Lift Us Up

April 1-7, 2004
Lift Us Up
Betty Lelio, a 25 year volunteer at the Presbyterian Nursing home in New Hartford, NY
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
By Kristen Fox & Eileen jevis Sun Staff Writers

Quiet Giver

NEW HARTFORD –– Betty Lelio is a charming, soft-spoken woman who quietly goes about her day helping others. She asks for no recognition or gratitude for her work and does it, she said, “because it needed to be done.” Lelio recently ended her tenure as a volunteer at Presbyterian Nursing Home where she assisted the elderly in a variety of ways for 27 years.

Eight years ago, Lelio took over setting up for the then-weekly Masses that were celebrated in the nursing home and the residential home from her predecessor Marie Kistner, who had also volunteered for more than 25 years. In the past year, the Masses were rescheduled to bi-monthly; however, that didn’t slow down Lelio. In addition to setting up the Masses at the Presbyterian Nursing Home and the residential home, Lelio also traveled in the afternoons to set up for Mass at the Lutheran nursing facility. “I take everything I need to set up the altar from one location to another,” said Lelio. “I used to wheel it in a utility wagon; then they bought a trunk with wheels on it.”

Lelio arrives at the nursing homes one hour before the Mass begins carrying armloads of fresh flowers from her garden. After adorning the altar with roses, marigolds and zinnias, Lelio begins escorting residents to the chapel. Of the 242 residents in the Presbyterian Nursing Home, 142 of them are Catholic. Lelio and a small staff of other St. Thomas volunteers worked together to bring between 65 to 70 residents to the chapel. “The people who come to the Mass are so happy to be here,” said Lelio. “They look forward to it. They are so sweet. I’ve seen so many of them come and go.”

Lelio looked back fondly on the residents she’s helped and grown close to. “This one woman was very devoted to St. Therese. She said three rosaries a day. If there wasn’t a Mass scheduled, I took the roses from my garden to her to place in front of her statue of St. Therese,” said Lelio. “She could hardly talk but she said to me, ‘Betty, I love your roses. I save the petals even after they have fallen from the stems.’” Lelio said that after the woman died, she received a wonderful letter from her daughter, thanking her for providing the roses.

Another resident was looking particularly forlorn one day when Lelio arrived at the nursing home. She asked the woman what was wrong and she explained that she had lost her locket –– one that she had been wearing for many years. The woman told Lelio that she had searched everywhere for it, looking in each place three times. “You need to say a prayer to St. Anthony,” said Lelio. The resident said that it was no use, that she was never going to find the locket. Lelio provided her with a prayer to St. Anthony. “Several weeks later, I returned to the nursing home and the woman had a big grin on her face. She had prayed to St. Anthony and had found her locket in a spot that she had previously searched,” said Lelio. “I consider that to be one of my little miracles.”

Janice Werner, director of volunteer services for the Presbyterian Nursing Home, said that Lelio was the most faithful and dependable of all the volunteers. “When Mass was over she would take her flowers off the altar and share them with someone else,” said Werner. “Many of the residents come down for Mass an hour early just to visit with her.” For many years Lelio’s husband also volunteered at the nursing home. “She also introduced her granddaughter, Renee’ to volunteerism,” said Werner. “She will be missed. She’s one of those people who opens her arms and heart to all the residents and staff.”

Chaplain Tom Lorenz, director of pastoral care agreed. He had worked with Lelio for 10 years and was very grateful for Lelio’s dedication and commitment. She is only one of three volunteers left from St. Thomas Parish. “Betty came to set up for Mass in snow storms and when she was ill. You could see the pain in her face. She is a loyal, faithful servant of God and she deserves this recognition.” Lelio also took the altar linens home after each Mass and washed, ironed and starched them and returned them the following week. When Lelio was asked how she stayed so committed to her ministry in the face of ill health, she said, “You don’t count the years until you can’t do it anymore. I loved this job. There is a time for everything to come to an end,” said Lelio. “It was hard to make the decision not to come anymore.”

Keeper of the Keys

PARISH –– When parishioners at St. Anne’s Church arrive for the 8 a.m. Mass they have Fred Swartz to thank for a warm church. If it weren’t for his kindness, they would be greeted by a cold building in the winter months. The small gesture is one of many contributions that Swartz, a parishioner of St. Anne’s for 40 years, has made to his parish community. He has served on the parish council, volunteers at the church’s ecumenical food pantry and serves as coordinator of lectors. When Father John Manno was assigned as pastor of both St. Anne’s and St. Mary, Star of the Sea Church in Mexico in December, Swartz offered to help lighten his load by taking up the duty of turning the heat on. “It is nice to be able to help people out,” said Swartz, who lives two houses over from St. Anne’s. “One of the main things Jesus wants us to do is serve our neighbors.” In addition to turning on the heat, Swartz locks and unlocks the church on a daily basis.

