Riding on the Kentucky Train

Riding on the Kentucky Train
Pictured at Our Lady of the Mountains in Stanton, Kentucky, are. from left, Johannna Doukakis, Jackie Valvardi, Sister Mary Jane Kreidler and Kathy Doukakis. Saint Rose of Lima Parish in Haddon Heights holds a biannual clothing drive for the Kentucky parish. Photo courtesy Jackie Valvardi

Pictured at Our Lady of the Mountains in Stanton, Kentucky, are. from left, Johannna Doukakis, Jackie Valvardi, Sister Mary Jane Kreidler and Kathy Doukakis. Saint Rose of Lima Parish in Haddon Heights holds a biannual clothing drive for the Kentucky parish.
Photo courtesy Jackie Valvardi

Encountering Mercy: Clothe the Naked

“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In October, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Clothe the Naked.”

Sometimes a road trip can be a pilgrimage, and when you travel with a good friend, the experience can even be life-changing.

That’s what happened to Jackie Valvardi and Kathy Doukakis of Saint Rose of Lima Parish in Haddon Heights this past July when the two long-time friends, along with Kathy’s daughter Johanna Doukakis, traveled 11 hours from New Jersey to visit Our Lady of the Mountains, a Catholic parish in rural Stanton, Kentucky.

Jackie and Kathy went as members of the Saint Rose Social Action Committee, where both women, after years of service, now work together in leadership. Jackie is the committee chairperson and Kathy is the head of Saint Rose’s biannual clothing drive, known as the Giving Tree and Kentucky Train.

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, something personal inspired Jackie and Kathy. They both wanted to visit the Kentucky church where Saint Rose has a special connection. As Jackie says, “It was our passion for this part of our ministry that took us there.”

Our Lady of the Mountains lies in a part of Appalachia where many of the inhabitants live a hardscrabble existence. Up in the hollers, home can be made of corrugated metal, and washing the dishes may mean walking a distance to fill up a plastic jug at a tap that’s been rigged to a local spring. It’s the people who live in these difficult circumstances who often come to Our Lady of the Mountains for help.

This tiny parish of 35 Catholic families meets for Mass on Sunday in the log structure that houses the church as well as the home of Sister Mary Jane Kreidler. Most local residents aren’t Catholic, but many come here when in need. Our Lady of the Mountains often serves as the only source for a warm coat or a pair of shoes for some members of this community.

For over 20 years, Saint Rose of Lima has tried to bring hope and mercy to the mountains of Kentucky, through the Giving Tree and Kentucky Train project. Father Joseph Byerley, pastor of Saint Rose, sees the connection between his parish and Our Lady of the Mountains as a “blessing.”

“I am so grateful to Jackie Valvardi and Kathy Doukakis for their love and dedication in serving those in need. They are great examples of the love that Christ calls us to show to our neighbor,” he said.

The connection between these two parishes began more than two decades ago when Joan Sandell, then of Saint Rose Parish, visited a train exhibit with her husband and heard a story of days past, when packages of school supplies were tossed from trains traveling through the mountains of Kentucky to help the local residents. Joan took the image home with her to Haddon Heights, and with some phone calls and determination, she found a way to help.

And so the Giving Tree and Kentucky Train Project became a ministry of mercy for Saint Rose and has remained a conduit, for over 20 years, of clothing and other essential items sent from this New Jersey parish to the people of a mostly forgotten Kentucky hamlet.

Today, the Giving Tree/Kentucky Train project has expanded to take place twice a year, both during the Advent Season and during “Christmas in July,” when trees go up in the vestibules of Saint Rose Church with gift tags that are marked for clothing and other essential needs hanging from the branches. Parishioners select tags and then bring their gifts back to the rectory for packing and shipping.

Kathy has headed the project for six years, making sure the needs from Our Lady of the Mountains are tagged on the tree and then coordinating volunteers to pack and ship the boxes of clothing that go from New Jersey to Kentucky. They travel by way of UPS, not by train, but the spirit of that earlier Kentucky train seems appropriate to those helping today. This past Christmas, Saint Rose sent 19 “massive” boxes with toys and clothing for children and adults.

On the recent visit to Kentucky, Kathy was touched to see the impact of their work when she met Sister Mary Jane. Kathy recounted Sister Mary Jane’s gratitude, remembering her comment that “’I can feel the love coming from Saint Rose.’”

And Jackie, reflecting on the mercy of the special road trip with her good friend, remembers it as a time of transformation. “It literally has changed my perspective on everything I do. Just realizing how blessed I am to have what I have. A roof over my head. And clothes on my back. I’m blessed.”

**********************************************************************************************************The Mercy of Clothing the Naked

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2444) teaches that “‘The Church’s love for the poor…is a part of her constant tradition.’ This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor. Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to ‘be able to give to those in need.’ It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty.”

Saint Teresa of Kolkata was known to speak of how we might find the “naked” in our own communities, among the lonely, the rejected, and the unloved.

“Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta—in—your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools…you can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.”

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