Deacon Greg Zoltowski creartes ash painting of Christ for Ash Wednesday. (Franchesca Caputo photos)
Deacon Greg Zoltowski creartes ash painting of Christ for Ash Wednesday. (Franchesca Caputo photos)
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Cathy and Deacon Greg
Two stories from the past year that still inspire me
This was my first year at the Evangelist, but also my first year as a full-time writer. 
Fresh out of undergrad, I only had the experience of being a freelance writer for my university paper and travel magazine. The Evangelist itself was going through quite a transformation, with Editor Kate Blain leaving after 25 years in December of 2018. Mary DeTurris Poust would take over in the interim, while juggling her role as director of communications for the Diocese of Albany. She continues to be a guiding light that I never want to lose sight of.
This year, I learned more about teamwork and storytelling than all my college years combined. Mike Matvey, who would take over as editor after months of searching, improved my writing exponentially. His experience at the Daily News brought our front covers to life and modernized our content. My gratitude toward the people I had the opportunity to speak with — and who allowed me to listen and retell their stories — is immeasurable. Here are two of my favorite features of 2019.
A SPLASH WITH ASH
When Mike asked me to go to Deacon Gregory Zoltowski’s home and cover his artwork — a story he originally planned on writing — I was a little skeptical. I didn’t know anything about him, or how his art related to the Church. Early the next morning, I made my way to his home, located on a quaint curving road in Schenectady, where everything had been covered in a blanket of snow from the night before.
His wife, Marianne, answered the door bell, and I soon walked into what felt like an intimate art gallery. I was greeted by Deacon Greg, who shook my hand, and his Labrador retriever. A large, framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln hung on a wall above their couch. Artwork covered most of their walls, and much to my surprise, every piece was created by Zoltowski. Not only was the skill in each creation immaculate, but the style and composure differed greatly. I felt like I was in the presence of a celebrity.
I would spend the next hour or so speaking with Greg about how he got the idea to create the ash portraits of Christ for Ash Wednesday services. He explained his inspiration, his past and the methods to complete projects, but my favorite part came toward the end of our time together, when he and Marianne showed me their studio.
Both he and his wife shared the humble, but spacious restored attic, split perfectly in half. His art leaning on walls, a giant portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. created using black ink on tan paper was taped to the wall. Marianne’s side was more whimsical, with her sewing machine and various jars spanning across her work space. It was inspirational, and when they spoke about collaborating together on projects, it felt straight-up magical. I left their home thinking about what I just witnessed and dreaming of being in their shoes one day.
A LONG LIFE OF FAITH
When I first read about Cathy Aiken, her long list of accomplishments, daily hobbies and lifestyle amazed me.
For the past 25 years, she’s been an active member of her local book club and a bowling league. Every Saturday morning, Aiken prepares St. Mary the Assumption Church for Mass, which involves dusting, distributing bulletins, assigning Eucharistic ministers and readers, and making sure all the linens are cleaned, starched and ironed.
It was hard to comprehend how active this woman — approaching the age of 97 — has been the past few decades.
When I finally arrived in the middle of Huletts Landing, about two hours north of Albany, I stood in front of a large home, made of wood and glass, perched on top of a hill overlooking Lake George. Cathy’s good friend, Sue, greeted me before we rang the doorbell, as she would accompany us throughout the day, gently reminding Aiken of all the accomplishments she’s achieved during their 25-year friendship.
When I met Cathy, I suddenly forgot her age; physically and mentally it didn’t match up. She was slight and spry and seemed at least 15 years younger. Although she reluctantly gave up driving five years ago, Cathy often gets a call to tag along with someone in the community. Whether it’s a ride to the grocery store, a trip to Church, or to grab a bite to eat at the local diner, it became obvious the people of Huletts Landing treasured Cathy.   
 What I loved most about speaking with Cathy was her humble aura. She explained her simplistic day-to-day routine, getting up at 7 a.m. and enjoying her breakfast. Next, she’d pray her rosary, but she made it a point to mention her mother always told her she didn’t have to tell everyone how much she prays. She was articulate, honest and genuine. When I asked her about her secret to living such a long life, her thoughts immediately turned to the end of her life.
She didn’t want age to be something that stood in the way of her independence and happiness. By being incredibly active, she wasn’t trying to prove a point to anyone but herself. Determined to not let age interfere with her daily routine, Cathy — who survived colon cancer in her early 30s — pondered if the disease would come back, or if she would die in her sleep. I was surprised by her response and impressed by her veracity.
Throughout the day, she told me her life story, all the beautiful and tragic events she has experienced in her near century of life, and now she was telling me about a deep fear she confronts every night before falling asleep.
When our time together ended, Cathy walked me to my car and thanked me. It had been a long day, but I didn’t want to leave. There was something about her presence that felt otherworldly. As I headed back to Albany I felt re-centered by Cathy’s story; it not only inspired me, it grounded me.
Although both Cathy and Greg left an imprint on me in different ways, I felt equally inspired by them. Like almost every person I had the privilege of speaking with, by allowing me into their life, I gained insight into their world. Warmly, softly, and divinely, with every story I understand a bigger truth a little bit more.