“People like coming in to say prayers,” he added. “The church should be open.” Swartz and his wife Bridget, who have been married 41 years, raised five children at St. Anne’s. “St. Anne’s is a very special place to our family,” Swartz said. He retired in 1993, after serving for 31 1/2 years as a reading specialist, most recently for the East Syracuse-Minoa School District. But, with his many responsibilities, it would be inaccurate to say that he is retired. “I think I’m semi-retired,” he jokes. “I like to keep busy.” And more free time has given him even more opportunities to help others. He is most proud of his service to the ecumenical food pantry, where he often volunteers with Bridget. He is frequently at the pantry preparing food boxes for those in need. “There are around 20 families a month who need boxes of food,” said Swartz. “Whenever we get calls saying that people are in need, I try to go over and fill them a box.”

“Fred’s actions are a great testament of his faith,” said Father Manno. “He is one of those people who will help me with anything that I ask. He is a very faithful and active man.” Swartz is also a chairperson of the Deacon’s Award, named after Joe Gilbert and Dick Jenkins, both former deacons at St. Anne’s. It is a scholarship given to graduating high school seniors who are furthering their education and are active in St. Anne’s Parish. “The youth are important to our parish. We want to encourage them to get involved and recognize them for their contributions,” Swartz said. Dave Dano, a parishioner of St. Anne’s, is close friends with Swartz. He said that Swartz can be counted on whenever there is a need. “Fred has made a difference at St. Anne’s by being an active, practicing Catholic, serving the church even in ways that some people including myself do not know,” said Dano. “Fred waters the flowers in front of the church,” Dano added, “that makes the church so beautiful.”

According to Swartz, his service mirrors a very active parish community. “St. Anne’s is a blend of young families and older persons who all are dedicated to the parish,” he said. With no one person responsible for the maintenance of St. Anne’s, parishioners have taken up the task of taking care of the church themselves. “We all look out for the church,” he said. “A strong laity has put a very great parish into place.” Father Manno agreed. “St. Anne’s is a small church,” he said. “There are lots of people like Fred who take care of it like it is their home. For me, this is a great joy.”

Faith Activist

SYRACUSE –– Kathleen Kelly, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Syracuse, has seen her share of cities. As a child, she moved with her family from apartment to apartment in New York City. Later, into her adult years, her work took her to places as near as Chicago, Ill., and as far away as Kenya. As Kelly’s life experiences have changed, one part of her life has remained constant. “I’ve moved about 20 times, but I have always been a person of faith,” Kelly said. “My faith has been a consistent and important part of my life.” She credits Holy Name, the Catholic elementary school she attended as a young girl in Manhattan, with helping to shape her faith. The Sisters of Charity who ran the school made a profound impact on her. “The sisters gave me a very wholesome introduction to the faith,” Kelly said. “They were wonderful, full-fledged women of God.”

Kelly’s faith has led her down a long path of activism and involvement. In March of 1965, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice asked her and four others to travel to Selma, Ala. “The Catholic community called on people of faith to converge on Selma in support of civil rights,” said Kelly, who was living in San Francisco at the time. She met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and had an opportunity to march from the outskirts of Selma into the city in support of civil rights. It was the turning point of her life in terms of the beginning of her commitment to civil rights, Kelly said. “I saw the outflow of being involved rather than not being involved,” she said. “So much good can come from stepping forward on an issue.”

Kelly has also traveled to Africa, Panama, Mexico and Colombia while working with Laubach Literacy. Traveling the world has given her an opportunity to experience religions in other cultures. “In many of these countries the people have nothing, but their faith is full,” Kelly said. “To them religion is an everyday thing. It is in the air around them.” In spite of her service, up until three years ago Kelly considered herself “a person in the pews.” Now, she is a member of several parish committees at Our Lady of Lourdes and an inspiration for other laity to get involved. She sits on parish council and works with representatives from three other parishes in Our Lady of Lourdes’ Pastoral Care Area. “I was content with going to Mass and the sacramental aspects, but I think the time comes for people to get involved,” she said. “It was the right time for me.” Father Thomas FitzPatrick, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, recently asked her to train as a facilitator for “Protecting God’s Children.”

“Knowing of her expertise in social work, I feel that she is capable of leading the program,” he said. “She is well qualified.” Father FitzPatrick believes the spirit of volunteerism is alive at Our Lady of Lourdes, noting that many parishioners work with Kelly on various parish activities. “Kathleen is part of a team here,” he said. “Everybody brings his or her own talents.” According to Kelly, her travels and life experiences have made her the woman she is today. “We are formed by our life experiences,” Kelly said. She has plans to write her memoirs in a book she aptly plans to title, On My Way to Heaven. “I think it’s a good title,” she said. “That’s exactly what I feel I am doing.”

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