The nun from South Bend, Ind., greeted the American visitors as they arrived at her newly built medical clinic outside of Nairobi, Kenya.
The building was empty except for one chair.
The nun had not been fully informed by Archbishop Rafael Ndingi’s office why volunteer Sarah Brewin and entrepreneur Jack W. O’Leary of Fairport were visiting St. Bakhita’s Dispensary. So as they walked around taking pictures and jotting down notes, she asked them point-blank why they were there.
Brewin said to the woman, "We are going to furnish and equip this whole clinic for you."
The astonished nun started to pray. Then she asked, "Do you really mean it?"
After decades of helping respond to other people’s prayers, O’Leary, a philanthropist, has a request of his own. He is raising money to finish building a new church for 2,000 people at St. John the Baptist Parish in Soy, Kenya, which is in the western part of the country near the Ugandan border.
The church is being built in honor of the late Katherine Keough, who was president of St. John Fisher College from 1996 until her death in 2004. Keough had been supportive of efforts to help the Kenyan people, said Mary Clare Lyons of Pittsford, a friend who is helping O’Leary on the fundraising project and has helped on many other projects in the past.
O’Leary, who attends several area Catholic parishes, including Church of the Transfiguration and St. Louis in Pittsford and St. Patrick in Victor, helped found International Imaging Materials (IIMAK), an Amherst, N.Y.-based thermal transfer ribbons manufacturer. He served as CEO of the company until it was sold in 1997.
Since retiring, O’Leary has spent millions of his own money equipping hospitals and shipping discarded school books and other supplies to Kenya, and building churches, residences and clinics, among other projects.
O’Leary said he first got started helping Kenya 30 years ago, when Basilian Father Charles Lavery asked for his help in setting up a fund to help pay for the tuition of the Kenyan priests who were studying at St. John Fisher College. Many of the Kenyan priests have served at parishes throughout the diocese as they have completed their studies.
In addition to working to improve the conditions in Kenya, Father Lavery envisioned exposing African priests to democracy in action to counter the spread of communism through Africa, O’Leary said.
"When I retired, I went to Kenya and started a 10-year series of projects," he said.
One of those many projects was to build a home for the disabled on the grounds of St. John the Baptist Parish in Soy. The priest of the parish, Father Protus Hamisi, a St. John Fisher College graduate, had been taking care of several disabled children abandoned at the parish. O’Leary mentioned to friend Jim Ryan Sr. that he wanted to build them a home, and Ryan asked that it be built in memory of his late daughter-in-law, Sarah Vanderveer Ryan. That home was completed in 2007.
When O’Leary and several friends traveled to Kenya to celebrate the orphanage’s opening, they determined that the parish needed a kitchen, a deeper well for more water and a laundry for washing clothes, in addition to the new church building they had been planning. It was fortunate that they made these improvements, O’Leary said, since the parish became home to 1,000 internally displaced Kenyans who lived on its grounds for months during and following election-related unrest in late December 2007 and January 2008.
"We had to use the money for the church to feed the people," O’Leary said.
"It (the parish) became a place of refuge," Lyons noted.
Now that the displaced people have been able to move on to more permanent homes, construction has resumed on the new church and it is nearly complete, although funds are still needed to finish it. O’Leary said he is aiming to finish the church in late 2010 or early 2011.
"I’d like to finish it as soon as I can," he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To help with the project, call 585-748-7872.