Norman S. Paolini Jr. and Amy Betros lived in the same area of Buffalo, N.Y., but didn’t meet until 1991 on a pilgrimage to Fátima, Portugal, after she lost her luggage. When he offered to help her find what she needed, she said, “All I need is Jesus and Mary.”
“I thought, ‘This lady is different,’” he told Our Sunday Visitor.
They had a lot in common. He and his wife, Linda Marie, helped people through a charismatic prayer group, and she was feeding the homeless at her restaurant, Amy’s Place.
Soon after returning, they co-founded a ministry of hope with a vision to put the works of mercy into action by meeting people’s basic needs, preaching the Gospel by example and centering their lives on Jesus present and in the Eucharist.
Beating the odds
With $200,000 from an anonymous benefactor, they purchased St. Luke’s Parish from the Diocese of Buffalo. The church, school, convent and rectory on the impoverished east end of the city had been closed for years, and reopened in August 1994 as St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy.
Betros sold her restaurant and other properties to devote her life to the center, and Paolini took an early retirement from his work as a cancer research scientist. Neither receives a salary, nor do the staff missionaries who make yearly promises to live lives of poverty, chastity, obedience, charity and mercy.
“Our big challenge was being able to convey to people that this can really be done,” Betros said. “Many people were betting that we wouldn’t last six months, but look where we are.”
The kitchen serves free meals daily, and another ministry distributes clothing and furniture. There are 23 houses in the immediate neighborhood staffed with missionaries who live in and provide a guiding presence. Two houses have structured programs for men with addictions and male teens who are in need. High school age boys who can no longer live at home stay at the Don Bosco House, where they learn to be responsible, productive young men.
There are programs and housing for families, women, and single mothers and their children, as well as schooling for more than 20 young residents. Paolini’s wife is one of the teachers.
St. Luke’s also has a chapel, chaplain and a music ministry, Voices of Mercy, that tours, without charge, to share the faith and vision.
The center receives no government funding and operates entirely on donations. Being able to buy the property, Betros said, was “a miracle itself,” and there have been many more.
In one incident, the center was notified that the city fire marshal was going to shut down one of the buildings for noncompliance with regulations.
“But I got this real peace,” Betros said. “I knew it was OK. God was working. That night, there was a meeting with a lot of supporters, and there was a pledge of $50,000. It was unbelievable. In nine months the whole house was renovated and it became the Good Shepherd House for men in recovery. Maybe the biggest challenge is to stay out of God’s way so that he can do what he has to do.”
Through St. Luke’s programs, support and referrals, prostitutes have become responsible mothers, people have overcome their addictions, the homeless find jobs and stability, and the mentally ill have received the help that they need. People of little or no faith feel the presence of Christ and many are converted.
Paolini has learned to be patient when he prays for all of those transformations.
“It would be nice if people changed overnight after 29 years of crack cocaine and prostitution,” he said. “But that’s not typical. So, on a daily basis, we accept them as Jesus would. Eventually that acceptance turns into the belief that God is good, God is merciful and God is forgiving. God will never turn away a soul who turns to him, and you never know when a soul is going to be changed. You never know when that healing is going to come.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. For more information about the ministry, visit stlukesmissionofmercy.org.
Hope for a second chance (sidebar)
“ Some of the people have a sense that they have made so many mistakes that they spend their lives thinking that they are going to hell, and that’s how they live. If you teach God’s mercy, love and forgiveness, they learn that they have a chance.”
— St. Luke’s Mission co-founder Amy Betros