A Kitchen Is a Holy Place

by Melannie Svoboda SND on July 6, 2020

A kitchen is a holy place, as holy as any sanctuary.

What was the kitchen of your childhood like? When I was growing up, we had a bright yellow kitchen. It wasn’t very big, just large enough to accommodate a stove, a refrigerator, and a sink with counters and cupboards extending on both sides. Two windows were perched above the sink, facing east. They overlooked our spacious side yard with its wide ash tree, tall maple, and several pear trees. Our large kitchen table was in the center of the adjoining room, our dining room.

As a child, I saw the kitchen as a magical place. It churned out all kinds of good stuff: hot oatmeal for a winter breakfast, chicken noodle soup and baloney sandwiches for lunch, meatloaf and mashed potatoes for supper. On Saturday mornings, the kitchen produced those tantalizing aromas of Bohemian sweet bread (hoska), kolachky, cinnamon bread, and nut rolls. On Sunday mornings, after church, Mom would start brewing up Sunday dinner: pork (or goose), dumplings, and sauerkraut.

As I grew older, my mother shared some of her culinary magic tricks with me. She taught me to make cookies, brownies, and cakes—all from scratch. I eventually graduated to creating simple meals.

I can remember the kitchens of every convent I ever lived in. Some were huge industrial-sized kitchens that turned out three meals a day for 100 or more hungry sisters. Others were normal-sized convent kitchens where we sisters took turns cooking for six or so. In the “old days” we had “cook sisters” who toiled long hours preparing meals not only for our large convents but also for boarding schools, college resident halls, and maintenance personnel. Some of these dedicated women got up before the rest of us (and we got up at 5:00 am!) and after supper, they were often canning and freezing fruits and vegetables, sometimes late into the night.

And through it all, these cook sisters usually exuded joy, humor, wisdom, and prayerfulness. If I had a problem at school or in my family, I’d go to the kitchen and ask a cook sister to pray. I always assumed her prayers were more efficacious than mine.

In her book, Ordinary Places, Sacred Spaces, Sister Evelyn Mattern said this about kitchens: “Kitchens are obvious contemplative places. So many rhythmic and repetitive actions keep them humming: peeling potatoes, cutting up and grating vegetables, stirring sauces and soups, kneading bread, making coffee, washing dishes, feeding cats and dogs. These actions offer meditative possibilities, breathing moments in the midst of a hectic day.” (I wonder though, with today’s modern conveniences such as prepared foods, microwaves, and “Grubhub,” if we have lost these rhythmic and repetitive actions so conducive to contemplation…)

Kitchens exude a certain level of intimacy. Strangers or formal guests don’t usually get invited into our kitchen. We share our kitchen with family and close friends. Realtors know the importance of kitchens. One of their maxims is: kitchens sell homes.

When Jesus sent his disciples to get a room to celebrate the Passover, he must have known that a nearby kitchen was part of the deal. Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper, as beautiful as it is, did us a disservice. It made us think of this event as a quiet, private affair involving 13 men. I like some of the more modern depictions (by Bohdan Piasecki and Nora Kelly, for example) that include women and children. (I give a website to view these paintings below).

Writes Mattern: “As Jesus and the twelve reclined at the table to share these last, sacred intimacies, the women disciples were preparing food nearby and carrying it to the table. They made the bread, blessed it before it was blessed by the Lord, and—with this Lord—no doubt shared in the meal and the bread. In one sense, every time we share a meal, we share in the Eucharist.”

Yes, a kitchen is a holy place.

Do you have any memories of the kitchen of your childhood or your grandmother’s kitchen?

Is your current kitchen a “contemplative space”? Why or why not?

Do you agree or disagree: “Kitchens exude a certain level of intimacy”?

To see Piasecki’s and Kelly’s paintings of the Last Supper, go to We Are Church Ireland – Last Supper. What do you think?

