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Sean Kirst: St. Luke's mission co-founder recalled as 'example of Christ'

Gino Grasso has an easy marker for remembering the day he met Norm Paolini, in 1993. It was at Amy's Place, the restaurant Amy Betros used to run in University Heights. Paolini, who loved playing his guitar, was working on a song to capture what he and Betros had just seen happen so improbably in the National Football League playoffs.

The Buffalo Bills had rallied from a 32-point second half deficit to beat the Houston Oilers, 41-38, in overtime. Paolini and Betros were among the hardcore spectators at then-Rich Stadium in Orchard Park who stuck out the whole game, where Grasso said the surreal nature of the comeback spoke to Paolini's core belief about humanity.

You never give up on anyone, or anything.

His funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, on Buffalo's East Side. Paolini, weakened by both Parkinson's disease and brain cancer, died last week at 71. His calling hours have overflowed with mourners. Betros, who joined him in co-founding the mission, has set Paolini's beloved 12-string guitar at the front of St. Luke's church, alongside a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

She remembers how he loved to sing at nursing homes, or hospitals, or anywhere where people would feel abandoned or alone. Even in his final illness, she said, he was more concerned about the happiness of his caretakers than he was about himself.

"He was the closest I've ever seen any living person come to the example of Christ," said Betros, who was on a pilgrimage to the Fatima shrine in Portugal, years ago, when she met Paolini.

Their bond caused Betros to make a spontaneous promise to Bishop Edward Grosz of the Diocese of Buffalo: She and Paolini intended to raise enough money to buy St. Luke's – a Catholic church that had closed down – and open a mission in a neighborhood where many residents struggle to make it through each day.

Amy Betros, who co-founded and co-directed St. Luke's Mission of Mercy with Norman Paolini shares memories of their work together while taking a break from preparing the sanctuary for his funeral. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Before St. Luke's, Betros had been a successful restaurateur. Paolini, with the support of his wife, Linda, retired early from a job as a cancer researcher at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. In 1993, he and Betros needed $200,000 to buy St. Luke's, a number that to them might as well have been $2 million. Paolini said prayer would provide the answer.

It did, Betros said. The late Eileen Nanula, a member of Paolini's prayer group in Niagara Falls, quietly stepped forward with $220,000, including an extra $20,000 as seed money to get things rolling.

Today, the mission provides housing for more than 40 families in need. Up to 600 men, women and children eat there every day. St. Luke's includes a small school, where intense attention – and affection – for neighborhood children has resulted in a high school graduation rate of close to 100 percent.

The mission operates a Kids of the Kingdom summer program, with Grasso in charge. He also supervises the overall donation program that brings a flood of clothing, household items and toys into St. Luke's.

Norman Paolini.

In the morning, Grasso used to watch with a kind of awe as Paolini climbed out of his car in the parking lot. Instantly, men and women of the street, people often burdened with addiction or mental illness, would rush up to him. Like Betros, Paolini always had quarters or single dollar bills to hand out.

To Grasso, that early morning charge would have been overwhelming. He said he does not believe he could have dealt with that daily surge of human beings.

Yet Paolini welcomed them. He knew the names and faces of everyone  stretching out a hand.

"You talked to him, and somehow what he knew about you was above and beyond," Grasso said. "He could sense why people were hurting, and what they were hurting from. With no reservation, after being in his company, I can say I have never seen anyone who showed such true love and compassion toward his fellow man."

That example helped cement Grasso's own journey. He used to be a co-owner of the old Mickey Rat's City Bar on Main Street. By the late 1970s, money was rolling in and Grasso found himself lost in the thick haze of one long smothering party.

In 1982, he said "God spoke to me" as he neared the end of a three-day bender. Grasso, weary and ready for a change, walked away from drugs and alcohol. By 1998, he was out of the bar business and working in the Franciscan Center for homeless young men. He eventually sold his home and his beloved cars and moved into a trailer owned by St. Luke's.

Betros remained a close friend and inspiration, while Paolini routinely joined Grasso in taking more than 100 children in the summer program to the beach at Beaver Island State Park.

Those boys and girls were often raised amid trauma, Grasso said, deprived of everyday protections children ought to take for granted. Their lives became a quest for coming up with ways to survive day by day, often with the belief that no one cared if they survived or disappeared.

Paolini set out to change their minds.

"These kids, Norm would show them that Jesus loves them, that they aren't forgotten, that they're not a mistake or a burden," Grasso said.

Norman S. Paolini Jr., 71, co-founder of St. Luke's Mission of Mercy

This week, you could not turn a corner in the busy corridors at St. Luke's without hearing a similar story. Mike Taheri, a lawyer and a volunteer, recalled how his son – seemingly in great health – became violently ill late one night, a few years ago. At the hospital, Taheri and his wife were terrified.

Paolini, learning of their ordeal, showed up. "He's got Parkinson's and a brain tumor, and here he comes to pray with us in the middle of the night," Taheri said. Their son, Erik, it turned out, was passing a kidney stone. What Taheri and his wife, Josette, remember – what they describe as life-changing – was Paolini's insistence on being at their side.

"I think he may be the holiest person I've ever met," Taheri said.

The belief is shared by Sue Gilhooley, who helped Betros in preparing for a funeral expected to pack the old church that Paolini loved. Gilhooley and her husband, Dennis, began volunteering at St. Luke's more than 20 years ago, and then took the same step as a small core of missionaries there.

They sold their home, essentially gave up all worldly goods – and moved in.

"What Norm taught us, what he showed us," Gilhooley said, "was to make genuine friends with the poor."

Gino Grasso, director of donations at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, reflects on his work with Norman Paolini, who died at the age of 71 after a battle with Parkinson's disease. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Anyone entering the mission Tuesday walked past Roxana Lopez, a refugee from El Salvador whose job each day is serving as "the sorter of the clothes," the person who helps sift through all donations. Lopez said she was baptized as a young woman, after arriving in Buffalo and finding a home at St. Luke's.

Paolini, whom she called "Uncle Norm," agreed to be her godfather, she said – a role he served for about 60 others at the mission.

He took that task seriously. Lopez has five children. When family struggles at home seemed unbearably difficult, she said, Paolini would always show up. She described the death of her mother, Margarita Chicas, as the hardest moment in her life, a loss that seemed impossible to endure in this new city.

Paolini comforted her as she wept. "When you need God the most, that's when you'll find him. He is here," Paolini told Lopez.

As for Grasso, he keeps thinking back to the way Paolini arrived in the St. Luke's parking lot each morning. He would instantly be surrounded by a sea of jostling, hurting people desperate for his attention, people seeking a little change or simply a moment of his time. While Paolini loved them, they also served as the most important teachers in his ministry.

"He was showing the rest of us how to be better," Grasso said.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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