Staff and Sisters Share Holiday Spirit

Felician Sisters and staff members spend Christmas together, snowed in at Buffalo convent!

A native Buffalonian, and a Felician health services administrator, Beth Hasely has seen her share of snowstorms. “But this was unprecedented,” she says of the one-two punch that hammered her city in November and December. First, there was the historic snowfall that dumped 60 inches of snow on the city just before Thanksgiving. Then, there was the Christmas blizzard, which crippled transportation, shut down emergency services, and — in a city known for its toughness in the face of winter weather — took the lives of 41 people.

Predictable and unpredictable

The National Weather Service forecasting ahead of this storm was exceptionally accurate — but the storm was exceptionally brutal. On Tuesday, December 20, a Winter Storm Watch warned of the possibility of heavy lake effect snow and tropical storm force wind gusts, as well as a flash freeze ahead of the storm and brutal cold after it. In a wide swath of the northeast, people were told: “Be where you want to be for the holiday weekend by Friday, and then stay there through the weekend.”

Still, the employees who came to work at Immaculate Heart of Mary Convent on Thursday evening or Friday morning scarcely expected to spend several days with the sisters — and to miss Christmas with their families.

Like Hasely, Facilities Manager Dave Hokaj is a committed member of the Felician staff. When the snow started falling on Friday, December 23, Hokaj, who has worked at the complex for 32 years, packed a bag and headed to the convent. “I try to get ahead of a storm,” he explains. “Because if I get stuck at home, I’m no good.” He has a little room at the back of his shop, with a space heater and a cot, that he describes as “like a little cabin.”

Even though he lives only 11 miles away, typically a 20-minute commute from work, Hokaj didn’t get back home until Wednesday, December 28. The conditions were simply too dangerous for travel, so his family had Christmas without him. His wasn’t the only family separated for Christmas, though. A senior tech who works with Hokaj tried to leave work on Friday, but when he couldn’t see across the street, he knew he would not be able to go home. The Friday weather included heavy lake effect snow, as well as wind gusts up to 70 mph, leading to zero-visibility whiteouts and impossible driving conditions. Hokaj found his colleague some blankets, and they both waited it out, using the plows and working to clear the loading dock and the back entrance to the convent as much as they could during daylight hours. Snow drifted 5 feet up the front door of the convent, making that passage impossible until the arrival of heavier equipment.

Celebrating together

Many other Felician staff members ended up staying at the convent through Monday morning; the nurses were on duty around the clock, taking turns to give one another 4-hour rest breaks in recliners. Of course, the sisters pitched in to help. Sr. Therese Chmura, local minister, reports that the staff and sisters “worked together as one.”

Dietician Carolynn Truscott arrived to work on Friday morning and stayed until mid-afternoon on Tuesday. Truscott epitomized Blessed Mother Angela’s saying that “to love is to serve,” as she missed Christmas with her own family to care for the sisters and staff. As the only member of the dietary staff in the building through the storm, she managed to pull off a Polish Wigilia feast on Christmas Eve, as well as a turkey dinner on Christmas day — for more than 50 sisters and a dozen staff members.

Naturally, the sisters wouldn’t abandon Carolynn in the kitchen. Some helped with the cooking, while others handled the industrial dishwasher. Wigilia is the customary Polish Christmas Eve meal, a meatless feast that includes 9 dishes — mushroom soup, pierogi, baked fish, fruit compote, and more — representing the 9 choirs of angels. Among those stranded at the convent, Provincial Minister Sr. Judith Kubicki appreciated this year’s departure from tradition. “We were delighted to share with our employees this year,” she says, “especially since they made the sacrifice not to be with their families on Christmas.” There is a beautiful Polish tradition of leaving an empty seat with a set of dishes and cutlery for a traveler or a homeless person to celebrate with the hosts. A lone worker stranded next door at Angela House joined the sisters and staff as the “unexpected traveler” at the vigil meal and on Christmas Day.

“We were delighted to share with our employees this year, especially since they made the sacrifice not to be with their families on Christmas.”

Sr. Judith Kubicki, Provincial Minister

Since there was no priest, Christmas liturgies were replaced by televised Masses and Communion services in the chapel. At home with her husband and 10-year-old twin sons on Christmas morning, Hasely, who has worked at the convent for the last 16 years and is responsible for overseeing both the nursing and dietary staffs, worried about the workers at the convent and determined to bring them some relief. Many of the staff members at the Felician Convent in Buffalo rely on public transportation or ride sharing to get to or from work, but neither was operational. Though many roads were impassable, Hasely managed to pick up both a nurse and an aide, then made her way through perilous conditions to the convent. The commute took hours, but when she arrived, she was greeted like Santa Claus. Instead of a sackful of toys, she had brought a load of fresh scrubs and t-shirts, so that staff could change into clean clothes.

On Christmas Day, all took part in table games such as “guess what’s in the Christmas stocking” and Christmas card puzzles — a Laudato Si’ repurposing project. The cooperation and shared presence of staff and sisters made an unexpectedly memorable holiday for all. Sr. Judith described the appearance of the snow that made the convent’s interior strikingly beautiful. Her 5th floor window in the convent usually looks out over Villa Maria College, but for two days, there was “just white,” and the college seemed to disappear. When the blizzard subsided, Mother Nature had covered all of the windows in gorgeous frosty designs, an artistic creation from the storm.

All is well that ends well

At long last, when the most vicious weather passed, Hokaj and his crew could finally dig them all out, using a high lift. The employees went home to celebrate a belated Christmas with their families, and several of the sisters ventured out to visit their families, too. Hokaj was stoic about the experience. “It got a little tiring,” he said. “When day after day we would get another foot or two of snow. But these storms come every once in a while.”

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Serving where needed since 1874

Founded in Poland in 1855, the Felician Sisters are a congregation of women religious inspired by the spiritual ideals of their foundress, Blessed Mary Angela Truszkowska, and Saints Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi and Felix of Cantalice. Arriving in North America in 1874 following Blessed Mary Angela’s directive “to serve where needed,” they helped to weave the social service system. Today, the Felician Sisters founded, sponsor or support through the presence of our sisters, more than 40 ministries – all continuing to evolve to meet the needs of the people they serve.

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