During a morning meditation one day in May 1982, the idea to do something that mattered came to Sister Rosemarie Burian in a flash:
“I would have a Food Bank. I had no background, but I was going to do it,” she recalled. “If I went to apply for the job now, I wouldn’t have hired myself—I wasn’t qualified for this.”
After opening a Food Pantry at St. Mark’s Church in Wheaton, Sister Rosemarie recognized the continued need to serve people and provide community assistance. But because she lacked knowledge on how best to address it, she began networking with local leaders and educating people about hunger and her vision to rescue and redistribute food.
“There was a tremendous lack of awareness about why food pantries were needed,” Sister explained. “There was also an attitude toward people in need, and a perception that ‘that kind of stuff’ doesn’t exist here [in DuPage County].”
She also noted that in seeing food pantries scrounging to provide food and sometimes driving to the city to get food, she knew there was another way—through food rescue.
A meeting with Bernie Kleina, then Executive Director of Hope Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, cemented the idea of a food bank as the solution she was looking for. He encouraged her, “We have food pantries and places for medical assistance and giving clothing. What you are doing is not being done already.”
Sister Rosemarie set out to open a center in DuPage County to demonstrate that even in an affluent area, poverty can be right next door.
The name Bethlehem, meaning “House of Bread” was chosen as the Center’s first name. In August 1982, Sister gathered a community of supporters (which later became the first Board of Directors) at a weekly meeting about the new Center, which resided in an office space inside a board member’s accounting firm in Glen Ellyn from November 1982 until relocating to the first warehouse at 170 Easy Street in Carol Stream opened in March 1983. The Center also became an affiliate of Greater Chicago Food Depository in order to share donated food and serve the suburbs.
During a dinner with a couple close friends, Sister received the Center’s first donation—$100—which they’d raised through a garage sale. When soliciting additional donations and asked if she’d raised money yet, she proudly shared, “oh yes, I have $100 right here.”
The Center’s first employee, Mary Hayes, started that first year as well. A longtime resident of Glen Ellyn, Mary often picked up food and delivered it to those in need herself. In the summer months, she could be found delivering meals to 50 children a week in her white Nissan. Later, in 1994, Mary led the effort to join Feeding America and become part of the national network to solve hunger. She went on to have a more than 25-year career at the Food Bank. She passed away in January 2018 at the age of 78, having left a lasting legacy at the Food Bank.
Just shy of one year after Sister’s call to do what mattered, the Center held its first distribution on April 28, 1983, when Family Shelter in Glen Ellyn picked up 288 pounds of food.
“It was like bells were ringing…marvelous!” recalled Sister. “We had music playing and a big welcome when agencies came.”
In its first month, the Center distributed 7,000 pounds of food to seven agencies in DuPage County, and grew to distribute 64,000 pounds of food to more than 80 agencies across 10 counties by the end of its first year.
Today, the Food Bank is one of the top food banks in the Feeding America network, distributing nearly 66 million meals in FY18 through more than 800 food pantries and feeding sites, serving more than half a million people annually.
When asked to reflect on the Food Bank’s growth since its founding, Sister Rosemarie gets a bit uncomfortable being called “successful,” instead calling herself “gifted.”
“I was not a businesswoman, but there I was meeting with businesspeople. I have a passion for helping people understand what they are doing here [on earth],” she said. “You’ve got the house. You’ve got the car. But what are you doing with your lifetime? How are you going to make it count?”