I am offering two songs this week. The first is “One Bread, One Body” by John Foley. Many of you have probably sung this hymn at Mass. The words take on deeper meaning against current headlines. The second is a the Negro Spiritual, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” sung by Joan Baez–who is 79 now. Appropriately, she sings this song in her kitchen! This video was filmed only a few weeks ago. Baez explains her timely dedication to George Floyd and others.

“One Bread, One Body”:

Joan Baez: “Let Us Break Bread Together”

Do you have anything to say about any of this? Don’t be shy!

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Magiera July 6, 2020 at 6:06 am

What a lovely meditation Sr. Melannie!

I am not a cook but I do enjoy spending time in my parents’ kitchen. It is the center of their home.

God bless you.

Kathleen

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Ed Johnson July 6, 2020 at 6:18 am

Sister Melannie,
I was immediately flooded with such sweet memories upon reading your post. My grandmother’s kitchen was a farmhouse kitchen; large room, table right in the middle, where not only the breaking of bread happened, but discussions, sharing stories, tending of childhood wounds, etc., occurred. And my mom’s kitchen…..I close my eyes and see her working there, always in skirt, apron, and often high heels! Different times, for certain, but such sacred times, in the kitchen. Mom taught my three older sisters, and me, as well, to cook. It’s a skill I enjoy to this day, sharing kitchen space with my wife. John Michael Talbot and Joan Baez; both such wonderful artists for so many years….beautiful song selections. Thank you, Sister, for helping to trigger these visions of decades gone by. Peace, Blessings, and Safety to everyone.
Ed J

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 6, 2020 at 10:13 am

Dear Ed, Imagine: a skirt and high heels in the kitchen–on an ordinary day. I smiled… Yes, “different times” in a way. Thank you for sharing your memories with us, Ed! Melannie

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John Hopkins July 6, 2020 at 6:50 am

Yes, kitchens are holy places.

Before the meal, the kitchen is clean. But then the messiness of creation starts — the cutting, chopping, blending, seasoning, tasting. There’s often steam in the air, perhaps a spattering of grease. Sometimes there’s a glass of wine on the counter, sometimes there’s music, sometimes conversation, sometimes the overflow of the a bubbling pot. And it all seems like a prayer.

Afterwards — ughh! — the cleaning! The wiping down, the attempt to live the Rule of Saint Benedict by treating each knife, fork, spoon, and plate as a “sacred vessel.” Maybe there’s help or maybe not; maybe there’s humming
or maybe just the gentle clink of dishes being sponged clean in sudsy water. And it all seems like a prayer.

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Ed Johnson July 6, 2020 at 7:55 am

Ora et Labora, John. Love your phrase, “the messiness of creation.”
Ed J

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 6, 2020 at 10:15 am

Yes, the act of creation is seldom neat and orderly… Melannie

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Marjorie July 6, 2020 at 7:04 am

In the year she died, my dear friend Betty, who was once one of your “sew sisters” came to my home for lunch several times. She was my one friend with whom I was most able to share matters of spirituality. We moved a bit, and she shared meals with me in four kitchens. Yes, the kitchen is spiritual space. And, yes, I sorely miss my friend, but I am grateful to have had her in my life ~ and kitchens.

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Mary Muehle July 6, 2020 at 8:02 am

Thank you for the wonderful reflection on kitchen! Our fast paced and fast food society have diminished our ability to appreciate the warmth and intimacy of kitchens. Our kitchen is my special place to be creative, to be of service to others in taking care to offer special meals and to practice gratitude for the many gifts encountered there!
I remember the warmth, welcome and hospitality of your yellow kitchen and wonderful table at which I was privileged to share so many years ago!

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 6, 2020 at 10:17 am

Mary, Nice hearing from you. Readers: Mary and I have known each other since we were 16… Is there anything more precious than an “old” friend–someone who has shared so much with you, has seen you grow over the years, and has contributed so much to that growth? Melannie

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Kathy Labor July 6, 2020 at 8:10 am

Our kitchen is my holy place. Always the first one up, I take my husband’s medicines to him, then I have the time to sit at my “place” at the table with the readings for the day. The sliding door is open and as I pray and eat my cereal, I look out over the back yard. Thanks to the feeders, the birds are flying around singing their greetings, our chipmunks are skittering back and forth across the deck and three rabbits are feeding in the grass. I am so grateful for these precious few minutes in our kitchen.

