Current CEO and president of St. Felix Pantry, Sr. Mary Angela Parkins (left) and its foundress, the late Sr. Mary Genevieve Ryskiewicz.
The only food pantry in Sandoval County that offers weekly access to the hungry, St. Felix Pantry serves more than a thousand people each week, providing food, compassionate support and free referral services to shelters, clinics and churches.
Two key figures are responsible for providing the oasis in a food desert that St. Felix Pantry has become in Rio Rancho, NM: Sr. Mary Genevieve Ryskiewicz who founded and ran the pantry for 16 years, and Sr. Mary Angela Parkins who has led it for the last six.
Each a radical doer and thinker, these two leaders brought their particular talents to the task. When Sr. Genevieve started the pantry in 1992, she was nearly 70. Sr. Angela took over in 2017, when she was nearly 74. At an age most people retire, these sisters rolled up their sleeves and began something big.
Sr. Genevieve to the (food) rescue
Born Julia Ryskiewicz in Mosinee, WI in 1923, Sr. Genevieve was the second eldest of nine children. When Julia was a girl, her mother would give her a loaf of home-baked bread to take to neighbors going through hard times. Sr. Genevieve, who died in 2016 at age 92, never forgot that experience. “Sharing that bread did something to my heart,” she once said. “And the desire to help the less fortunate grew stronger as the years went by.”
After becoming a Felician Sister and attending culinary school, Sr. Genevieve eventually made her way to the Rio Rancho convent in 1976. An excellent cook, she did the meal preparation for her fellow sisters. On her grocery shopping trips for the convent, she began noticing how much food was getting thrown out by local merchants.
It was her light-bulb moment. First, she would pick up the unused foodfrom proprietors and feed the hungry out of the back of her car. Then she moved her makeshift food pantry to a garage in the convent. St. Felix Pantry would find its current home at 4020 Barbara Loop in Rio Rancho in 1995.
And the rest, as they say, is her-story. St. Felix Pantry became renowned as the Albuquerque area’s first food rescue program. After running it for 16 years, Sr. Genevieve stepped down from her full-time oversight role in 2008, and pulled back further from her pantry duties in the years before her death.
Sr. Angela takes the torch
When Sr. Angela became president and CEO of St. Felix Pantry in 2017, things were tough at first. “Morale was pretty low at the pantry,” she remembers. “So that’s where we started. We needed to bring morale up, then we tackled the building and facilities upkeep. Only then did I feel like our guests could have full confidence in us again. It took a lot of work by our staff, volunteers and our board, but that difficult process made me very proud as a Felician Sister. We can accomplish anything with God’s help and guidance.”
As it turned out, Sr. Angela’s career training before she became a sister helped her immensely with the pantry. She’d once been a high-level management executive for a McDonald’s affiliate before joining the ministry at age 45 — a radical career change. “People couldn’t believe I would give up my Lincoln luxury car to enter the convent, but that’s what I did,” she says.
Thanks to that management experience, plus the skills, patience, and wisdom she gained as a Felician Sister, St. Felix Pantry would soon prosper under her leadership.
“Sr. Angela sets the tone at the pantry,” says Rachael Miletkov, the pantry’s director of development.” St. Felix Pantry is not just a place to get groceries, it’s a family. It’s a family that cares about our guests, volunteers, donor partners, everyone we touch. That all comes from Sr. Angela.”
“She leads by example, which sounds like a cliché, but with her it isn’t,” says Miletkov. “Until recently, when a truck pulled in loaded with pallets of food, sister would jump on the back to help unload. We’d have to stop her and say ‘let us do that!’”
More than food
“Sometimes, people come through the door, and food is not the main priority at that moment,” says Sr. Angela. “Some will say, ‘Can you just listen to me?’ So we sit, and we listen. In these ways and so many others, we try to meet the needs of our guests. That’s the best we can do, and that’s what God has asked us to do.”
With Sr. Genevieve ever-present as its guiding light, St. Felix Pantry has reached new heights under Sr. Angela’s leadership. It now serves more guests than ever each week. As long as the need is there — and sadly it likely always will be — St. Felix Pantry will do its part for New Mexico’s hungry.
Building Trust with the Navajo
In April, a St. Felix Pantry truck arrived in Counselor, NM at the chapter house of the Diné First Nations People with five huge pallets of supplies. This second delivery arrived with hopeful anticipation.
The Diné people live on a reservation that lacks running water and utilities — or even transportation to get supplies.
St. Felix Pantry learned about the great need of these Navajo people and secured a four-year grant from United Way to help. But in the process of fulfilling the grant, Diné leadership changed.
The new president had shared the view of many First Nations People: distrust for white people after generations of being mistreated.
“Sr. Angela knew that it was essential to establish trust before anything could progress,” said mission leader, Peggy Barr. After prayer and contemplation, and with respect and by listening, Sr. Angela fostered this new relationship. Her compassion was conveyed to the new Diné president, and in December 2022, a first delivery was successfully made.
On the reservation, once word of the arrival of this second delivery was announced, a line of cars and pickup trucks formed that ran all the way out to the highway. Boxes of food, cleaning supplies, bottled water, wood for stoves and special candy bags for the children were handed out to each family.
The success of this delivery means the relationship will continue and St. Felix will fulfill the four-year grant on behalf of the families on the reservation. Humbled by the trust they gained, Sr. Angela explained what mattered most, “More than anything, we listened. In our meetings with the chapter president and elders, we learned about the people’s daily lives and struggles, and what would be most helpful to them. We responded to that.”