Sister of Mercy serves food, comfort, community during pandemic

Sister of Mercy serves meals, consolation, group throughout pandemic

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ALBANY — Sister Mary Ellen Owens had not served lunch to the blind man on the Sacred Coronary heart Church soup kitchen in North Albany in two weeks, ever since his information canine, a black Lab named Marjean, died.

For greater than a yr, the information canine led him from the bus cease on Broadway a block away. Now, he was bereft over the lack of his companion and the independence the canine offered. His buddy, a blind lady, mentioned he was off form utilizing his cane and didn’t really feel comfy navigating metropolis streets with out his beloved Marjean.

The coronavirus pandemic had slowed the method of fostering and coaching information canine, making a backlog and delay for a brand new canine for the person, his buddy mentioned.

“I get to know the individuals who come every week and study their lives. I miss them and fear about them after they don’t present up,” mentioned Owens, 69, a Sister of Mercy for 51 years and a retired elementary college principal. For the previous two years, she has run meals pantries on totally different days at each St. Mary’s Church downtown and at Sacred Coronary heart Church, which additionally presents a soup kitchen every Wednesday.

Earlier than the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, the Friendship Desk at Sacred Coronary heart consisted of a sizzling meal cooked and served by volunteers on china plates with silverware and tablecloths within the church auditorium — infused with a way of dignity and repair. The shoppers stuffed a dozen spherical tables, six to a desk, and would linger after their meal was completed to share tales. They had been in no rush to depart and lingered over dessert and a second cup of espresso. After ending their meals, some seniors whiled away the afternoon by taking part in playing cards.

Now, to gradual the unfold of COVID-19, there isn’t any extra Friendship Desk. Volunteers put on face masks and latex gloves and maintain at the very least six toes aside. On a latest day, they stuffed 70 field lunches for takeout with a grilled rooster sandwich, cooked peas, Goldfish crackers, fruit cup and juice packing containers. It’s nonetheless served with love, simply at a correct social distance.

Owens usually repeats her pandemic mantra: “Life has modified, not ended.”

“We’ll do no matter is important, however I miss seeing the folks on the kitchen door, saying thanks for his or her meal,” mentioned Kathy Purello, 70, of Guilderland, a mom of seven and grandmother of six. She has been the volunteer prepare dinner for the Friendship Desk for the previous six years after retiring from operating the college lunch program at St. Teresa of Avila Elementary College for 20 years.

“I can inform the folks actually miss their social hour as a result of they beloved that connection over a meal every week. It was their group,” mentioned volunteer Mary Bousquet, 60, of Rensselaer.

“That is my favourite half,” Owens mentioned, as she pushed a cart stacked with field lunches up a ramp and out onto the sun-splashed sidewalk. It was 11:30 a.m. and eight folks had lined up early – socially distanced and carrying face masks – for the meal.

There’s a group that has taken root right here, a spot of welcome for folks usually shunned by society and damaged by loneliness and loss; dependancy and illness; poverty and unemployment; psychological sickness and life’s grinding hardships.

The numbers have risen sharply through the coronavirus pandemic. There are grandmothers rearing younger kids; refugee households from war-torn international locations; low-wage employees who misplaced their jobs within the pandemic; homeless individuals who recognize new socks and underwear tucked into their bag of meals. These in want discover their manner right here to St. Mary’s and Sacred Coronary heart for sustenance and companionship, and maybe a number of moments of grace. They arrive to be within the presence of a girl who has devoted her life to works of mercy.

“Sister Mary Ellen is out right here whether or not it’s rain or shine. She’s pleasant and upbeat it doesn’t matter what,” mentioned Marilyn, one of many regulars at Sacred Coronary heart. “She has such a caring manner about her.”

“She’s fantastic and he or she works very laborious, although she’s no spring rooster,” mentioned Nancy, a retired college bus driver who carried her lunch to a shaded bench in a pocket park throughout the road. She was joined by a buddy, one other senior lady. They wore straw hats and ate slowly.

“They’re my picnickers,” Owens mentioned, as two different girls sat on the stone steps of the church and chatted over bites of grilled rooster.

Owens rises at 5:15 a.m. and begins every day with morning prayers. “I ask God to provide me energy and to observe over all these susceptible folks I see every day,” she mentioned. She presents a particular devotion to the founding father of her spiritual order, Catherine McCauley, an Irish-Catholic lay lady who ministered to the poor within the streets of Dublin starting within the 1820s. She later entered the sisterhood and established the Sisters of Mercy in 1831.

“I pray to Catherine, who walked the streets of Dublin to serve the poor. I ask her to be with me as I stroll the streets of Albany to serve the needy,” mentioned Owens, the youngest of 5 kids.

She grew up in Rensselaer. Her mom was a homemaker and her father labored as a Rensselaer firefighter. He took a second job as an evening shift pressman on the Instances Union and the Each day Gazette to pay for a parochial college schooling for all 5 youngsters.

For each story of misfortune caused by the pandemic, Owens has witnessed a counterweight: random acts of kindness and an abundance of goodness. A month-to-month donation of non-perishable meals greater than doubled in Could courtesy of parishioners of St. Pius X in Loudonville. Greater than 75 vehicles crammed with meals objects had been unloaded by 4 teenaged volunteers. Tables within the Sacred Coronary heart auditorium had been stacked excessive with packages of pasta, packing containers of cereal, cans of soup, packing containers of granola bars, instances of bottled water and juice. In addition they obtained donations of CDTA bus passes and present playing cards to McDonald’s.

“The generosity has been overwhelming,” Owens mentioned. “A pair Sisters of Mercy from throughout the nation despatched me checks. I simply burst into tears. Our volunteers are so dedicated, too. They maintain me going.”

Close to the tip of the lunch interval, the blind man moved slowly up the sidewalk from the bus cease. He held tightly to the arm of his buddy, a blind lady who clutched the harness of her information canine, a black Lab named Licorice, who led the best way.

“Welcome again, Ken,” Owens mentioned. “We missed you.”

Paul Grondahl is director of the Writers Institute on the College at Albany and a former TimesUnion reporter. He might be reached at