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Stepping Up to Honor Sister Mary

By LIZ ALLEN, Staff Writer

When J.D. Jata walked, Sister Mary Miller listened.

What she heard one day when J.D. was a guest at Emmaus Soup Kitchen was the “squish” sound his shoes made with every step.

Sister Mary realized that J.D.’s shoes were shot because of the holes in the soles and she directed him to the back of the soup kitchen, where someone gave him a good pair of shoes. “Try them on to make sure they fit,” Sister Mary advised him.

“She would help me in any way, shape or form,” said J.D., 62, during a late June cookout to honor Sister Mary, who died on May 14.

The cookout featured grilled hot dogs, macaroni salad, baked beans, chips, juice, and ice cream sundaes. The cherry on top was that guests such as J.D. shared their favorite stories about Sister Mary. Many of their memories seeming to spring from the “10 Things I Know” list that she had compiled during her long tenure as Director of Emmaus Ministries.

On her list, Sister Mary didn’t specifically say that she could relate to the discomfort of a guy forced to walk the streets of Erie with holes in his shoes. But she always put herself in the shoes of soup kitchen guests, because as she stated in the fourth item on her list: “Personal contact and/or interaction is as important as the food we offer.”

The backyard cookout at the soup kitchen allowed for lots of friendly, personal interaction among the guests, as they talked about Sister Mary and reflected on their own lives.

J.D., who went to college for restaurant and hotel management, was working in construction at Whiteman Air Force Base in Sedalia, Mo., when he became friends with Joseph Hoffer of Erie. “I had just gotten divorced from my first ex-wife,” J.D. said wryly. When Hoffer was about to move back to Erie, he told J.D., “I may call upon you sometime to work for me.”

J.D. was skeptical.

Then Hoffer made good on his promise, paying for J.D.’s cab fare to the airport and a plane ticket. At first, J.D. felt like “a fish out of water” when he resettled in Erie in 1996. But by working at various restaurants and bars, including Guido’s, Dominick’s, the Warsaw Café, Tivoli’s and the Starlight, J.D. came to feel at home here, getting to know everyone from politicians to regular folks.

The regulars at Emmaus include regular folks such as Mary Walker, 49, who lives on East Eighth Street. Sister Mary’s smile sticks with her, because “when others smile, it makes me smile,” she said.

During COVID, Mary didn’t have much to smile about. Fearful about returning to the workplace because of longstanding health issues, including heart failure, she lost her job at a plastics plant.

She found a way to help her family during COVID by homeschooling her daughter’s three children. Now there are six grandchildren, including a granddaughter with special needs. The grandkids have returned to school and Mary, who has experience as a quality control supervisor and in medical billing, hopes to find work in her field.

Michael Allen, 59, said he was glad to be at the picnic “representing Sister Mary” with his friends, Al Thompson, 57, and Alicia Brown, 41. He and Al “grew up together, like brothers,” said Michael. Alicia, a caregiver, said her son was moving to Tennessee and that meant in a few days, she wouldn’t have a place to live. Sister Rosanne Lindal-Hynes, Emmaus Women's Advocate, offered to help her find shelter.

From her home on Wayne Street, Michele Boyle, 53, takes the bus everywhere -- to her job at the Barber Institute, to the soup kitchen and to Erie SeaWolves baseball games. “I like to see them hit the ball,” she said.

J.D. only needed to glance down at his feet to confirm that the cookout was a hit. A year and a half after Sister Mary convinced him to replace his worn-out shoes with the donated pair, he’s still wearing them. Those size 8 Nike High Tops “almost look brand new,” he said.

Photos, from top to bottom:

  • Sister Anne McCarthy, Emmaus Board Member, gives J.D. Jata a prayer of remembrance about Sister Mary Miller at the Emmaus Soup Kitchen cookout.

  • Tony Pol and other volunteers prepare sundaes, the ice cream and toppings which they donated, for guests at the Emmaus cookout.

  • Emmaus guests pick up grilled hotdogs and side dishes at the Emmaus cookout. The cookout was a tribute to the late Sister Mary Miller.


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