Rose Arendt, 99, received a pretty package of Christmas cookies on Dec. 14 at her Winona Shores apartment, a complex for seniors in Alexandria. She’s one of the 340 recipients of the Cookie Connection, a ministry of St. Mary Parish in Alexandria for the community.
Rose, whose favorite cookies to bake and frost are Christmas rollouts, was pleased.
“They’re gone already — I do like sweets, so they didn’t last long,” she said. “I don’t bake anymore, though I still have a number of cookie cutters that I just can’t give up.”
A parishioner of St. Mary’s since about 1946, she fondly remembers last year’s Cookie Connection delivery. “It was the happiest day,” she recalled. “The sweetest girls came right up to my desk, stood around me and sang a song so nicely — it was impressive and I was very moved. They were even sweeter than the cookies.”
For nearly 30 years, the Cookie Connection tradition has brought Christmas cheer to the homebound or those unable to bake. This year, however, the tradition changed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It was so different from other years when people donated up to 400 dozen cookies of every kind — thumbprints, spritz, peanut butter kisses, date rolls, Russian tea cakes and more,” said Kathy Fischer, the St. Mary’s faith community nurse who spearheads the planning.
Instead of all those unique varieties, she ordered 180 dozen sugar cookies and cutouts with red and green sprinkles from local bakeries and Luther Crest Bible Camp. Instead of having 30 or more volunteers package the cookies using an assembly-line system, with stations for bagging and stapling while listening to Christmas music, on Dec. 11 Kathy and her husband, Kurt Hansberry, slipped cookies into plastic bags, six to nine each, and then tucked them into colorful paper bags.
Beginning Dec. 12, 19 families delivered the bags to 340 individuals or homes around the community following all COVID protocols — delivery families were masked and didn’t enter homes but carefully kept their distance.
Among the recipients were all 159 people living at the three senior living facilities in the Alexandria area. The most distant recipients live about 15 miles away.
“In previous years, our sixth-grade students brought cookie packages to all the apartments,” Kathy said. “The recipients, like Rose, are so grateful for the cookies and the students enjoyed this volunteer activity just as much. Unfortunately, due to visiting restrictions, we couldn’t deliver door-to-door at the senior apartment complexes.”
Jared and Colton Koehn and their mom, Ella, delivered some of the Christmas bags. “The best part,” Ella said, “was seeing people’s faces light up when they came to the door and how it made their day.”
Through her ministry, Kathy learns about families and individuals who should receive cookies.
“We include all families of our parish who’ve experienced a death within the past year. Maybe a person is no longer able to bake — now we can offer them a treat,” she said. “Parishioners also send in names of people they want cookies delivered to, who’ve perhaps experienced surgery or other difficult times, and would appreciate this small token of cookies. Our main premise is to bring them all Christmas cheer.”
The Cookie Connection dates back to 1991 when Eileen Eiser, the parish nurse at that time, heard of the tradition and brought it to St. Mary’s. It’s grown since then.
“Over the years, dozens of bakers brought cookies, not knowing who’d get them,” Kathy said. “Dozens of volunteers — families, singles, couples, confirmation students, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts — showed up to help package and deliver. I sometimes wondered if we’d have enough cookies or people, but it always worked out — volunteers returned year after year.
“Many of the elderly see baking as an expression of love and caring, especially at the holidays,” she said. “This is a way for our parishioners to give back — by baking cookies, making cards, delivering the bags. Sharing cookies connects us.
“Our message is simple: ‘Merry Christmas from St. Mary’s.’”