April 3, 2009

Defining choices mark lives of Spirit of Service winners

By John Shaughnessy

Maxine Ferguson faced a simple choice, the kind of choice that can be revealing about the heart of a person.

Similar choices also faced Lynne O’Day, Patty Schmalz, Jenna Knapp and members of the Sullivan family.

The way they all responded to their respective choices goes a long way in explaining why they will be honored by the archdiocese on April 22 during a dinner that will benefit Catholic Charities Indianapolis.

Here are the stories of this year’s winners of the Spirit of Service Award:

Maxine Ferguson

A member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis, Maxine Ferguson made her defining choice in the middle of her weekly visits to bring Communion to the parish’s sick and homebound members.

At that moment, the woman she was visiting reached for a large photo album, wanting to share with Ferguson the pictures and the story of her life.

Ferguson recognized the photo album immediately because the woman had shared her life story with her during a previous visit. As the woman flipped to the first page, Ferguson smiled and ooh-ed and aah-ed at the woman’s tales just as if she was hearing them for the first time.

“They have things they want to talk about,” Ferguson says with a smile. “You have to leave enough time to listen to them, pray with them and pray for them. I’m thankful to be part of the physical and spiritual lives of others, which helps to strengthen mine.”

She had the same attitude when she visited inmates in prison for several Christmases, singing carols and sharing dinner with them.

She has the same approach when she greets people at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, and when she serves lunch to the children from needy families who come to St. Thomas Aquinas for a summer day camp.

“It’s just a privilege to help others,” says Ferguson, a retired teacher who taught at Holy Angels School in Indianapolis and served as principal at St. Rita School in Indianapolis. “When I go to the homes, the hospitals and nursing homes to visit people, they’re happy to see me and I’m happy to see them.”

Lynne O’Day

The two gifts changed everything for Lynne O’Day.

After several years of marriage, she and her husband, Daniel, adopted their son, Patrick, and later their daughter, Kathleen.

“That started us down a path that really changed our lives from being focused on ourselves,” O’Day recalls. “When someone gives you the gift of their child, it’s overwhelming. It gave us the opportunity to be parents—an awesome experience.”

Since those days in the early 1970s, O’Day has been the one sharing her gifts to make the world a better place. She’s been extensively involved with Catholic Charities agencies throughout the archdiocese. And, fittingly, she developed a deep commitment to serving as a volunteer for St. Elizabeth/Coleman Pregnancy and Adoption Services in Indianapolis, an archdiocesan Catholic Charities ministry from which she and her husband adopted their two children.

“What a tremendous organization that is in people’s lives,” says O’Day, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Fishers, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. “I was on the board for 10 years and president the last year.”

After retiring in 2005 as senior vice president of operations at St. Vincent Health, she deepened her commitment to her volunteer efforts, seeing it as a way to fill the void she felt in her life since the death of her husband.

“I had a lot of time to think about how I wanted to spend my life,” says O’Day, who also volunteers for the Genessaret Free Clinic, which provides medical care to the poor and the homeless in Marion County. “I looked at the void I felt and thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’

“I’ve had a good life. I’ve been blessed. This is a wonderful way to share my blessings with others.”

Patty Schmalz

Patty Schmalz likes to view God as a chess master for the way he creates people with different abilities and guides them.

“When you use your gifts the way he intends you to use them, you’re fulfilled,” Schmalz says. “I felt I found it years ago. This is what fits. This is what’s right.”

Schmalz is talking about her extensive involvement of more than 35 years at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, the setting where she has been a lector, a room mother for the parish’s school, a food pantry volunteer, a co-chair of the parish festival, a marriage preparation team member, president of the ladies’ club and the first woman elected chairperson of the parish pastoral council.

And that’s just a small list of her volunteer efforts. Still, she wonders why she deserves the Spirit of Service Award.

“There are so many people in my parish who are deeply involved,” she says. “They really take a sense of ownership of parish life. It feels odd being singled out, but it’s nice.”

So is the way the conversation with her surprisingly turns to homemade pies and how she talks about the importance of the crust. It’s a foundation that takes time and the right touch, Schmalz explains. She could just as easily be describing her volunteer efforts. She learned both—the pie-making and the volunteering—from her mother, Rita Able.

“You learn how to be a person from your parents,” says Schmalz, a seamstress like her mother, who sewed wedding gowns. “When I was growing up, my mother was not a preacher, she was a doer. My mother lived stewardship before we ever used the word. She inspired everyone in the family, and there were seven of us. She always showed us that anywhere we could share our gifts with others, we should do it.”

Jenna Knapp

At 16, Jenna Knapp traveled to a poor, rural village in El Salvador—a trip that changed her life and moved her to try to change the lives of others.

“Being with the people in the rural village where I stayed, I experienced their sense of hospitality and openness, and I also witnessed their immense suffering,” says Knapp, a graduate of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis.

For nearly all of 2008, the now-21-year-old University of Notre Dame student lived and volunteered in El Salvador and Uganda in two settings marked by extreme poverty and desperation.

She began her six months in Uganda by volunteering for an organization that builds elementary schools in Africa. Later, she taught literacy and provided basic health care in a city slum during the day, and served as a “mother” in a group home for 11 street children at night.

In El Salvador, she studied theology at a university and taught English to children in an urban slum.

“It was a different kind of education,” says Knapp, a graduate of St. Pius X School in Indianapolis.

“It made me realize how I want to continue living the rest of my life. I feel I’m more alive when I’m living in service and not removed from it. With what I’ve been given in life, I feel I owe so much back. I want to listen and love in a way that I hope I can sustain all through my life.”

She also volunteers to help the Latino community near Notre Dame. And when she returns to Indianapolis, she volunteers at Miracle Place, an inner-city, multi-service center run by the Sisters of Providence in Indianapolis.

“It’s important to go out and encounter the poor, whether they’re in your own city or another country, and just listen to them.”

The Sullivans and Sullivan Hardware

When Pat Sullivan starts sharing the history of his family’s business, it’s easy to understand why Sullivan Hardware and Garden has been chosen to receive the Corporate Leadership Award.

“Sullivan Hardware was founded in 1954 by my father, Robert Sullivan,” Pat Sullivan notes. “After serving in World War II and the Korean War, my father started a contracting business before he established the hardware store. Actually, it was my mom who ran the hardware store while my dad continued his contracting business. My dad grew up in Holy Cross Parish [in Indianapolis], and was very active in donating his time and materials.”

Those contributions to the Church continued when the store was moved in 1963 from the eastside of Indianapolis to a location at 71st Street and Keystone Avenue.

“We became members of St. Pius X Parish, but Dad tried to support all the parishes in the area,” explains Sullivan, now the owner of the company. “Whether it was installing cut-up wooden telephone poles to stop teenagers from driving across church property or donating items for raffles, auctions or door prizes, my dad instilled in all of us his support for our community and the Church.

“He even had a rule for ‘found’ money in the store. If it was on the floor behind the counter, it went in the register. If it was found on the other side of the counter, it went to the Church.”

As more locations of Sullivan Hardware and Garden have been added, the family tradition of sharing its blessings with the Church has continued. Besides supporting different parishes and parish schools, the Sullivan family also contributes to Seeds of Hope, the Little Sisters of the Poor and Right to Life of Indianapolis.

“My dad always led by example,” he says. “Whatever the Church needed, he did it. We learned from him. It’s always been a part of our lives. It’s what we do.” †

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