It started with a walk up a mountain and for 20 years has continued to be an uphill challenge to those who serve the disadvantaged through St. Luke's Mission of Mercy.
"Wow," said Amy Betros, co-director of St. Luke's, thinking about the span. Does it seem like two decades have gone by? "In one way it does, but in another way it went like in a blink, like a snap of a finger. It's incredible to me. I can't believe we've been here 20 years."
In November 1990, Betros, then owner of the popular Amy's Place diner in Buffalo's University Heights, visited Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. While walking up Mount Podbrdo, also known as Apparition Hill, she heard a priest leading a group of pilgrims say, "God loves you so much, that if you were the only person to have ever lived, He still would have suffered and died just for you!" She hears the Lord repeating to her "just for you, just for you, just for you."
Two years later, she met Norm Paolini, a successful research scientist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, who began a music ministry on a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal, playing his guitar in the cathedrals he visited. They shared a great love for the poor, wounded and broken. Once back in Buffalo, they began to provide food, clothing, money, a shoulder to lean on, an attentive ear to listen, to all those who came to them.
"God arranged our being in the same pilgrimage," Paolini said.
Bishop Edward M. Grosz led Betros and Paolini to St. Luke's, a beautiful inner-city church closed in 1993 and up for sale. Located in the middle of drug dens, it seemed like the perfect place to serve the least of His people. Betros sold her restaurant. Paolini took an early retirement. The two, along with a very generous benefactor, raised enough money to purchase the entire St. Luke's complex, including the church, the convent, the rectory and the school. On Aug. 1, 1994, St. Luke's Mission of Mercy was born.
Today, Betros, Paolini and a group of lay missionaries and associate missionaries devote their time to carrying out the Corporal Works of Mercy. The hungry get fed through breakfast, lunch and dinner programs. The naked are clothed through a help-yourself mall on the second floor of the church. The homeless find shelter through 23 houses owned by St. Luke's, which include missionaries who look after the women and children trying to get their lives in order.
Good Shepherd Residence houses men who run a sandwich ministry out of that house. Lazarus House is for men from the street. They pick up and deliver furniture.
"God knows how many houses we've furnished in 20 years," Betros said.
Anyone driving by Oberlin Avenue will see the beginning stages of Gospa Village. When complete, 12 new houses for mothers and children, along with missionaries, will line the street.
"We've been collecting money for seven years, and now they're going to see the fruits," Betros said.
Lay volunteers run the mission. No one gets paid. Betros makes that clear. They all live by divine providence.
The teachers of St. Luke's Home School and East Side Prep, officially run by Our Lady of Hope Child Services, are the only people who receive a salary. East Side Prep is a tutoring and mentoring program for kids who go to public school but fall through the cracks. The only stipulations are that the students must live in Buffalo and must want to learn.
"The people on the East Side are not stupid," Betros said. "They're not slow. They're disadvantaged. We're family, and we do everything we can for our kids so that they can have the advantage that other kids have. Because of that, they're fending very high."
Two girls won four-year Urban Leadership Learning Community scholarships to Canisius College. Now a junior, Sydnie Perkins still hangs out at St. Luke's.
Diego Reynoso, an Argentine immigrant, could not go to college because of his non-citizen status, but the Mercy Sisters accepted him into Trocaire College, where he earned an associate degree.
St. Luke's has an estimated "thousands" of volunteers from corporations that leave hefty financial donations, to people of various faiths, to high school and college students. People who need work come to St. Luke's because they have work that needs to be done. Betros said, "God sends the word out."
Mount St. Mary Academy brought over 65 girls for a service day. Immaculata Academy holds retreats there. Canisius High School makes the Thanksgiving dinners possible. St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute comes by once a week for the sandwich ministry.
Someone from Canisius College is there every day. One group from Ohio comes in for a week every summer. There was even a baseball team from Philadelphia that came to work for a day, practiced at night, then played ball the next day.
"It's become the place for most of our Catholic parishes to use for community service, for confirmation, for their kids' program," Betros said. If it wasn't for our beautiful brothers and sisters in the parishes, I don't know what we'd do. Once they're introduced here, once they come, they make it their home."
While Betros handles the planning and organization, Paolini does the legwork, paying the bills, visiting the sick and taking care of the wee ones in the Kids of the Kingdom summer program.
"She (Betros) has the ability to plan ahead, to think ahead," he said. "I, on the other hand, am called out frequently. She'll prepare an inch-high stack of checks and deposits that need to be taken care of today. I get that done. And that could be anything from the 27 water bills to the gas that's going to be shut off in one of the homes of people who have four children and it's pretty cold out."
Twenty years have changed the neighborhood for the better.
"Miller Street was one of the biggest drug streets. Now we own it," Betros said. "Now it's a great little community street. They all have kids and everybody plays together and everybody knows each other."
Perkins was born eight days after the mission opened to a drug-addicted mother. Now she is a college student who continues to give back to the only home she has ever known.
"The neighborhood has changed completely," Perkins said. "I knew it was unsafe, just walking outside alone. I knew it was safe here. As I grow up I find the safe spot is starting to grow further, starting to spread down Miller Street where the kids can just play in the field. You can walk a little farther away from St. Luke's."