The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Last Wednesday morning, barely 24 hours before the Response to Love Center was set to host its Thanksgiving dinner for 300 people, the boiler in the center’s basement died.
The loss of the boiler robbed the Kosciuszko Street facility of heat and poked a potential $50,000 to $75,000 hole in its budget, just before the holiday season.
But it stole none of the warmth from the Sycamore-Fillmore-area community center that Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz runs. In fact, the boiler breakdown helped reinforce her ever-present faith.
Since the boiler failure, the Response to Love Center, which provides meals and key services to area residents, has hosted a highly successful Thanksgiving meal and received $32,472 in donations – until the phone rang in Sister Mary Johnice’s office late Tuesday morning.
“I think I’m going to have a heart attack,” Sister Mary Johnice said after listening.
She later recounted what the person on the other end of the line, a friend and local educator, had told her:
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but I opened up an envelope [from a couple], and they’re giving the boiler $25,000.”
That brings the total donations to more than $57,000.
Sister Mary Johnice now thinks the boiler’s demise was perfect timing. It happened before the really cold weather, when pipes would freeze and the building would be really cold. And it happened on the eve of the holiday season, when people are in a giving mood.
“It’s an experience where you shake your head and say, ‘Wow,’ ” she said. “That’s the only thing I can say: ‘Wow.’ It’s a sense of wonder: How could this response happen? I feel it was God’s way to bring this community together.”
Sister Mary Johnice marveled at the way her neighborhood community – a multi-denominational population with a high percentage of Muslims – has rallied around the center.
“The money that comes in is good, but to see the people who come in and are excited, to see people wanting to help, to see people wanting to give, even if they don’t have a lot – seeing all those things warms my heart,” she said. “It’s like a miracle.”
Here are some of the donations that have touched Sister Mary Johnice and her top assistants, part of what she calls her “God Squad,” including business manager Robert K. Sprague and webmaster/security chief Michael Gilhooly.
• One man came in, saying he had grown up in the same neighborhood as Sister Mary Johnice – on Lord Street, no less. He gave $50.
“We knew what it was to be poor,” he told her. “I wish it could be more.”
• A not-so-well-dressed man came in with $100 in cash, wishing to remain anonymous.
• Another man came in, asking whether Sister Mary Johnice recognized him. He said she had been his “pseudo mom” when he lived in the neighborhood, and he remembered when she took him to get some coats and other clothing. He gave $25.
• And a woman, who’s apparently on Social Security Disability, came in with a note apologizing that she couldn’t give more than the $5 she was donating.
Much larger gifts have come from the Food Bank of Western New York, Our Lady of Hope Province of the Felician Sisters and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Church. And several contractors have come in to offer free labor or services, including HDE Electric, MJ Mechanical Services and Lehigh Pro.
Sister Mary Johnice, who wore long sleeves and two brown sweaters inside the center at 130 Kosciuszko St. on Tuesday, is overwhelmed, but not completely shocked, by the outpouring of support.
“Sister is on a different plane of faith,” said Gilhooly, the center’s webmaster. “I know things are going to get accomplished, but Sister knows it.”
Curiously, the boiler died less than three weeks after the Response to Love Center bought its building from St. Adalbert’s Church for $125,000. Sister Mary Johnice signed that agreement Nov. 2.
“When I signed the papers, I became a real estate owner,” she said. “I said that’s not my mission. My mission is to the people, not to be a real estate owner. So I handed it over to God and said, ‘You will be the landlord.’ ”
Nineteen days later, the boiler went.
“I didn’t feel discouraged,” she said. “I didn’t feel upset. I just said, God has a sense of humor.
“He’s my landlord,” she added. “At least I know He’s not an absentee landlord.”