During his homily Sept. 28, Father Joseph Marcoux made clear that congregants should never ignore others in obvious need as did the wealthy man with Lazarus in that day’s Gospel reading (Luke 16:19-31).
"Lazarus was right there at the rich person’s doorstep offering an opportunity to make a difference in another human being’s life and the rich person ignored the invitation," the pastor told his flock at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Ithaca during the 5 p.m. Mass. "What this Gospel tells me is that every time we have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, we should."
Little did anyone know they were mere minutes from putting those words into action — in a most memorable and heartwarming way.
Prayers of the faithful, which followed the homily, went a tad longer than anticipated. St. Catherine worshipers don’t typically voice their own prayers of the faithful, but after the final preplanned prayer "a tiny little voice said out loud, ‘Please pray for my family — we have been living in a tent for 10 days,’" Father Marcoux recalled.
"Our lector was amazing and without missing a beat said, ‘Let us pray to the Lord,’" he added. "I was a bit stunned."
Proceeding toward the baptismal font to perform a scheduled baptism, Father Marcoux approached the woman who had uttered the spontaneous prayer and asked to see her after Mass. When the liturgy ended, he found a flock of concerned parishioners already hovering around the woman and her family.
"They were giving them money, and people were giving me money and checks at the door saying, ‘Father, take care of that family,’" he said.
Thus, these strangers in the parish’s midst became known as St. Catherine’s "Lazarus Family."
Father Marcoux learned that the woman, her husband and three teenage girls had been en route home to Kansas from Connecticut, where they’d helped get the husband’s mother relocated. Their van literally blew a gasket and although it still ran, frequent oil refills were required and it was clearly in no condition to make the rest of the trip. The sudden repair bill of nearly $1,000 was far too much for the notably indigent family, leaving them not knowing how they were going to get back to Kansas.
Father Marcoux described the family as "really off-the-radar kind of people," noting that the girls were homeschooled and because nobody had Social Security numbers, they weren’t able to get government assistance.
"I asked them how they found St. Catherine’s because we’re off the beaten path, and they said it was the only church they called that gave directions over the phone," said Father Marcoux, explaining that the family isn’t Catholic but in its desperation was anxious to find any church it could.
The parish made arrangements to house the family that night at a motel and for the next week at a bed and breakfast while seeing to it that the van got fixed. During that time St. Catherine members provided them with food and took the girls shopping for personal-care items, clothing and books.
"They wanted some simple things, like a book to read. They considered it a luxury," Father Marcoux said.
Ashley Blank, St. Catherine’s faith-formation coordinator, reported in her Oct. 20 bulletin column that the parish ended up donating more than $2,000 in addition to many in-kind services. She described meeting the mother and three girls at the parish office, learning that the girls’ names were Miriam, Abigail and Sarah, and noting that each child possessed "a smile on their face that would light up a room." Discovering they were from Kansas, Blank — a native Kansan herself — struck up a conversation with them about their home state.
"Even though I had just met them, it felt that I had known them for quite some time," Blank wrote, adding that "they couldn’t stop talking about the generosity of parishioners" and noted that the girls presented thank-you letters that were posted near the church’s front entrance.
Blank observed that the experience was powerful because usually when people donate to a cause, they don’t often get to see the direct effect of their efforts.
"We changed their lives because of our generosity and they will always be grateful for what they were given," Blank remarked, adding that "we should all feel lucky that we contributed to the future success of all of them."
Father Marcoux said the family did get back to Kansas safely — thanks to his parish halfway across the country where folks didn’t think twice about helping. Had they even hesitated, the family may well have disappeared after Mass and the opportunity would have been forever lost.
"There was an immediacy — the Gospel right at your doorstep," Father Marcoux said. "Very rarely does it happen that quickly, that you explain the Gospel and then it’s right there in your face."
He described the Kansas family as "very, very, very sweet and an amazing gift to us," lauding the mother’s courage to speak up at Mass: "They took a chance — talk about faith, huh?" And he continues to be deeply moved by his parish’s response.
"I have to say they landed in the right community," the pastor said, calling St. Catherine "a tremendously generous community. When the challenge was put to them, they were able to respond and it was awesome, it was absolutely awesome to witness."