SOPHIA MIKOWAS ENJOYS St. Vincent's with the help of a sign language interpreter.
SOPHIA MIKOWAS ENJOYS St. Vincent's with the help of a sign language interpreter.
"She has a need and we have a need to be needed," said Ruth and Donald Smith of Sophia Mikowas, a parishioner with disabilities they have driven to Mass for the past 30 years. "There's no reason not to help her."

When such longtime members of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Albany become disabled and have trouble getting to Mass, a network of volunteers like Mrs. Smith and her husband meet their spiritual needs and preserve their connection to the parish.

Volunteers visit nursing homes, hospitals, group homes and private residences; give rides to church, medical appointments and shopping; make communion calls and lead bereavement groups and a greeting card ministry. About 55 parishioners are part of the pastoral outreach team led by Sister Eleanor Guerin, RSM.

"Sometimes, people are very lonely if they are homebound or in a nursing home," Sister Eleanor said. "People value connections. [The long-time parishioners are] the pillars. The elderly folks here have established a wonderful community. It's really important to keep those bonds intact."

A widower and a quadriplegic get frequent visits. A family picks up an individual from a group home for Mass. A volunteer assists a disabled parishioner with grocery shopping.

"It all depends on what people need," Sister Eleanor said. "People here are wonderful; they see needs and they just try to help out."

The parish knows of about 15 people who are homebound and 20 who are in nursing homes, plus residents of two group homes.

Eighty-five-year-old Ms. Mikowas has received assistance for decades. A former pastoral care coordinator approached the Smiths 30 years ago about taking Ms. Mikowas, who is legally blind, deaf and speech-impaired, to Mass on Sunday mornings.

The Smiths, who both recently retired from positions at St. Catherine's Center for Children in Albany, still chauffeur the senior and accompany her to Mass at St. Vincent's, where a sign language interpreter is waiting.

"She's pretty spirited," Mrs. Smith said. "She's an enthusiastic person [and] she always dresses to the nines" in suits with matching hats.

In touch
When the Smiths arrive at Ms. Mikowas' residence, they get up close and touch her to signal their identity. They don't know sign language, so the only communication they share is touch, facial expression and some gestures.

The interpreter at Mass helps them relay hard-to-mime concepts. Ms. Mikowas waits with a note if she can't come, but almost never misses a Mass.

"We know how important church is to her and it's an easy thing for us to do," Mrs. Smith continued. "You can tell it's a priority for her to get there, even though you don't really know how much she gets from it. It's a blessing."

Three other volunteers take turns driving Ms. Mikowas every month. Marilyn Bellafiore, the new resource librarian and marriage preparation registrar for the Albany Diocese, has handled the volunteer schedule at St. Vincent's for more than 20 years. The helpers, she said, have learned to tap Ms. Mikowas' elbow when it's time to sit, stand and kneel.

Mrs. Bellafiore and Ms. Mikowas write notes back and forth; they greet each other with an embrace and walk arm-in-arm from residence to car to sanctuary to communion line. The volunteer has taken the senior citizen shopping and thrown her a birthday party.

"I feel like she's a friend," Mrs. Bellafiore said.

Healing hearts
Mrs. Smith has also maintained a connection with another parishioner with disabilities for 15 years. The woman is a 63-year-old named Donna (last name withheld), who was born blind and has paranoid schizophrenia. She's on disability and can no longer attend Mass.

Mrs. Smith started out doing Donna's laundry, but also takes her shopping, to breakfast once a month and for birthday dinners.

"We have a good relationship," Mrs. Smith said. Aside from visits from Mrs. Smith and from another parish visitor and a eucharistic minister, Donna doesn't have much company. Her siblings live out of state.

"I just think she feels very vulnerable in the world," Mrs. Smith said. "She's grateful to me. My heart aches for her. The least I can do is spend a morning with her at breakfast."

Mrs. Smith said she and her husband haven't thought twice about the work they do with disabled parishioners.

"We have good health," she said. "To me, it would be a crime not to help people who need help. It's one of the great things about being a person of faith."

Sister Eleanor agreed, calling the work "taking Jesus seriously" about His command to serve "the least of these brothers and sisters."

"We have to go out and do it because otherwise we're going to get stagnant," she said. "We each have a place around the table. Before Vatican II, a priest was able to go on communion calls maybe once a month. We have all these ministries that really multiply that service out."

The volunteers get more than they give, Sister Eleanor noted: "Their faith and their 'bounce-back-ness' - they're just a wonderful example. It helps us and it nourishes us, too. It's not a one-way street."