Dominican Associate Barbara Collins Finds Hope in Helping Polish Children

by Barbara Collins, Dominican associate

An inspiring story about how one associate lives the Dominican mission to compassionately preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now residing in Sacramento, Calif., Barbara served on the Associate Committee, 2005 – 2011, and continues to stay closely involved with the Dominican Sisters of Springfield.

As COVID-19 was first being mentioned on TV newscasts as a “coronavirus” in a remote province of China, a fifteen-year old girl arrived in our California parish with her parents. The parish was a stopping-off-point for the family before their daughter could be admitted for surgery at Stanford Health Care in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gabriella and her family had come from Poland, where all the doctors there and throughout Europe had given up on her treatment. Stanford doctors were her last hope.

Surgery proceeded well; even during her days in ICU Gabriella improved. Finally, she and her family traveled back to our Sacramento parish to await a final check-up  just before Christmas 2019. But Gabriella worsened and was rushed back to the hospital where she died on Christmas Eve. Father Mieczyslaw “Mitch” Maleszyk announced her passing at all the Christmas Day Masses at St. Anthony parish, where parishioners had kept prayer vigil for her throughout this family’s short time in the USA.

Overcoming obstacles

Does every family’s valiant effort to save a child have a happy ending? No, sadly. Was this tragedy enough to quash the hopes of Father Mitch and the parish he pastors? Again, resoundingly, no! Since Christmas, five more families have arrived at our parish. Each family has overcome tremendous obstacles, from paying costs by holding fundraisers in Poland to securing international travel plans in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions. And yet they have come.

Some of the children, ages two to twelve, have had multiple coronary and circulatory defects and secondary health problems because of those defects. Yet they all had extensive surgeries lasting 16-24 hours. Some of them are considered cured and only need to recheck a year after the surgery. Others could only receive partial solutions and will return for more extensive surgeries at a later date.

A Service of ‘Silent Running’

For us parishioners, most of the life-enabling work of hosting these families is silent running. They stay indoors, have limited interactions, speak only Polish, and communicate through our multi-lingual pastor. Father Mitch was ordained in Poland and has served the last 16 years in the Sacramento diocese. The fact he is geographically positioned here is a miracle itself. The fact that through him our parish can help these deserving and desperate families is yet another miracle.

“I could say ‘life is just a bowl of jello’
And appear more intelligent and smart.
But I’m stuck like a dope
With a thing called Hope,
And I can’t get it out of my heart,
Not this heart!”

--Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific

For me, this mission of hope has a personal and kindly bent. A retired Catholic school religion teacher from Illinois, I quickly volunteered to serve in the RCIA program when I moved to California a decade ago. Soon, my fondness for food preparation brought an offer of a job as the parish cook, and I served in that capacity for five years. I had to give up that post for health reasons a year ago. But when Father Mitch began providing hospitality for these families from Poland, I felt called to cook for them, at least once or twice during their stay.

Being of Croatian descent myself, I prepared the Slavic dishes as my mother taught me. I wanted the families to have something familiar to eat when they arrived. Then, once again I would treat them to American food. I even fixed quiche one day. The kids refused such an unfamiliar taste, but the adults were braver and enjoyed it.

Reality-based Hope

In some small way, praying for and feeding these families I do not know and have never seen is living out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. It is my way of concretizing hope in my own life. As a young student, I had read the works of Victor Frankl. Still to this day, I am impressed with his own life and his psychological findings. I have long since recognized the role of the theological virtue of HOPE in each human life.

Hope is the antidote of despair.

For me, Father Mitch personifies hope. In his mid-forties, he is the same age of my own son. I observe Father Mitch’s reality-based, pragmatic kind of hope, unshaken by the outcome of the physical health of each child. I see in him a soul-centered commitment to acknowledge that God is doing the right thing in each life. I see him act on his convictions to serve these families. If he can do his part, then God will strengthen me to do the little I do in support of this mission. In turn, I am blessed with even more hope in my own life.

Barbara Collins has been a Springfield Dominican Associate since 1998. Learn about our associate formation program here.

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