LEWISTON -- Are there angels in our midst?
Niagara University religion teacher and campus minister Monica M. Saltarelli firmly believes so, and in the decade she's been teaching classes on angels at the university, she has collected stories of close encounters with angels that bolster that belief.
"I always open my class by asking, 'How many of you have had an experience with an angel?,' " she said recently as she settled back into a comfortable chair in her Gallagher Center basement office. "A couple of people usually admit to it. And then more will start saying something by the end of class, or they talk to me during a break, or see me after class to share a story."
Most people have Halloween and costume parties on their minds this week, but not Saltarelli. She will teach "Angels in Our Midst" on Thursday and "Angels in Our Midst Part II" on Nov. 6, through the continuing education department.
She likes the fact that the classes bookend the Catholic Church's celebration of All Saints Day on Saturday and All Souls Day on Sunday.
Saltarelli said she covers the basics in the first class, beginning with what angels are, explaining, "God didn't need to create angels, but he did, to give us a sense of hope and protection -- God created them strictly to be angels and they are of a higher order than humans. But when humans die, their spirits are of a higher order than angels. It's comforting to know that those who go before us can help us, too, along with the angels."
Part II of the class delves into the biblical background of angels; for example, the presence of angels in the Old Testament.
"There is a common ground with angels with the Christian, Jewish and even Islamic faiths and I don't think people realize this," Saltarelli said. "This has been a really enriching experience. It's a very upbeat class."
Patty McIntosh, of NU's continuing and community education department, said the school likes to offer a wide variety of classes to interest people and bring them onto campus.
"Monica has been teaching this for years, and everyone loves the class," McIntosh said.
Saltarelli, a Tonawanda native, earned her bachelor's degree in religious studies in 1986 at Niagara University and her master's degree at Villanova University. She has been teaching religion at NU for nearly 19 years. She also is serving her 11th year as a campus minister and, as such, plans service trips for the school to Vincentian mission sites. She said she always has a waiting list for these volunteer trips.
"We will be going again in January to Philadelphia and Brooklyn and in the spring back to Arkansas, where we spent time last summer helping rebuild after the tornadoes," she said. "We also travel to Panama every other year. I've been there five times."
Saltarelli said Sister Peggy Wetzel, a Franciscan nun who was serving as a pastoral associate at St. Christopher parish in the Town of Tonawanda about 15 years ago, first approached her with the idea of teaching about angels.
It was an idea that had always fascinated her, Saltarelli recalled. She recounted a story that she did not realize involved an angel when it happened, but years later, she firmly believes it did.
While a graduate student at Villanova, her car seemed beyond repair when she stopped at a small garage and talked to a black man in a mechanic's shirt with the name "Jack" stitched on it, standing near a red pickup truck. Recognizing that he couldn't fix her car, he told her to go home and call her father and that the problem would be resolved, even predicting what her father would say.
"How did he even know I had a father?" she later asked. "But I did go home and talk to my father, and he said he'd help me get a different car -- even though the plan was for this to last me through graduate school. Jack had said his garage would take my car for the parts, and when I went back to make the arrangements, they said they did not have anyone matching his description working there. I showed them the business card he had given me and it was authentic but did not have his name on it."
But the story doesn't end there.
"I have a friend who was eight months' pregnant, and she was driving and ran out of gas in North Carolina, where her husband was a student at Duke University," said Saltarelli. "Along comes a red pickup truck and a black man wearing a shirt with the name 'Jack' stitched on it. He told her to stay in the car and lock her doors and he'd go and get her some gas. He did, and then disappeared."
And she's not done yet.
"We had a student here who was driving back to school from Syracuse, and she lost control of her car in a snowstorm and ended up in the median, and she told me she just said a prayer," she said. "A black man in a red tow truck pulled over and helped her and then disappeared. She said she thought his name was Jack."
And . . .
"This is unbelievable," she said. "I met a professor at St. John's University who was driving her car when her fan belt went, and she pulled over. She and a friend were on their way to a wedding and wondering what they were going to do. Along comes a red pickup, and the driver had one thing in the truck -- a fan belt. He fixed her car and disappeared.
"This story about the man in the red pickup has kept me intrigued," she said. "It shows how God uses his creativity. . . . Regardless of your religious commitment, everyone can feel some sort of comfort and protection with angels."
The class fee is $19. Both classes are set for 6 to 8 p.m. in Dunleavy Hall. For more information, contact NU's continuing and community education department at 286-8181.