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George Marsh July 6, 2020 at 8:12 am

Joan Baez singing is like praying with a saint.

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John Hopkins July 6, 2020 at 9:28 am

Amen to that, George!

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 6, 2020 at 10:18 am

Amen to both of you! Melannie

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Kath S July 6, 2020 at 8:19 am

I agree that kitchens are holy places—the room where everyone gravitates to in our family—for eating, sharing, praying, talking, visiting, and even dancing sometimes! I’d like to “share” another Last Supper painting I have hanging on my wall: This Is My Body by James Seward. I love it because it shows how it most probably looked with women, children, dogs, Judas slipping away—it’s also on YouTube with a slide show of closeups.
Thank you, Melannie, for your words of inspiration every Monday. Many blessings.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 6, 2020 at 10:28 am

Dear Kath, Thanks for directing us to James Seward’s Last Supper painting. I enjoyed the vitality of the scene. Melannie

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Paula July 6, 2020 at 8:23 am

My kitchen memory is more of how the tradition is passed on: when my husband died some 18 years ago, my older sisters immediately drove three hours to be with me and my family at this time of need. The second night they were there, my one sister cooked dinner for all of us (We have quite a gang in the house at that point!). She made a spaghetti dinner almost exactly how our (late) mom would prepare it–even down to using the stainless steel mixing bowl to mix the salad! I commented to my sister how much she reminded me of our mom–and,I told her that to me, it was as if our mom was right there in our midst consoling us with a nourishing meal!

Those of us who were fortunate to grow up in a household where our moms (and even dads!) cooked every night are blessed! Kitchens ARE sacred, holy places!

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Fran July 6, 2020 at 8:35 am

I certainly related to your lovely comment about the cook sisters. I was blessed in life to know a Sister Benedict,a cook sister ,who was gracious ,kind and always loving to everyone. She was a prayerful sister who was always thinking of others in need .Her warm presence in the kitchen created delicious meals ,but also made it a very happy place even when one was doing pots and pans. Her memory always brings joy to my heart.
Kitchens are certainly a holy place.

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Mary M Nausadis July 6, 2020 at 9:18 am

Oh my, so many memories, Sr. Melannie, of the kitchens of my childhood. As a young child remembering my mother standing over a boiling hot stove to can all the fresh produce that had been brought in, to have an ample supply for the winter……sitting on a high stool next to the stove to talk to my mom as she cooked at the stove….Saturday mornings filled with flour, sugar, yeast and all else that went into making coffee cakes or goo-balls, as my brothers so aptly called the sweet rolls…..the smell of turkey on a Thanksgiving morning and on and on. It really was/is a sacred place indeed.

I would like to share this cute story about a sister who was a cook at an orphanage in our town who after being told that the children were allowed only one cookie per day, proceeded to bake platter sized cookies for each of them….if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is!

Thank you for reminding me of all the wonderful times in the kitchen with my mom.

These are the kinds of memories that will help us get through one more day during this time.

Mary

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Lois Siemens July 6, 2020 at 9:37 am

Thank you for this reflection and the reminder of how doing something repetitively can become a contemplative prayer. I think we have lost that in buying pre-prepared foods. Your piece reminded me of Linda Breitag’s beautiful song: “Simple Things Are Holy” which I have on CD and Margaret Ackland’s painting of the Last Supper: a crowded table which includes a nursing mother among other women and men.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 6, 2020 at 10:30 am

Dear Lois, Margaret Ackland’s painting of the Last Supper gives us yet another view of the event. Thank you for mentioning it! Melannie

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Roberta Cote July 6, 2020 at 9:41 am

I love this reflection. I created a cookbook for my family and wrote this for the back cover:

