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Advice from Mother Teresa inspires a holiday tradition; Response to Love Center reaches out to the poor

Twenty-six years ago, when Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz was studying at a Philadelphia seminary, Mother Teresa came to town, and the two women sat at the same lunch table.

"Mother, do you think I could come to Calcutta?" Sister Mary Johnice asked. "I want to learn how to work with the poor."

"She looked at me and said, 'Little sister, go back to your neighborhood. Find your Calcutta there.' "

That's exactly what Sister Mary Johnice did.

One month later, she and other Felician nuns opened the Response to Love Center in the former St. Adalbert's School on Kosciuszko Street, off Sycamore Street on Buffalo's East Side.

On Christmas morning, continuing a holiday tradition that's a quarter of a century old, Sister Mary Johnice and a battalion of volunteers opened their doors to a holiday dinner for roughly 250 people.

The holiday celebrants, many from the neighborhood, dined on chicken with broccoli and cheese, mashed potatoes, corn and cheesecake.

"It's just like Mom and Grandma used to make," said Robert Raczka, 47, of Deshler Street, who welcomed any media interview that could turn into a job opportunity.

"It's awesome that people here volunteer to serve, cook and do dishes," he added. "To me, that's a blessing. Some people need help. Some people come for a good, hot meal. These little blessings mean so much to me."

Throughout the event, Sister Mary Johnice worked the room. This is her family, and she explained why Christmas is so special for her.

"My family expands from a brother and nieces and sister-in-law to a neighborhood family that we're very familiar with, that we know by name, by address and by need," she said.

"It's such a joy when somebody comes in and says thank you or when someone comes in with a tear in their eye and gives you a hug and says it's good to be here."

Young families, middle-aged homeless men, single mothers and others sat in rows of tables late Sunday morning.

But it's clear that the diners weren't the only people benefiting from this Christmas dinner.

So were about 80 volunteers, from various occupations, including former Buffalo Sabres executive Ron Bertovich, inspirational speaker Sammy Violante, documentary filmmaker Tom Haywood and Channel 2 news director Jeff Woodard.

Woodard's two daughters, Mattie, 10, and Brooke, 8, were among the volunteers. Their participation goes back to three years ago, when Mattie, as a second-grader, learned about the Great Depression and how some people still are poor today.

She went home and told her mother she'd be willing to donate her bed to someone in need. Now those lessons have been passed down to Brooke.

"I'm thankful that I'm so lucky to have a roof over my head and my family with me," Brooke said.

Mike Gilhooly, 52, gave up his job at Transitowne to become the webmaster of Response to Love. He marveled at how the mission started by Sister Mary Johnice 26 years ago allows both the clients and the volunteers to be fulfilled, physically and spiritually.

The diminutive Sister Mary Johnice makes it all work. Moe Naylon, a director of the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation, which supplied the dinner, called her a combination of Mother Teresa and a Marine Corps drill sergeant -- but in a good way.

She laughed at the description and then recalled how the Thanksgiving dinner in 1986 was supposed to be moved to the Convention Center. Signs went up advising the neighborhood clients to board free buses for the trip there.

"We're not cattle," neighbors complained. "Why are you putting us on a bus? We're your family."

So the signs came down. Ever since then, every Thanksgiving and Christmas is celebrated at the center.

"This," Sister Mary Johnice said, looking out at the diners, "is my Christmas present."