughters, Regan and Morgan. A couple years later, Kelly and his family took the reins from the Fords.

Organizing the dinner is a big responsibility, Kelly said. Aside from ensuring the hundreds of pounds of turkey, vegetables and the fixings are cooked, running the dinner includes fundraising, buying the food, picking up supplies, making sure volunteers are lined up for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and being at the church on Christmas from 6 a.m. until the late afternoon.

“It’s a big responsibility and it’s on Christmas Day,” Kelly said.

Kelly began searching for a successor earlier this year, but found it difficult at first due to the nature of the commitment.

Kelly then turned to the borough and Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess for help. After some talks, Jim Goggin, Naugatuck’s tax collector, and his family volunteered to step up to organize the dinner.

“Mike Kelly asked, so I said, ‘We can get this done,’” said Goggin, who is involved with several organizations in the borough.

Goggin said he talked with his wife, Susan, and their four children — Jimmy, Rachel, Matthew and Brian — and they decided to take it over for at least the next couple of years. With their youngest child a senior at Naugatuck High School, Goggin said the timing is right for them to take on the Christmas Day commitment.

“I’m glad it’s going to be them because I know that it’ll be done right,” Kelly said.

Hess said the borough will help oversee the dinner, but borough funds will not be used. He said the festival committee that has overseen a series of seasonal festivals, which have become a trademark of Hess’ first term in office, will provide any assistance it can for the dinner.

Hess said the Christmas dinner is a great tradition that has to continue and one that serves a need in Naugatuck.

“We tend to have people that need more help and we intend to help them,” Hess said.

The Goggins won’t be on their own come Christmas time.

Kelly plans to stay involved in an advisory role to ensure the transition goes smoothly. There is also an army of dedicated volunteers about 30 strong that help out every year at the dinner, including setting up the church hall, cooking the food, cleaning up and delivering meals. Kelly added that Carol Piel-Fragoso and George Carrah, the former owners of the now-closed Continental Room, also allowed the use of their kitchen to help cook food.

“The people who have made it part of their lives to come every year, those people are dedicated. It couldn’t be done without them,” Kelly said.

For Kelly, the dinner is about making sure no one is alone on Christmas. The important part isn’t necessarily the food, he said, but being with others.

“I would really like to see it continue so people have a place to go and be with other people and share that Christmas spirit,” Kelly said.

Looking back over the past 20 years, Kelly said it is the dedication of the volunteers and the appreciation on people’s faces during the dinner that stand out to him.

“It’s absolutely worth it,” Kelly said. “You just get such a feeling of satisfaction out of knowing that you made these people happy that day, on Christmas Day.”