Aprons honor Elmira Notre Dame teacher, cook, baker - Catholic Courier
A close-up of two people wearing aprons. Elmira Community Kitchen volunteers from Notre Dame High School wear specially embroidered aprons honoring the late Sister of Mercy Arlene Semesky.(Courier photo by Mike Latona)

Aprons honor Elmira Notre Dame teacher, cook, baker

ELMIRA — Upon arriving at Elmira Community Kitchen, monthly volunteers from Notre Dame High School don aprons honoring a nun for whom cooking and hospitality — the staples of their own service — was a life’s passion.

Mercy Sister Arlene Semesky logged a nearly three-decade tenure at Notre Dame as a teacher and cafeteria manager. She also was a noted baker in the Notre Dame community and beyond.

“She showed her love and charity through cooking,” said Jessica Ryan, a theology instructor at the high school.

Patricia Mack, who serves as Notre Dame’s head of school, agreed: “She loved to cook and to feed people, and did that until the day she died.”

That day arrived tragically this past July 16, when Sister Semesky was killed in an automobile accident at age 79. Yet her legacy lives on through a special gesture by the ND Supper Club, a coalition of student and faculty who serve the underprivileged at the community kitchen.

They wear aprons that Sister Semesky — who was renowned for her sewing skills as well — created for the volunteers back in 2012, featuring the school’s blue and gold colors and the letters “ND.” Recently, each apron was embroidered with a Sisters of Mercy cross along with Sister Semesky’s name. The enhanced aprons made their debut during the supper club’s shift at Elmira Community Kitchen Nov. 28, thus extending Sister Semesky’s legacy to current and future generations.

Elmira Sister of Mercy was a noted teacher, cook and baker

Sister Semesky, a native of Elmira’s St. Casimir Parish, graduated from Notre Dame in 1961 and began a six-decade tenure as a Sister of Mercy in 1963. She worked in the motherhouse kitchen for several years before launching her long stay at Notre Dame in 1973. She taught home economics, cooking and sewing, and went on to serve as cafeteria manager from 1990-2001.

In later years, Sister Semesky cooked for several Elmira-area organizations and baked bread for Sisters of Mercy-related occasions. She moved to Webster in 2014 when the convent at Notre Dame, where she had resided, was closed.

Mack, a 1985 Notre Dame graduate, was a home-economics student of Sister Semesky’s. She noted that they became reconnected after Mack returned in 2021 to lead the school.

“She was so happy I was here,” Mack recalled. “She made me feel so good about the work I was doing.”

Sister Semesky enjoyed a career highlight in October 2022 when she received Notre Dame’s McAuley Award. The honor notes people who follow the ideals of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, who have been closely linked with Notre Dame throughout its 69-year history.

“She was just tickled pink. All her friends were (at the award ceremony) from Elmira and Rochester,” Mack said.

Chemung County Catholic high school endures a variety of tragedies

Nine months after that joyous occasion, Sister Semesky’s life ended suddenly in a two-vehicle crash near Erie, Pa. Sister Semesky, who was a passenger in an SUV with three other Sisters of Mercy, died at the scene. The driver, Sister Joanne Deck, died three days later.

Sister Semesky’s death occurred not long after both her siblings passed away: younger brother Ted in June 2022; and twin sister Marlene in March 2023. Both were Notre Dame graduates and active Catholics in the Chemung County area.

Adding to the list of recent Notre Dame-related losses was Mack’s brother, Paul, who died in April 2023. Also an ND graduate, Paul Mack was serving as the school’s food-services manager — the same role Sister Semesky once held — at the time of his passing.

Meanwhile, news of Sister Semesky’s death cut deeply for Ryan, who coordinates the ND Supper Club. Growing emotional, she noted that an accident claimed her 21-year-old daughter Rebecca’s life in January 2021.

Ryan said that following Sister Semesky’s passing, she resolved to find a way to honor the memory of the nun’s good works. Thanks to the embroidering skills of a Notre Dame parent, April Stitley, Sister Semesky is now memorialized on the volunteers’ aprons.

Service is a staple of Elmira school’s mission

ND Supper Club helps out at Elmira Community Kitchen every fourth Tuesday of the month, year-round. Students are responsible on those days for shopping for ingredients, preparing and serving the meals, and mingling with patrons.

The initiative began in 1997 at the former Holy Family Junior High School under Terry Rodzai McNamara. It was picked up at Notre Dame after Holy Family closed in 2012. Following an interruption by the COVID pandemic, the effort re-emerged in the 2022-23 school year. It is popular among students, Ryan said: “Once they go, they want to go every time.”

“I like it a lot. It’s not any one thing,” said Allyson Marion, a Notre Dame senior who volunteers regularly. “I really like working in the kitchen, making a big meal, then getting to talk to the people afterward. A lot of them have really interesting stories.”

Supper-club members, as well as the example of Sister Semesky, all reflect ideals set forth by Sister McAuley, observed Beth Agan, a Spanish teacher at Notre Dame.

“(Sister McAuley’s) whole thing was about hospitality and taking care of the poor. Our students learn about that,” said Agan, whose involvement in volunteering at the kitchen extends back to the Holy Family days. “This all stems down.”

Tags: Catholic Schools, Chemung County News, Religious Orders
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