Creator God and Lord of Love,
As You know so well, I am most at home in the kitchen
It’s been a chapel, a place of rest, the center of our home, our nest.
My kitchen table has overheard conversations You and I have shared
And stories of struggles and joys of others sitting with me there.
It’s where You and I have created together.
Using ingredients You have made, gifts from the earth and the sea,
I combine them, flavor them, and serve them with love for Thee.
And just as You loved to share food on mountain tops, in rooms and by the sea
Let me be as generous with this food as you have been with me.
Lord of all pots, pans, plates, knives and things,
Accept my washing of dishes and serving meals as offerings
Warm my kitchen with Your Love and and light it with Your Peace
Let it be a place where friends and family can meet
To share love, laughter, life, prayer and blessings so sweet.
And may those who dine with us hear our prayer of gratitude
And enjoy the blessings of hospitality and your good food.
Yes, I am most at home in my kitchen
Thank you, Lord, for meeting me there.
Amen

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 6, 2020 at 10:10 am

Roberta, Your prayer/poem is absolutely lovely! Thank you for sharing it with us! Melannie

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joan metzger July 6, 2020 at 9:44 am

Sister Melanie,
Thank you again for your beautiful meditations. My two sisters and I were raised by our grandmother after our mother died. Waking up to her baking on Saturday mornings — just a wonderful memory, helping her make hash by putting meat through the food grinder, and too many other memories to list here.
I checked out Kath S’s suggestion of James Seward’s painting “This is My Body.” I will try to get a copy as it really moved me.
The songs sung by John Foley [I sang along] and Joan Baez remind me that we are all God’s children, and we have such a great blessing in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Have a wonderful day!

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Jennifer July 6, 2020 at 9:45 am

I agree, this was a lovely Reflection about your memories of the kitchen. What a wonderful place, thanks for reminding me that it can be a place of meditation and peacefulness!

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Heidi Strauss July 6, 2020 at 9:58 am

My husband and I read this article and enjoyed reminiscing about the kitchens of our childhoods.

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Suzanne July 6, 2020 at 10:04 am

Baloney sandwiches – what a memory! Yes, kitchens are a sacred place where life happens, stories are shared, and bread broken.

Thank you, Melannie, for bringing back so many memories, especially of my mother and time she spent in the kitchen to prepare meals to nourish us.

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Char July 6, 2020 at 10:37 am

Sr Melanie
Memories of growing up in Mom’s & Nana’s kitchens are so very special
In my case it was waking up to the smell of tortillas, mouth watering aromas, hot off the grill smeared w/ butter, that was heavenly, a pot of pinto beans simmering on the stove, on Sunday’s we’d visit Nana another
kitchen filled w/ Awesome smells! Thanks for reminding me of those days

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Patt Germann July 6, 2020 at 11:38 am

I haven’t any memories of my own from kitchens while growing up, but am working to make them for my grandchildren and I did with our sons as they grew up. I hope they all will say they have memories – some day. On the topic of the music — I love One Bread, One Body and have missed singing n church so very much. Music for me is an important part of liturgy. Thank you for giving us the lyrics along with the music today. And for Joan Baez — what a great message and song. I live just south of Minneapolis, so the George Floyd tragedy is very close to home, literally. May he rest in peace and his family find peace. May justice be done and this be the TRUE beginning of a new age in our world.

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Deirdre Lewis July 6, 2020 at 11:41 am

Sr Christopher…cook sister I knew when I was teaching at a convent school 50 odd years ago! I can see her still, in her kitchen. She knew I loved meringues with cream and always kept a couple for me. She was my safe space and I loved her dearly. Thank you for bringing wonderful memories flooding back. I enjoy cooking myself and do find it meditative and therapeutic. Love the music…especially Joan Baez.

