ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Some heroes have statues raised to them. And some are forgotten. This is the story of two heroes from the Depression-haunted 1930s who are barely known today, the Rev. Joseph and Sadie Feather Burke. They were evangelical Christians who saw a need to address the suffering of the people of Allentown. Working with the city officials like Republican Mayor Fred Lewis and Democratic Mayor Malcolm W. Gross, and through their role at the Allentown Rescue Mission and its Community Cafeteria, they served 1,500,000 meals to residents of Allentown from 1936 to 1946.
Although they were often mentioned in the newspapers of that decade they certainly did not seek fame. Today the only record of their work is in the yellowing files of those papers or scattered un-indexed on rolls of microfilm.
Historians tell us that Allentown in the 1930s was more fortunate than many places during the Great Depression. Its business community managed to largely save the community's banking system from panic. Federal funds helped to develop the city's park system.
But as significant as these things were in retrospect, a lot of folks could not get food. As one survivor of that era noted recently, "It was not just whether you were going to have enough money to buy a new wide screen TV or not, it was whether or not you were going to eat." At a time when the head of the household was also the chief breadwinner, being out of work meant the entire family suffered.
The things the city and Lehigh County could do were limited. But Mayor Lewis had seen an article in a national publication that inspired him. It told how an organization had been formed to provide cheap or free meals using food provided by local grocery stores and local labor. People in need could be assured of getting at least one hot meal a day.
On May 22, 1932, Allentown's spin on the idea opened at 506 Hamilton Street inside a large home that had belonged to Lewis's family. It was called the Community Cafeteria.
Joe and Sadie Burke had been fixtures in the field of social work. They met at a Bible College and were married in 1910. Sadie's family was known locally for its role in supervising Allentown's Fairview Cemetery. For about 12 years the Burkes had run the Allentown YMCA at 7th and Hamilton.
The selection of the Burkes to head the Community Cafeteria was an excellent one. They quickly got things going.
Within a month the couple was serving between 500 and 700 meals a day. By 1933 the tally was up to 1,000 meals a day. These meals were free to those who were out of work. Those who were working were asked to pay a small fee of 10 cents or 15 cents.
What did a meal at the Community Cafeteria consist of? In 1938 it was described as a meat course, two vegetables, a salad, bread with butter, and coffee. The food was generously donated by local groceries. It was supplemented by produce from a 41 acre farm in Lyons, Berks County that was managed by Sadie Burke. Although it was not required, many of those who were fed by the cafeteria volunteered to work on the farm.
In 1936 the Community Cafeteria got word that it would soon be on the move. The Works Progress Administration, the federal program that provided employment for local unemployed workers, had just been created, and the city wanted to take over the former Lewis mansion to house some of them. But, not wanting to lose a valuable institution like the Community Cafeteria, Mayor Gross worked out an arrangement that would move it to the Allentown Rescue Mission, then located on 4th Street.
On April 26, 1936 the city announced that the basement space at the mission would be used. On May 10 of that year a special ceremony was held to announce the cafeteria‘s reopening, which got wide publicity in the Morning Call and other newspapers. It was regarded as a major event.
Although the Depression had begun to ease a bit by 1939, the Community Cafeteria was still seeing a large number of people, and some in the community were beginning to question if it had not lost its usefulness. They said the WPA was full of "shovel leaning do-nothings."
The Burkes were too busy feeding people to worry about this controversy. But when she was asked about it by the Morning Call that year, Sadie Burke responded in defense of her clients. "It is generally thought we are housing a shiftless group of men and women – derelicts," she said. "This is far from true."
Most, Burke noted, were families headed by an unemployed bread winner and were struggling to make ends meet Many were caught up in a government bureaucracy that was slow to respond to those who had lost jobs and needed to work for the WPA. "We are sort of the ‘first aid station,'" she said, "filling the gap that comes between the time of the application for relief and the time the check comes through."
Less than a year after Burke talked to the press, World War II broke out in Europe. By 1941 the U.S was at war. The growing defense industry production and the military draft radically reduced the number of men who crossed the cafeteria's door.
It was in 1946 as the Burkes were getting ready to adjust to the post-war world that Sadie Burke suffered a massive heart attack while walking on Hamilton Street. She died on the way to Sacred Heart Hospital at the age of 62. Her husband decided he could not continue the local effort at the mission and resigned his position. Today the Burkes are little remembered except by the people they fed.
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