HARTFORD – Like a competitive athlete, the spunky and determined Sister Alicia Torres, a young member of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, made the sign of the cross on national television – at the start of a cooking competition against three other soup kitchen chefs on the Food Network TV show “Chopped.”
During the show, which aired last November, she created three enticing dishes from Thanksgiving leftovers found in a mystery basket, thereby winning the $10,000 prize for the “Community Meal Program” she helps to run at Our Lady of the Angels Mission in Chicago.
At the mission, the 32-year-old sister is responsible for planning the menus, developing recipes and overseeing the volunteers who serve needy families in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood. Since much of her cooking is done with donated food items, she has learned to be extremely creative with whatever she is given.
“Our community depends exclusively on Divine Providence,” Sister Alicia said. “We receive food that is diverse. Basic staples and random fun stuff comes in. You grow in generosity for what you receive. You see everything as a gift. I can now cook with whatever comes.”
The winner of the “Thanksgiving Soup-er Stars” episode was a guest speaker at the Franciscan Urban Life Center at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church in Hartford on May 15. Dressed in a brown habit and Birkenstock sandals, the inspiring young sister spoke at the invitation of her grandmother, Marianne Midura, president of the ladies guild.
“She’s done so much good work for our Lord,” her grandmother said.
Since winning the national cooking competition, Sister Alicia has been the subject of at least 65 interviews with the press. She sees contact with the media as a great way to evangelize the faith and put the spotlight on the issue of hunger. The purpose of Our Lady of the Angels Mission is to assist the materially poor and to share the treasure of the Catholic faith.
“I’m always trying to stay focused on the mission,” Sister Alicia said. “For me, it’s always important to bring it back to our cause. If the Lord has given me a gift, I should use it, and try with his grace to be humble and not let it go to my head.”
The surprise media darling was raised primarily in Leominster, Mass., and attended Catholic school in Still River, where she went to Mass every day.
She said she began cooking in middle school, baking and making pizza dough. During college, she cooked homemade meals in the dorm for her friends. She later lived with a vegan family.
“I cooked with a lot of people who had different ways of cooking and eating, and developed creatively,” she explained.
It wasn’t until her third year of college at Loyola University in Maryland that Sister Alicia experienced a call to religious life. She said she saw the lack of joy among her peers, who were caught up in drinking and promiscuous behavior.
“It made me wonder what’s missing in our lives. How do I help people understand that God’s love is big enough to fill our hearts?” she asked. “That’s when I felt a tug to be a sister.”
She made her final profession on Oct. 4, 2015, in Chicago at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, where she now serves the poor, focusing on providing nourishing meals.
The many food-related programs at the mission include a food pantry that serves 200-300 families, dinners to accompany after-school programs for children, dinners for those who attend retreats and luncheons with Bible study for seniors.
The mission also serves themed community dinners, featuring Mexican or Latino cuisine, for example, or ham and macaroni and cheese dinners around Easter. All meals are intended to be healthful and to foster community relationships, and all are accompanied by community prayer.
Only 25 percent of residents in the neighborhood are Catholic, she said, so prayers are Scripture- based to make everyone feel welcome. “We’re also not afraid to teach the Catholic faith,” she added, “like the sign of the cross.”
Following her presentation in Hartford, Sister Alicia swung a pack over her shoulder and tied her Day-Glo pink running shoes to the sash of her brown habit. As she and her grandmother packed up to leave, they discussed that night’s dinner.
Sister Alicia, who was planning to stay the night at Mrs. Midura’s house, had already volunteered to cook for her host and extended family, saying, “I usually cook for 600.”
“What do you want to make?” Mrs. Midura asked.
“Something with chicken. I’ll figure it out,” the master improviser added.
Her grandmother responded with a laugh and exclaimed, “It will be just like ‘Chopped’!”