The tolling of great bells filtered down from the high tower of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception into the marble basement, where it mixed with the clatter of silverware and the din of voices.
There, sitting in red leatherette booths, were the hungry, the old, and the lonely, eating a turkey dinner supplied by Marriott, cooked by volunteers, and spiced with the special kind of love that Christmas brings.
Yesterday was the sixth time that the National Shrine and Catholic Charities offered their gift of full stomachs and caring, and about 1,000 people accepted. Though the day was cold and gray, warmth blazed from the basement like fire from the hearth.
Lillian Harvey was there for her sixth time, her cheeks rosy with just a touch of cosmetic blush. At 73, she lives alone in Hyattsville. Never married, no children, no family nearby, she drove the 10 miles herself in her beige-and-black Dodge Swinger, a 1970 model that she says "was pretty sporty in its day."
A retired counselor for the Prince George's County Board of Education, Harvey keeps herself pretty busy, she said, volunteering her Thursdays to the career development department of the University of Maryland. But Christmas being the time that it is--one for families and ties and sentiment wrapped in bright paper and placed under a tree--she says it "always makes me feel lonely."
"Coming here helps me a lot," Harvey said. "I don't feel so abused or so left out if I come and have a dinner and meet interesting people to talk to."
Robert Adams accepted gratefully a second helping of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and peas. At 57, he, too, lives alone, in a $100-a-month room on 10th Street SE. His glasses sit crookedly on his nose, one lens scratched, the other absent.
He said he wasn't particularly lonely, but remembered between bites the Christmases of his South Carolina youth, when his sharecropper father would play the fiddle and his mother the old piano and he and his nine brothers and sisters would sing. "We didn't have much," Adams said, "but we were happy."
Adams came to Washington in 1954, worked on and off for a while, but never steadily. He said he was hit by cars and broke his right leg twice in the last 15 years, and now collects "a little bit of disability from Uncle Sam." He said his last meal was dinner on Thursday, a can of pork and beans.
Scurrying among the tables, laying down plates of food and stopping here and there to wish people a Merry Christmas, was Kay Wittman. A retired communications specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration, she was supposed to spend Christmas with a friend, but decided to volunteer her time yesterday after the friend was called out of town.
Wittman lives near the Washington Cathedral in Northwest Washington. "I never did anything like this before," she said. "I just thought I'd like to do something for humanity."
Elizabeth Sarantos decided to volunteer, she said, "because I'm moving from Prince George's to Southwest in a few days and I'm up to my ears in boxes, so I couldn't get out of town to be with my family. I thought this would be the next best thing."
Sarantos, a secretary at the Smithsonian Institution, said her job has afforded her opportunities to shake hands with Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan. But, she said, "helping people who really need it is really much more special."
Tish Wolshkee, a young graduate of Catholic University who now does pain research at the National Institutes of Health, agreed: "It's a sad time for people who don't have anybody. It's a shame they only have this kind of thing once a year."
As Wolshkee left to serve another tray of food, a little old man in a tattered woolen coat approached a stranger and, scratching his head, asked: "Is this Christmas?"
Assured that it was, he tapped his temple and said: "I wasn't sure exactly what day it was, but in here I knew it was Christmas, I knew it was. Praise the Lord. Merry Christmas to you."