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Regina Hlavac, DC July 6, 2020 at 12:31 pm

Wow, how TRUE… Melannie, I am born of Czechoslovakian heritage and my Mom and Dad were awesome cooks and bakers. Our kitchen was exactly that for us growing up. A very sacred and loving and holy place with laughter, good aromas and fun. My parents together made Hoska and Kolachky for all the main feast days of the year and always made enough to share with our relatives and neighbors. I can relate to everything you said in your “Sunflower Seeds” today and am so grateful for your writings. You are amazing. Blessings and thanks and prayers…
Sr. Regina Hlavac

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Susan Brotherman July 6, 2020 at 1:20 pm

My parents’ kitchen was absolutely the gathering place. We had 35 average family members and close friends for holidays and always — we women — met there to share the work and our lives. Sometimes we had to say, “OK! Your part is done! Go sit down!” Conversation, memories…and many little ones going in between us. My kitchen — we are 71 and 72 — is spacious, redone in 2014. It IS a place of contemplation, as there is a plant window above the sink and prep area. I peel, chop and slice while taking time to watch the lizard on an yard umbrella, the now empty swing set and plants that need nurturing in this hot weather. Thank you for catching me from running and reminding us all to STOP, remember the meat grinder, baloney sandwiches (can still smell those lunch boxes!) and to recall precious moments — and be grateful!

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Maryann July 6, 2020 at 7:36 pm

I always enjoy your blog, Sr. Melannie, and especially appreciate this week’s thread. I remember my Grandmother’s kitchen at her home in Ridge Acres in Willoughby: the avocado frig and stove; the dishes acquired as premiums from the local Sohio gas station; her collection of deformed Tupperware bowls, with their melted wads of plastic from setting too close to the stove burners. From the time I was a child until I went to college, I baked with her every Christmas, many of the same Eastern European baked goods you mentioned. I remember the potica making most of all. She rolled the dough until it covered that whole kitchen table. Then, we’d merrily toss all the goodies on to it: nuts, sugar, honey, sprinkles of milk. Some of the filling ended up on the floor, but she didn’t mind. “A good cook is a messy cook!” Then once all the goodies were baked, Grandpa would take us out to Fanny’s Restaurant for dinner. I still have her handwritten recipes and have tried my hand at baking some of them. Not quite the same as Grandma’s kitchen, but what a blessing to those memories and the connection across time.

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Donna July 6, 2020 at 9:17 pm

Hi Sister, I am a German/Behemian from Cleveland and my memories growing up I share with you! Saturday baking with Grandma (my favorite kolachky, and yeast rolls), Pork Roasting in the oven on Sunday while we were at Mass. Oh the aroma when we walked back into the house and then the polka music came on while Mom made the dumplings and sauerkraut. Can still picture the whole family sitting down to dinner every evening in our country kitchen. Thanks for the memories!

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Cathy Peterson July 6, 2020 at 9:39 pm

Thank you for the wonderful message that brings to my mind so many great memories. My grandmother, my mother and my aunt were all good cooks and I learned a lot from them. The beautiful songs were an added bonus!

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Christine Holmgren July 7, 2020 at 12:48 am

Dear Sr. Melanie ~ To paraphrase dear Monika Hellwig – more hearts are laid bare, forgiveness offered and healing takes place over a cup of coffee in a kitchen.

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Carol July 7, 2020 at 8:48 am

My grandmother had a farmhouse in Geneva, Ohio. Every Fall my parents & many aunts & uncles came to harvest the Concord grapes crop. I spent many hours with my grandmother as she cooked & baked everything from scratch to reward her kids For all their hard work. It was a huge work space & off that kitchen was another large summer kitchen with a bell to ring alerting those in the fields that the meal was ready. Just as memorable was setting & cleaning off the table, washing& drying dishes & the final step….relaxing on the front porch glider. All these activities were times of sharing & talking & naturally slowing the pace of days packed with chores & duties if running a house & farm. I learned patience & a deep respect for the intrinsic benefits of what it means to experience the fruits of your labor. Sadly, a lot of those kind of experiences have vanished with the dawn of modern conveniences & overworked, over extended & over scheduled families who struggle to find time to be together. They miss out on the intimate space & time that embodies sharing in the heart of any home ….the kitchen. It taught me to slow down, take a deep breath & enjoy the moment.

