Friday, June 27, 2008

The Little Flowers of St. Ambrose

(Published as "Seniors beautify St. Ambrose Church with tender care," in The Catholic Voice, vol. 46, no. 14, August 4, 2008,

In the summer of 2006, I left my university teaching post in Nevada to join my husband in Berkeley. I made it a point to attend Mass at each of the city’s four Catholic churches in order to select one as my parish.

When I first visited St. Ambrose, I noticed its beautiful garden and clean facilities and thought to myself that the church must be blessed with an exceptionally able gardener as well as a conscientious janitor. Although it was the warmth of then-pastor Fr. George Alengadan that convinced me to choose St. Ambrose, the church’s appearance was an additional factor in its favor.

Several months passed. One Sunday at the end of Mass, Fr. George called four men and a woman to the front and introduced them to the congregation as the parish’s Maintenance Crew. Only then did I realize it was these parishioners, instead of hired help, who had kept the garden blooming and the church’s great hall clean. My astonishment was quickly overtaken by a sense of shame because the men and woman standing before us were all senior citizens in their golden years.

St. Ambrose’s Maintenance Crew is consistent with the results of a study done in 2000 which found that a small minority (less than 10%) of the population in North America accounted for most (nearly 75%) of the volunteer work. Moreover, the volunteers tended to be older folks: 35% of those who volunteered were between the ages of 45-54, 30% were between the ages of 55-64, and 23% were over 65. More interesting still is the finding that among those who volunteered, individuals with a religious affiliation gave more time on average than those who were not religious, at 168 volunteer hours vs. 149 volunteer hours a year.

At St. Ambrose, the volunteers on its Maintenance Crew come to the church every Tuesday morning to perform the following chores, most of which are quite physically demanding:

* Sweeping and mopping the floor of the great hall where Sunday pancake breakfasts, RCIA and other classes, assorted meetings, lunches, and festivities take place. The hall is capacious and can accommodate 300 to 400 people. The volunteers who sweep and mop the hall’s floor are Arnie Guasco, Selso Martinez, and Mel Schiavon.

* Gardening: St. Ambrose has a lovely garden with perennial flowers such as roses, as well as annuals such as miniature sunflowers. There are flowers blooming even in the midst of winter. We do not have a paid gardener; instead, all the planting, pruning, weeding, and watering are performed by volunteer Barbara Thomas-Lieberman, who is assisted by Ray Aguilera.

* Outside cleaning: St. Ambrose is situated at the intersection of tree-lined Gilman St. and Cornell St. The pedestrian pathways and the small parking lot on Gilman require regular sweeping, mainly by José Valdivia.

* Electrical work and repair: Retired professional electrician Jim Mullarkey undertakes all the electrical work and repair for the church and its adjacent rectory.

* Building repair, painting, and other odd jobs, such as repairing broken pews, are performed mainly by Mel Schiavon and Richard Vohs.

Put simply, the above tasks entail plain hard manual labor. But the members of the Maintenance Crew perform these chores willingly and cheerfully every week, without fail, despite their mature years. The oldest among them, at a glorious 85, is Selso, while Jim, in his early 60s, is the baby of the group. The others are Arnie, 81; Mel, 80; José, 76; Ray, 75; Barbara, 68; and Richard, 67.

This group of volunteers is remarkable for another reason. With the exception of Barbara and Arnie, who were, respectively, a corporate accountant and a sales manager before their retirement, all the volunteers had been blue-collar workers, not unlike the humble fishermen whom Jesus once called to be his apostles. Selso was a maintenance worker (otherwise called a janitor) at UC Berkeley; Mel was an iron worker, fitter, layout man and foreman at Herrick Corporation in Hayward; Richard had spent 40 years in the US Merchant Marine; Jim was an electrician; and José was a dishwasher and cook at Spenger’s Seafood Restaurant for 42 years.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), better known as the Little Flower, is only one of three women on whom Vatican has bestowed the honorific title of Doctor of the Church. Unlike the Church’s other doctors, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who are celebrated for their learned intellect and rich troves of writings, Thérèse is known for her simple but profound notion of the “Little Way.” By the example of how she lived her short life, she teaches that to serve God and attain holiness, it is not necessary to accomplish great works or heroic acts. In her autobiography she wrote, “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love."

And that is exactly what the little flowers of St. Ambrose’s Maintenance Crew do every Tuesday. By their example, I was inspired to join the team. Truly, it is in the smallest that we are refined.