Mississippi, churches chock full of unsung heroes


The problem with unsung heroes is inherent in the name. They mostly go unsung. The high-profile types get a lot of credit — all deserved — for helping others. There are tens of thousands of unrewarded heroes out there who fall between the cracks. Not as long as I can help it.

There are also many unsung heroes in the culinary world. Hattiesburg’s Yvonne Owen is most definitely one of those heroes.

While her children were in school, Owen began baking cakes “for therapy.” After her husband died, she went into the catering business full time, “with a vengeance,” her friend Sharon Walker explained. With all of her children grown and out of the house, she expanded her tiny kitchen into a full-scale commercial operation and the cakes began flying out the door.

Eventually she began catering parties, teas, and weddings. She catered my wedding in 1993. However, business has always come in a distant second with Owen. What makes Yvonne Owen special is all of the unselfish ways she helps others. 

 “I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t helping someone, or giving something away,” her daughter said.”

A loyal member of Court Street United Methodist Church, this busy grandmother took on the job as hostess for the church, feeding the membership every Wednesday night. Before long she added another Methodist church, and a few months later, as if it were predestined, she added a Presbyterian church, too. Three churches, hundreds of meals, every Wednesday night, out of her home kitchen — all this, and the cake and catering business, too.

In addition to her everyday duties she has worked tirelessly with the Mississippi Diabetes Association and other charities, helping anytime anyone anywhere held out their hand. 

A few years ago, seeing a need to feed shut-ins and under-resourced citizens in the community, she began cooking 10 meals every Monday through Friday for a Meals-On-Wheels program. “I’m only going to do 10 a week,” she told Dora Sue Ferrell, her longtime assistant. Before long, 10 became 20, and 20 became 60. Day in, day out, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, rain or shine, Yvonne Owen prepared salad, entrée, two vegetables, bread, and dessert using her own money and resources. And when no one was available to deliver, she became the wheels that delivered the meals. 

Owen contracted a rare form of cancer in 2003 and underwent a rigorous chemotherapy program. The day she finished her chemotherapy she traveled to her daughter’s house to begin a five-week babysitting stint with her newborn grandson. 

Today, the cancer is in remission. Fortunately for the citizens of Hattiesburg her cooking is not in remission. She has dropped down to feeding only two churches on Wednesday nights, and others have taken on the Meals-for-Wheels responsibilities, but not a funeral or open house goes by at Court Street Church without Yvonne’s culinary touch. 

 A few years ago Owen began traveling through under-resourced neighborhoods picking up children and taking them to church for Wednesday night and Sunday morning services. Sometimes it is the only balanced meal the children will eat all week. The kids call her “Sugarmama,” she calls them “her fish” referring to a line in a sermon she once heard that taught the lesson of feeding and nourishing the spirit of the needy. It is a lesson that we should all learn. It is one Yvonne Owen is living by example in her everyday life. 

The Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church recently awarded Owen with the Denman Evangelism Award. It seems that the children she was bringing to church soon began bringing their parents. In addition to being a cook, hostess, caterer, mom, grandmom, and great-grandmom, she became a one-woman evangelism team. 

Owen, along with her longtime assistants Ida and Dora Sue, is making the world a better place one meal at a time. “She’s always doing for somebody else, wearing herself out,” Ferrell stated. “She has planned her retirement four times, but she keeps pushing the date back. I don’t think she’ll ever stop.” Let’s hope she doesn’t. 

The world needs more Yvonne Owens.

Robert St. John is an author, chef, restaurateur and world-class eater. He can be reached at www.nsrg.com or www.robertstjohn.com.