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Tom July 7, 2020 at 9:28 am

Fond memories. First of all, I can’t imagine a kitchen sink without a window to look out of. My best memories come not from the table but from the sink, where sharing seemed to come more easily when my hands were in the warm, sudsy water. A safe and sacred space, sort of like a womb or baptismal font.

Early on, my grandparents’ kitchen had a wood burning stove with the warming ovens where the dough was put to rise. These were also the perfect place for Grandpa to rejuvenate a sickly chicken, with the help of a swig of whiskey squirted down its gullet!

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Chris Keil July 7, 2020 at 4:30 pm

WOW! So many memories of my grandma’s and mom’s kitchen, very similar to yours. But also very memorable were those of our high school “cook sisters”, Sr. M. Bridget, Sr. M. Trina (God rest her soul), Sr. M Beverly, and Sr. M. Rita!!!! How we loved to go into the boarding school kitchen and “bug” the sisters about what’s for lunch/dinner, etc. And, how much fun we had doing dishes!!! All the singing, dancing and acting we did! Then there was the kitchen at Nazareth, where you taught us how to play Nertz!!!!!!!
I love being in the kitchen even today, although I don’t do as much baking as my mom and grandma did……..gotta watch the waist line you know! I always understood why the kitchen was considered the “heart of the home”, and it seemed that’s where everyone always ended up during gatherings and parties.

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Jean Canatsey July 7, 2020 at 5:48 pm

My sister, Ruth, and I discussed at great length our memories of our grandma’s kitchen. We could remember in detail where everything was and exactly what each item looked like. We remembered the summer kitchen just off to the side where there was a sink, a cistern pump, a large table and a smoke house at one end. We remembered how Grandma tacked cheesecloth up to the large screened windows so that we had a breeze but no bugs. Most of all we remembered helping her bake pies and hoping for a generous amount of left over crust that she would let us roll out, spread with butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon before baking. We will never forget the smell or the taste of that delicious treat. We decided that perhaps that is the reason, to this day, we enjoy eating cinnamon and sugar toast.

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mary de sane July 8, 2020 at 1:40 pm

I am a daughter of SNDs Rittenhouse Square Philadelphia PA and remember each morning Sister the Cook would have hot chocolate waiting for all of us who had walked cold blustery blocks from the city bus or subway to get to school. We were always so grateful to her hospitality and what way to start the day. Thank you!

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Anne Cecere July 9, 2020 at 8:30 pm

I have always felt that the kitchen is the heart of the home. It has certainly been that for my grandmother, my mom, and me. Your reflection made me realize how many happy memories have been made in the kitchens of family and friends. This CeCe Winans song, Mama’s Kitchen, came to mind as I was reading your post.

https://youtu.be/-pdw0JyNbiY

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Holly July 11, 2020 at 5:59 pm

I always look forward to your posts. In the 70’s we helped start a small parish in W. Va. A few friends and I were the folk choir. We gathered weekly around my kitchen table with coffee, treats, and guitars to practice for Sunday mass. Oh what fun we had!

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Aloni Bonilla July 13, 2020 at 5:26 am

Beautiful blog! It was wonderful hearing you speak earlier this week on Zoom at the SND Summer Series for discerners. Thank you for sharing your gift with the world.

Kitchen memories are beautiful to recall! The conversations, arguments, laughter, cooking, praying, cleaning, bathing (babies in the sink), tears, games, healing, collaboration, silence, joy and more.

Thank you for the wonderful recommendations on Last Supper images. I love the images that include women, especially Mary the Mother of God.

Here are some Last Supper art work I thought you all might enjoy.

Joey Velasco “ Hapag ng Pag-asa, or Table of Hope, which depicts the Last Supper with Jesus and street children instead of the disciples, Velasco has stirred the hearts of many with his paintings.”
https://www.riverbankscenter.com/learning-center/joey-velasco-gallery

https://ncaleadershipjourney.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/companions-chronicles-spreading-the-spirit-of-giving-beyond-christmas/amp/

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