In the 50 years since her profession, Sister Judith Riese has been busy working. She worked in schools, teaching primary grades for more than 20 years. She worked at the Catholic Center. She even drove the school bus at St. Camillus Academy in Corbin, Kentucky, for a stint.
When she was called to work in New York, she began as activities director at Jeanne d'Arc Residence, later moving into a role focused on bookkeeping, payroll, and accounting. "I'm a fourth-grade teacher by training," Sister Judith says, "so it was a bit of a stretch for me. It got to the point that I couldn't sleep, so I asked for a different assignment."
"Once they found a replacement for me, I went to St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street in New York City and asked if they had any volunteer opportunities. A short time later, they offered me a part-time job. Talk about Providence!"
St. Francis of Assisi is best known for its breadline, which feeds more than 400 people each morning. It has been serving the Chelsea area of New York since 1930 and is a magnet for the hungry or those sleeping on the street. It was also the home parish of Fr. Mychal Judge, the first official victim of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, so the site attracts pilgrims, tourists, and volunteers as well.
Sister Judith is now there on weekday afternoons, helping those who come in asking to have a Mass said, and tending to a "teeny-tiny" bookstore. She talks to people from the neighborhood, tourists, and the large number of homeless who come to the parish.
"Mostly, I just listen."
"When they find that I'm a Sister, they just tell their story," she says. "We might talk about knitting or something simple, but it seems to make a real impact on people."
"Some people, I don't even talk to them, but we smile at each other and I just wave. I try to be open to everyone and not to be judgmental. I find it really rewarding."
Sister Judith tells the story of one gentleman who comes into the parish office. "I call him Mr. Blue Man (just in my own mind), because he always wears a blue hoodie. I asked him his name once and he physically backed away. 'That's OK,' I told him. 'You don't have to tell me a thing.'"
One day he stopped in to look at a display of laminated prayer cards. "Do you laminate here?" he asked. Sister Judith told him that the cards came in that way; there was no laminator in the shop.
"He told me he had a picture of his family he wanted to laminate, to protect," she says. "I tried to find a place that could do it. "
A local shop provided a laminating service, but were not eager to have a homeless patron, so Sister Judith thought she might act as a go-between, if Mr. Blue Man could trust her with the photo. When she found him sitting in the church and asked him about it, though, he didn't seem to remember the conversation.
She sat there quietly, waiting for his story to unfold. He had survived Katrina. He had survived Sandy. "I had a repertoire of 400 songs I could play on the saxophone," he told her. While performing one evening, he stepped outside for a cigarette and was attacked. He was robbed and beaten. He suffered from memory loss, which explained why he had forgotten telling her about the photo.
“All I have is this,” he said, showing me a backpack with a single change of clothes. “Do you honestly think I want to stay like this? I’ve been like this for six years.”
He told her that his house in New Orleans was two blocks from the train station, but he can’t keep his mind straight long enough to buy a ticket home. “I’m not poor; I have an inheritance," he told her. "I have a half-brother and a half-sister.”
She reminded him again about the photo. "The shop owner was Jewish, I said, so the shop would be closed soon. 'Yes,' he said. 'Shabbat starts at sundown.' So I knew then he was probably Jewish as well. We talked about going to a Jewish center where he could get some help."
"I tried to find his name, his photo, his story online, but had no luck. I really believe his story, but his memory is so poor that I had little to go on," Sister Judith says.
"Every now and then he comes in humming a tune. He stops and gives me a smile. He can’t remember his own story most days, but he looks at me in a certain way, as if to say, 'I don’t know who I am, but you know me.'”