From early on in her life, Sister Mary Anne Weldon, RSM, has wanted to help people. Even before she joined the Regional Sisters of Mercy, she studied to be a nurse. Now officially retired, with two careers behind her, she still does what she can for those who need a little assistance.
She was studying at the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing when a Jesuit priest suggested she might have vocation to religious life. She looked at different orders, and found herself drawn to the work of Catherine McAuley, who founded the Sisters of Mercy as Catholic social workers in 1831. Along with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Sisters of Mercy take a fourth vow -Service to the poor, sick and ignorant.
"I was attracted by their example and their concern for the poor," Sister Mary Ann said. "I was so attracted by our fourth vow."
After meeting with the Mercy superior, the 18-year-old decided to leave nursing for a ministry that dealt with healing souls and minds, as well as bodies. The first portion of her ministry was spent in education, teaching at St. Teresa's, St. Monica's, St. Stephen's, Madonna High School, Mount Mercy Academy, and Trocaire College.
A practical idea led to her serving the needy. While living in St. Stephen's Convent, then on Elk Street in Buffalo, two other sisters wanted to open a reading program on Saturdays for inner-city children. Figuring kids wouldn't come just to learn to read, Sister Mary Anne began to plan field trips. She called Msgr. John Conniff, who had just been named director of Catholic Charities for the diocese, asking for $50 for the program. After speaking to him in person, Msgr. Conniff gave Sister Mary Anne $150, and asked her to give a report on her work. He then told her if she was ever looking for another type of work to call him. When she learned her work as principal of St. Monica School involved dealing with health inspectors and being in charge of maintenance, she decided to change her career path.
"All of a sudden it came to me, I don't want to be in charge of maintenance," she said looking back. "I love the children and I'm fine teaching, but I'm not going to be in charge of maintenance." So, she called Msgr. Conniff, who set her on the task of establishing parish outreach programs.
Msgr. Conniff paid for her to go to the University at Buffalo to study social work. The catch was she had to sign a contract promising to stay with Catholic Charities for three years after she got her degree. She stayed 33 years.
"I never woke up one day in the 33 years I was there, not wanting to go to work. I couldn't wait to get to Catholic Charities and whatever parish or assignment I was doing," she said.
Along with establishing the pantries, she staffed them by leading eight-day training sessions. She estimates training a couple hundred volunteers throughout the diocese.
The experience surprised her when she found so many pantries designed to help the needy in upper-class suburban neighborhoods.
"You didn't realize that many times unemployment and different things would hit families that were well-off for a period of time. The breadwinner would lose his job. The economy changed. Sometimes it was the hidden poor, as I call them; people threatened with not being able to pay their mortgage or not being able to pay their rent."
She opened a string of 40 outreach programs. The first was at Our Lady of Lourdes on Main Street. Many of them are still up and running.
"When I retired there were 40 parishes that had outreach. I don't think there are that many now. I think they have evolved into other kinds of programs. I think parishes became very aware there were rich and poor in many parishes," she said.
Since her retirement 15 years ago, she has spent her time volunteering. Retirement in the religious communities means you stop drawing a salary. Religious sisters and brothers continue ministering to the best of their abilities until they move into a care center.
Sister Mary Anne spent a couple years helping out at the Family Justice Center, which provides free services for domestic violence victims and their children.
"I really got to know the extent of domestic violence in our area. We often think it exists in the inner city or exists someplace else. But you find that people need help in getting out of abusive situations," she said.
After hearing about how many families are refused financial assistance, she began to volunteer a couple days a week with Neighborhood Legal Services. She would help people get Medicaid and Medicare, making sure they had the proper papers in order and accompanying them. Working under a lawyer, she saw people get turned away from receiving their Social Service Disability Insurance. She was told not to stop trying.
"For whatever reason, they would rarely get it the first time they applied," she explained, adding that it was often due to some minor paperwork issue.
It was at Neighborhood Legal Services that she met a young refugee from the Congo. She had been raped, impregnated and shot at the age of 14. By the time she got to Catholic Charities she was 21 and in need of proper health care and a new hip brace. Sister made some calls to Mercy Hospital Foundation. When she found African refugees would come to the U.S. without coats, she organized a coat drive, giving away 200 articles to keep people warm. When St. Bernadette School closed, she took the books from their library and gave them away.
"Since I retired, I've been doing things like that," Sister Mary Anne said.
Now she goes once a week to Mercy's Comprehensive Care Center, a community health resource, on Fulton and Louisiana.
"I'm a friendly visitor. I go from waiting room to waiting room, and I just visit with people," she explained. "Sometimes I am able to make a referral."
When Bishop John Timon brought the Sisters of Mercy to Buffalo, he gave them $25 to open a soup kitchen to feed the poor. Now it will take a little more than $25 to feed and take care of the sisters. Less than a dozen of the 55 sisters at Mercy Center currently bring in a salary. Their health care unit is full. The average age of the sisters is late 70s.
"We'd like to be able to pay the people who work for us a decent wage," Sister Mary Anne said, still thinking of others.