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Souper Bowl on Friday
Sister Pat Funderhide, left, and Sister Frances Oakley look over pottery donated by area artists for Friday's Souper Bowl fundraiser at Angela's Piazza.

When Rhett Moak creates a ceramic bowl, she starts with a lump of wet clay.

She kneads the ball to get the clay to a uniform consistency, to make it malleable. Then the Billings potter forms the piece by hand or throws it on a wheel, fires it, glazes it and then fires it a final time. The result is a beautiful work of art.

The work of Angela's Piazza resembles the work of a potter. Only instead of molding clay into bowls, the nonprofit drop-in center helps shape women's lives.

Open 11 years in February, the simply furnished Grand Avenue house offers programs and support annually to hundreds of mostly low-income women and children. Keeping the center open takes lots of fundraising, and that's where Moak and other Billings potters come in.

On Friday, Angela's Piazza will hold its sixth annual Souper Bowl.

Diners eat soup and bread and get to take home their bowls. Moak, an adjunct professor of art at Rocky Mountain College, and 12 beginning clay students have created bowls for the event.

So have 13 other individual potters, as well as groups of potters from Rocky and from Montana State University Billings. Altogether, they donated 150 to 200 bowls - and plates and platters and even a salt-and-pepper shaker - of all different sizes, colors and shapes.

"I think it's a very good cause," Moak said. "I think the idea of a place to help women get on their feet is great, and I'm certainly glad to support that."

On Wednesday, Sister Pat Funderhide, one of the founders of Angela's Piazza, and Sister Frances Oakley, a long-term volunteer, unpacked some of the bowls and other items that will be featured Friday.

"It's always a mystery" what the bowls will look like, Funderhide said, admiring the ceramic pieces that Sister Frances pulled out of a cardboard box. "There always seem to be enough bowls."

The dinner is served European-style, Funderhide said. Several tables are set up for the event, and as people arrive, they are seated at whatever space is available.

Then they get a choice of soups and breads, all donated by local restaurants. The meal also includes the choice of a drink and a cookie for dessert.

The $20 price tag also includes a bowl of their choice. The soup actually is served in plastic-foam bowls, Funderhide said, so visitors go home with clean bowls.

Board members and other volunteers from Angela's Piazza run the event. Every year there are many return customers.

"One thing I love about it is I see people who come here for this," Funderhide said. "It's good to see them all. People often meet up with old friends."

Angela's Piazza is all about people meeting and encouraging one another. Some women drop in to get a little support or direction, or maybe they stop by now and then for a cup of coffee. Others come for the support groups and classes and wind up volunteering themselves.

Over the years, Funderhide has seen a great sense of community develop.

"Women start out being helped, and then they help each other as they go along," she said. "So many of our problems arise from a lack of support."

Funderhide got the women's center going in 1998 with Sister Mary Dostal. Both women, members of the Ursuline order, run Angela's Piazza with paid part-time help and the aid of volunteers.

There are support groups for women who have suffered domestic violence or have been victims of rape or incest. Parenting classes, spiritual direction and pastoral counseling are offered, as is a 12-step recovery program.

There's also a group called Daughters of Tradition, whose focus is to help girls ages 8 to 17 get off on the right foot.

With an operating budget of about $70,000, most of the support comes from individual donors and from churches. Fundraisers such as the Souper Bowl and an annual garage sale also help keep Angela's Piazza going.

Moak, who has known Funderhide and Dostal for several years, said that in contributing bowls to the fundraiser, her students are learning about more than how to mold clay into bowls.

"This is a way we can contribute to the community," she said.