In 50th Year, Worcester’s Mustard Seed Continues to Teach Service

An aerial photo of a series of brick buildings

Course and volunteer work with the nonprofit expands students’ perspectives on realities in their own backyard.

Katherine Harkness '25 remembers going to church with her grandmother, a woman who would, on occasion, cook meals large enough to feed the entire parish. During Harkness' first year at the College of the Holy Cross, she was taken back to those days when volunteering at Mustard Seed, a nonprofit just two miles away from campus, dedicated to providing meals and support to city residents in need.

"It has given me a bigger sense of the Worcester community," Harkness said. "It feels like I can make an impact. I just don't have to be here to go to school, I can actually impact the community in a good way."

Located on Piedmont Street in Worcester and co-founded by Frank Kartheiser '72, the organization is now in its 50th year of offering a hot meal and hospitality to upward of 100 people each night. It is a community in New England’s second-largest city inspired by the example of journalist and social activist Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement, which focuses on the responsibility of individuals to care for one another.

For years, Holy Cross' Montserrat courses for first-year students have introduced the newest members of the College community to Mustard Seed. Harkness experienced the organization through such a course taught by Peter Fritz, Edward Bennett Williams Fellow and associate professor of Roman Catholic systematic theology in Holy Cross' religious studies department.

"I feel grateful and thankful that I’m able to be a part of their story," Harkness said. "I always think of the comment Frank says, though: 'You shouldn't have to have the Mustard Seed.' We shouldn't, but it's good that we do."

Liam Murphy '25 was also introduced to Mustard Seed through his Montserrat course: "Going there with the class for the first time really just showed how much need there was and how important the work was. There are real people with real need."

While no longer a first-year student, Mustard Seed has remained in Murphy's life. He worked with the organization throughout last summer and continued to volunteer Thursday nights serving dinner.

Harkness and Murphy credit Mustard Seed co-founders Kartheiser and Michael Boover with providing lessons that go far beyond the experience.

"It really showed me a side of the world that I hadn't seen before and it's something that I'd like to continue to do," Murphy said. "Especially considering how close it all is to Holy Cross. You could spend all your time at Holy Cross so close to all of this need without really experiencing it. I think it's really important."

"To go out and actually be able to help, that's more of the real world," Harkness said. "On campus, we're in our bubble, but being able to go out and acknowledge that there is hate in the world, but we can help that and help others."