By Deacon Tom Picciano
ENDICOTT — “Got to see what my old house looks like,” Father Matthew “Matt” Wieczorek said with a smile as he entered Mercy House of the Southern Tier Feb. 28.
St. Casimir’s Church, closed in 2013, was reborn last weekend as Mercy House of the Southern Tier, a home for the terminally ill. Father Matt, the longtime and final pastor of St. Casimir’s Church, rode with his nephew from Syracuse to have a look at the transformation of the building.
Hundreds of people flocked to the outdoor ribbon cutting on a sunny and warm Sunday. As they streamed inside, the crowd looked at the 10 bedrooms where pews once were.
Offices and a nursing station make up what used to be the center aisle. There’s a dining room where the choir once sang. A sitting area complete with an enclosed, lighted floor-to-ceiling waterfall flows in front of where the altar stood.
“We’ve maintained the character of the church,” said Anthony Paniccia, president of Mercy House. “You’ll see the openness of the space. You’ll see the heavy timber laminated beams. You’ll see the reuse of light fixtures. You’ll see the reuse of stained glass.”
“We’ve tried to just do everything we can,” Paniccia said. “When somebody comes here in their last days, and the average stay about is 21 to 30 days, we just want them to experience the unconditional love of God.”
Construction took just over four months after the final go-ahead was given with fundraising goals. The first resident will move in next week.
“It’s just a great day. It’s been a long journey, a dream come true,” said Father Clarence Rumble, pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in Endwell and founder of Mercy House.
Father Rumble’s vision, paired with the work of hundreds of volunteers, made that dream a reality.
“Fifteen years ago my aunt was at Francis House in Syracuse. And it was such a wonderful experience for her and our family,” he said. “I just wanted to share it with people in this community because there was nothing like it in Broome County.”
Volunteers will provide the majority of staffing for the house. On Sunday afternoon, Patti Rollo from Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Vestal was handing out applications for volunteers at the dining room table.
“We have a very limited paid staff. So everything will be done by volunteers. It’s a home, so everything that you do in your home needs to be done here,” Rollo said. “So we need dusting, we need someone to answer the phone, we need people to do office work, meal planning, shopping, gardening, household tasks.”
Marcia Cartie, a parishioner at the Church of the Holy Family, will help in the kitchen. Cartie isn’t sure what tasks she’ll have, but she’s well versed in cooking and caring for someone with a terminal illness.
Cartie is inspired by her husband Gene, who died in 2012. He had OPCA, an incurable degenerative brain disease which required around-the-clock care at home.
“The last year and a half he couldn’t move. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t even scratch an itch,” she said. “We take so much for granted. He never complained. He never got frustrated. He never got angry, no matter, all the way through.”
“I’m not ready to deal with patients one-on-one. It’s too hard… it’s too close. Maybe I will someday,” Cartie said. “But right now I want to help and I want to give back because they did so much for him and me. We had Lourdes at home for three years and hospice for a year.”
All residents who come into Mercy House will need a referral from Lourdes Hospice. The Lourdes Foundation is a big partner in the home, already giving more than $250,000 for the project.
In the former priest’s residence, there’s a chapel. Sister Joanna Monticello, MSC, paused there for a few minutes after welcoming visitors. Earlier she’d looked at the calendar for the week and noticed something about March 4.
“I thought, ‘Isn’t that interesting…we open Mercy House the week of the Feast of St. Casimir.’ To me, it’s just like everything coming full circle,” she said. “I just see the connection with graces from the church of St. Casimir now being Mercy House in the Year of Mercy. I see God’s hand in everything and that we’ve opened up as quick as we can.”
The work of getting hundreds of volunteers in place to assist the small paid staff at Mercy House is on-going. Fundraising will continue too to meet the estimated $600,000 operating budget each year.
“There’s so much community support,” said Mercy House Director of Operations David DeAngelo. “We’re non-profit. We don’t get state or federal aid.”
“We trust in the mission,” he added. “We trust in God and we know that he’ll provide as long as we work hard to make it happen.”
For more information on volunteering, donating or seeking a referral to be a resident at Mercy House of the Southern Tier, call (607) 321-1857, email info@MercyHouseSouthernTier.com or visit www.MercyHouseSouthernTier.com.
Deacon Tom Picciano is a longtime contributing writer to the Sun. A professional journalist by trade, he currently serves at St. Vincent de Paul Blessed Sacrament Church in Vestal.
Catholic Sun photos | Chuck Haupt