'Chopped'-winning sister on a mission

Franciscan Sister Alicia Torres gathered about three dozen volunteers in the hall of Our Lady of the Angels Church in Chicago on Nov. 21, having them count off into groups to form teams to serve the roughly 600 guests who would be seated just an hour later.

Sister Alicia, 30, spoke clearly and loudly enough to be heard without yelling. As she spoke, more volunteers were busy finishing the cooking for a Thanksgiving brunch that included baked frittata, roast pork, potatoes, fruit and pastries. Through it all, Sister Alicia maintained her good humor, greeting friends and volunteers with smiles and patiently answering questions.

As she proved in winning the Nov. 9 episode of the Food Network show “Chopped,” Sister Alicia is good under pressure.

Utilizing her skills

The skills Sister Alicia has honed at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels — both cooking mouth-watering meals with whatever ingredients are available and keeping plates spinning in the air by the dozen — stood her in good stead on “Chopped,” a program in which competing chefs have a limited amount of time to create dishes from a surprise basket of ingredients. The episode Sister Alicia appeared on included four cooks from soup kitchen-type settings, with the stipulation that the $10,000 prize was to go to their charities. The ingredients were typical Thanksgiving leftovers.

While Sister Alicia and the other members of her congregation were wrangling volunteers, residents of the West Humboldt Park neighborhood that surrounds the mission started to gather at the church door, waiting to be admitted to the prayer service that would start the Thanksgiving brunch. Sister Alicia’s success was a widespread topic of conversation.

Saletha Baker and Bernadine Davis, who come to the mission’s weekly senior program, are longtime fans of Sister Alicia.

“I don’t think her mood ever changes,” Baker said. “She’s always so charming.”

That doesn’t mean she’s a pushover, Baker said, noting that Sister Alicia would never have competed if she didn’t think she could win.

Davis said she was most impressed with the way Sister Alicia completed one of her tasks on “Chopped” one-handed after cutting her finger, knowing that if she touched the plate with her bleeding hand before the cut was bandaged, she would have been disqualified.

Sister Alicia’s dishes included Mexican-style turkey quesadillas, a curried turkey entrée, a sweet potato cranberry hash, green beans and a dipping sauce with goat cheese, and a milkshake dessert.

Helpful prize money

Sister Alicia said she isn’t sure just how much food the $10,000 prize will buy, but when asked, her eyes widened and she said, “I’m sure it will be a lot. The $10,000 is an incredible blessing to the work of Our Lady of the Angels Mission. We help provide food to over 700 families a month, so any gift, great or small, is always graciously received. All of the money will be used to help provide food for our neighbors through our food pantries and our many meal programs.”

In addition to the food the money will buy, Sister Alicia said she hopes her appearance, and all the publicity it has generated, will raise awareness about the problem of hunger in Chicago and across America.

The pantry usually is stocked by direct donations of food and items purchased for pennies on the dollar from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the metropolitan area.

In addition to the Thanksgiving brunch, the mission also hosts a Christmas celebration — that one has two seatings and serves 1,200 — the weekly senior program, which includes lunch; a weekly distribution of nonperishable food; a monthly distribution of fresh produce, nonperishable food and household goods through a mobile food pantry; and biweekly community dinners during the school year.

Baker and Davis said they enjoy the senior program because it offers a little bit of everything: Bible study, some exercise and fellowship, as well as lunch.

“If you don’t have any friends, come here and you’ll have a lot,” Baker said.

That’s the kind of community atmosphere the mission tries to build in its neighborhood, which suffers from high rates of poverty and crime.

‘A faithful instrument’

Sister Alicia is no stranger to the spotlight; she gained national media attention in 2009 when she asked for pledges to run a half-marathon to help with her college debt, which had to be paid in order for her to enter the convent. When she and Sister Kate O’Leary became the first two sisters to profess perpetual vows in the new Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago on Oct. 4, it was covered in both Catholic and secular media. However, the attention her “Chopped” appearance has garnered has been a bit overwhelming.

“I certainly didn’t expect this story to be news for so many days,” she said. “It has been a humbling experience for me, yet also an awesome opportunity to share the joy of the Gospel, the joy of religious life and the critical message about the issue of hunger in America.

“I have great confidence in the power of prayer and in how the Lord chooses to use people as his instruments to accomplish his will. I hope to remain a faithful instrument, not for myself but for God’s glory and for all those who suffer from hunger. As religious, we certainly strive to meet the physical needs of those we serve, but we don’t forget the spiritual needs. ... I’ve met some of the most faithful Christians on the west side of Chicago. They all are an example to me that no matter how difficult life may be, the Lord is always with us, and we just have to keep trusting his love and his providence that can carry us through the ups and downs of life.”

Sister Alicia said she was chosen specifically because “Chopped” was looking for religious sisters.

“We heard about it through our community email,” she said. “I asked Father Bob (Lombardo), my superior, if I could apply since I love to cook and thought I had a good chance. He said I could, and so I applied. Within 24 hours, I had an interview scheduled. They kept my application on file, and when a show came up that I could fit in, they asked if I was open to being considered. I said yes, and ended up being cast as a competing chef.”

Now her appearance has become a point of pride for the neighborhood.

Natalie Villanueva, who came to the brunch with her sister, their husbands and their combined four children, said it was her first time at the holiday meal, but she has used the mission’s food pantry before.

“I saw her on the news and said ‘That’s one the of the sisters from the mission,’” she said. “They’re always nice here, and you get the spiritual meal as well as the physical meal. That’s just as important.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.