WINTHROP — Open the kitchen door and take in the aroma. Barbecuing chicken, baking ham and roasting pork fill ovens and a grill.

Mushroom and herb stuffing and butternut squash bake in the oven. Mashed potatoes, leeks and curried collards simmer on the stove.

It’s Wednesday, and the hot gourmet food is destined to feed hungry people in Winthrop and surrounding communities.

The savory symphony is the work of Craig Hickman, owner of Annabessacook Farm Bed & Breakfast, who cooks a hot meal on Wednesdays for the benefit of dozens who formerly accessed a free lunch at St. Francis Xavier Church Hall.

The arrangement was supposed to be temporary.

Then, this week, St. Michael Parish administrator the Rev. Francis Morin announced the Hot Meals Kitchen will no longer operate in St. Francis Xavier Hall.

Morin said earlier an inspection of the Hot Meals Kitchen program by the Diocesan Property Management Office, which manages the St. Francis Xavier church property, found the program lacked a board of directors, an up-to-date tax ID number and liability insurance.

In a cost-cutting move, the parish also sought rent from the kitchen.

“It was not an easy decision, but we asked the soup kitchen board to pay rent to the parish of $400 a month,” Morin said.

On Monday, he withdrew that offer in a letter to Hot Meals Kitchen board chairman Robert Pelletier.

“It has been over a month since the original deadline … to get all in order for the parish to consider permitting the reopening of the Kitchen at the parish site,” Morin wrote. “Since this has not occurred and we are into the month of October and the board has resisted the issue of the payment of rent to the parish, I have finally decided that it would be best for the board to find a more appropriate site to continue its service.”

Empty feeling

The Hot Meals Kitchen was an ecumenical effort started in the mid-1980s by three ministers: The Rev. Gilbert Patenaude, of St. Francis Xavier; the Rev. Dr. Peter Misner, of the United Methodist Church of Winthrop and Wayne; and the Rev. Edgar Jones, of the United Church of Christ.

Pelletier, a member of St. Francis Xavier Church who heads the new nine-member board of the Hot Meals Kitchen, said the board had hoped to serve hot meals again soon.

Pelletier said the board planned to ask the Ministerial Association of Winthrop to collect donations twice a year in all the churches to benefit the kitchen, which did more than feed people.

“Our mission statement says it’s a place for them to socialize and get together and get out of the house,” Pelletier said.

The kitchen’s budget has been about $5,000 a year — much of that spent at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn.

“We feed up to 50 people every week day for nine months, which is why we need the money from the collections to keep us going,” Pelletier said.

Most of the food for charity meals comes from the Good Shepherd Food Pantry, where Steve Dodge of Wayne, who coordinates the Kitchen, said he can take a $1 donation and parlay it into food worth three or four times that much.

The food is then stored in freezers and refrigerators in the basement of St. Francis Xavier Hall. Hot Meals Kitchen diners come from Winthrop, Wayne, Readfield, Mount Vernon, Leeds and Monmouth.

Pelletier said the Hot Meals Kitchen has made great strides, even though it has been closed.

“We’re now incorporated,” he said. “We have a new tax number, the 501(c)(3) application is done and gone, we gave a new mission statement and bylaws, and three committees: Pastoral, finance and soup kitchen.”

The kitchen board looked at some other options for housing the program, but he said none worked out.

“We want to be in town in a place that easily found,” Pelletier said.

Plans to revive the kitchen apparently went by the boards with Morin’s announcement.

“We were the only church supporting them with a place,” Morin said Friday. “They won’t accept idea of paying rent to help with the costs of operating the hall.”

However, he did not withdraw all support. “We will help them financially by having the collections they’re asking all the churches to do,” Morin said.

Helping hands

Dodge, who has assisted Hickman each Wednesday while the kitchen was on hiatus, stood at an antique kitchen table recently at the bed and breakfast, cutting squash into cubes and dicing red peppers and celery.

Hickman said he’s glad to be able to provide at least one meal each week from the commercial kitchen in his bed and breakfast.

“It’s all about love,” he said. “There should be no empty mouths ever.”

The food Dodge brings to Hickman’s will be prepared and eaten that day.

When the first car arrives to pick up food — about 20 minutes early — Dodge goes out and talks to the driver.

“A family of five,” he says on his return, and volunteer Kathy Walley, of Farmingdale, begins to fill large containers with food.

“A lot of people are bashful, they’re embarrassed,” Hickman said. “A family drove up one day with two women. One only wanted one meal. Her friend said, ‘She has four children.’ “

So five meals went out.

Most people recognize Dodge, which is why he checks to see how many meals are needed then brings them out to the vehicles.

One woman called the farm and spoke to Hickman.

“What time can you get here?” he asked. “Just let me know, and I’ll make sure there’s a meal for you.”

Not depleted

Patrons seem grateful that Hickman — who ran in the most recent race to represent District 82 in the Legislature and served as secretary of the Hot Meals Kitchen board — is donating time and energy to benefit the community.

Jennifer Currier, of Winthrop, stopped in to pick up meals for herself, her husband and her two young children.

“I don’t feel like cooking,” she said.

Currier said she had seen Hickman in town on Tuesday when she was not feeling well, and he suggested she stop by for a meal for the family.

She asked him, “What do I need to bring?”

Hickman told her, “Nothing.”

In return for the meal, Currier and her children fed the small animals on Hickman’s farm.

Hickman said he sends out the meals until about 6, or until the supply is depleted.

He also offers free fresh vegetables on a stand near the road. Most of those disappear during the night, he said.

On a recent day, 46 meals — “every morsel of food prepared or delivered to the farm that day” — went out to hungry citizens.

The last parcel of steaming hot food, went out at 5:45 p.m. to a family of three who made a small cash donation.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

badams@centralmaine.com