Our Memories Fill Us:

Retirement from a Life Helping Kids

by Father Placid Stroik, OFM

Did I Make a Difference?
On Highway 80—a straight line from New York to Chicago—the car kept pace with my racing mind and heart. Saturday, July 28, 2012, would be a day different from all other days. Sooner or later, the “empty nest” experience would happen, but not on this day. This was separation day. I was leaving my work with the kids at Covenant House New York, and I was in complete denial.

For the time being, it was the endless flow of the words and rhythm of “Did I Make a Difference in Someone’s Life?” by The Oak Ridge Boys that kept emptiness in check. The theme easily gave way to a review of faithfulness (“You give me cause for love that I can’t hide”) in “I Walk the Line”, by Johnny Cash. Then, as if Someone had orchestrated it, overwhelming gratitude took over as “I Can Only Imagine,” by Mercy Me, captured the moment. Thoughts of events and experiences at Covenant House gave substance to the gratitude that I knew would accompany me in the days ahead, even up to the day of meeting the Lord Jesus at the end of my life.

The car ride was assessment time—almost 16 hours of it. The math can be done, but it is not necessary: 300 youth, 365 days a year, 25 years at Covenant House New York and its affiliated sites in North and Central America. That’s a long time and a lot of kids. Did I make a difference?

Did I make a difference when I raced around the block near St. Vincent’s Hospital on 7th Avenue and 12th Street looking for double-striped chocolate cookies for Ronnie? I knew he would smile at the simplest gesture of kindness, and those cookies were his favorite. Ronnie was one of many youth who bravely battled the ravages of HIV-AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Damaris, I knew, made a difference in my life. The days of Christmas in New York were always full of joy, no matter what tragic world event was on the front page of The New York Times. Two days after Christmas in the early 1990s, I carefully made my way up to the floor at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where people with HIV-AIDS were given care and compassion. (Medications to treat HIV were not yet on the horizon.) While I kept searching the pastoral manuals for the care of the sick, which I stored in my head, for something comforting to say, I finally blurted out: “Damaris, this has got to be a very . . .” Damaris wouldn’t let me finish. “Father,” she said, “Don’t worry about me. I will be okay. I saw this movie recently where people enter into the Third Dimension when they die, and all is transformed.” We chatted a bit more. A formal prayer rolled off my tongue, but I knew it was not necessary. She was a living prayer of confidence and courage; there was nothing more to add.

It has now been almost two years since I said farewell to the youth, staff, volunteers, and administrators at Covenant House. That moment was overflowing and provided wonderful memories. A ministry of listening and compassion with homeless and runaway young people began without fanfare on the day after Labor Day in 1987. At first, it was going to be a three-year commitment. The dynamic of Teilhard de Chardin’s “attraction-connection-complexity-consciousness” life pattern shaped the days with endless opportunities for a ministry of presence and prayer. There was no end to the coming and going of youth 18 to 21 years of age. Sister Mary Rose McGeady, President of Covenant House, was my supervisor. She simplified my job description one day, saying, “Father Placid, just tell the kids God loves them.” That was the only criterion on my evaluation form.

Where are the thousands of young people who moved in and out of the chapel on 41st Street? I still wonder to this day. They came for prayer, for rosary beads, and for blessings on their job interviews. And, without shame, they came for cookies. They were always hungry.

They stopped me in the corridors with 15 pages of newly minted “rap” dissertations on the meaning of life and survival. In discussions, they wondered whether God cares. They expressed hope they could still qualify for heaven. Their failings and/or the failings of others weighed them down with deep discouragement. Nevertheless, like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (who hoped he could use good deeds to compensate for his moral failings), they were at their own fence, in their own Siberia, beginning to have those genuine feelings of love for one another that signals that resurrection is near. They were getting in touch with their true selves.

These were the same youth whom I accompanied to the “Welcome Table” at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan on Sundays. With 100 like-minded, generous volunteers, they washed the dishes of 700 homeless, hungry people for two hours. Tired after such service, they got home (to Covenant House) to ready themselves to take their shift of work, often at McDonald’s or another fast-food restaurant. The volunteer service united them more deeply into the fold of humanity; the paycheck from work would eventually give them a key to a place of their own.

Letting Go, Letting Be, Letting Grow
Letting go . . . letting be . . . letting grow. It has been a three-year empty-nesting journey, in a pattern described by Father Francis Dorff, a Norbertine, in his book The Art of Passing Over: An Invitation to Living Creatively. For me, the process actually began in the summer of 2011, when the administrators within the Franciscan Order mutually agreed that a new chaplaincy assignment in Wisconsin would be appropriate for me. After many years of ministry at Covenant House, I would be attending to the spiritual needs of the Sisters in Manitowoc, WI. Their community partners with ours at a school in Greenwood, MS. This move would also put me closer to my own brothers, sisters, and other family members, who live in that area. So, August 2011 to July 2012 was the time frame for my gradual “letting go”—while still on the job at Covenant House.

And then—from August 2012 to July 2013—came the “letting be” phase. Details of the new chaplaincy assignment with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, WI, revealed that my actual responsibilities were less demanding than the ones at Covenant House had been. The expectations of learning the entrances and exits of a new building had a level of good stress as a component of moving along in a new location. So, “letting be” seemed very appropriate once I got a taste of it.

At the beginning, however, denial was real: A good thing for me had run its course. As such, a quiet anger would sometimes come out of nowhere: Such an engaging ministry in a city full of energy had ended! Bargaining was subtle, but it was there: I negotiated my return to NYC for Sister Mary Rose McGeady’s funeral celebration. And I let no one know how deeply honored I was to return to preside at a Memorial Mass Celebration of her life on December 8, 2012. Little did I know, but disappointment and discouragementdepression—did at times take hold of me.

Nevertheless, the phrase “it is what it is,” which was circulating among some family members who were also experiencing a transition, moved me toward a new perspective. Johnny Cash came to the rescue and sealed the deal, however, in his song, “A Boy Named Sue” (“I got all choked up and I threw down my gun/And I called him my pa, and he called me his son/And I came away with a different point of view.”) The courage to work with life as it happens brought me to a different point of view (acceptance). This process of the five stages of grief, developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in the end, was invaluable.

Memories are faster than light. So, for me, the nest has never really been completely empty. If it was getting a bit empty, events in July 2013 filled it to overflowing; a huge congratulations card arrived in the mail that month. Someone at Covenant House New York remembered it was my Golden Jubilee, marking 50 years of Priesthood. The folks there organized a “cookie party” to honor and show gratitude for my years of service at Covenant House. The personal words of affection and esteem they sent reflected the smiling faces of youth and staff enjoying cookies, captured in photos, also in that package. Empty no longer, I experienced, finally, simple gratitude for the moments—sometimes around the clock—of accompanying young people on their journey to a new life graced by freedom and joy.

So, as August 2013 appeared on the calendar, it was becoming clear that a “letting-grow” aspect was beginning to take shape in my thoughts and dreams. Eventually, a freedom to respond to a new summons in life came to the fore. The years of service to my “Kids” at Covenant House found a niche in my mind and heart. “Glad I was there” is a mantra that will never fade. Today, a new kind of fullness greets me each morning. I look forward, with my memories that fill me, to whatever life has in store.

Father Placid Stroik, OFM, is a member of the Assumption BVM Province of Franciscans with headquarters in Franklin, WI. His mailing address is:

Holy Family Rectory
2411 S. Alverno Road
Manitowoc, WI 54220

(Photos of Father Placid are courtesy of Covenant House New York)

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