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Holy Faith's Angels of Mercy
By Julie Conrey

many wings make light work

In the summer of 1998, Eleanor ‘Ellie’ O’Dowd was overwhelmed.
The Holy Faith parishioner was recovering from a stroke when her only daughter, and best friend, Joanie O’Dowd Walker, learned that the breast cancer she had battled since 1995 had metastasized to her lungs and spine, and was spreading quickly throughout the rest of her body.

The Walker family had few resources and no medical insurance. Ellie’s husband, Irving, was retired, and she was working full-time trying to help her daughter’s family out financially as much as she could. There was no way she could afford to quit her job.

Ellie prayed for a miracle. And what she got was nothing short of heaven-sent: a group of ordinary men and women who ‘miraculously’ sprouted wings and halos in answer to her prayers.

The group was appropriately named Angels of Mercy, a homegrown ministry quickly established by Holy Faith Parish in Gainesville to help parishioners in need. Unlike their heavenly counterparts, these cherubs didn’t blast into Ellie’s living room on clouds of white smoke carrying harps and playing church tunes to announce their presence.

Under close supervision of Carmelite Father Ignatius Plathanam, these angels prepared and delivered home-cooked meals, prayed with Joanie and provided words of comfort to her husband Paul, and two children, Joey, 10, and Marissa, 5.

“It was a situation where we needed help,” Ellie said. “The support and the meals were such a blessing. I am very grateful for all the church did.”

Joanie died on Good Friday, April 2, 1999. The Angels of Mercy ministry continued to help Paul and the children with meals and support after her death.

Cynthia Garvan, Ph.D., a friend of Joanie’s who works in the Department of Statistics at the University of Florida started the Angels of Mercy ministry. Cynthia knew the Walker family needed help, and she approached Father Ignatius, then associate pastor of Holy Faith, with the idea for the new ministry.

It quickly took off
Gina Giovinco, Ph.D., who retired in 2001 from the University of Central Florida teaching bioethics, community health and psychology, refined the ministry Cynthia founded. Gina has traveled the world working on humanitarian issues. She’s put her expertise to good use at Holy Faith.

“God has blessed me in so many ways,” Gina said. She was one of four children and grew up in a home that housed four generations of extended family. “When I was a child, I wanted to have a large home in which I’d take care of the elderly,” she said. And that’s kind of what she’s built at Holy Faith.
  Pasquale D’Onofrio (seated at left) received help from the Angels of Mercy ministry at Holy Faith Parish in Gainesville. Volunteers Alice Wynter (standing, left), Gina Giovinco and Mary Schrander are part of a network helping in three outreach areas: family service, bereavement ministries and retired parishioners.

Gina is the parish’s Pastoral Care Consultant. In her volunteer position, she’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to anyone in need. She ensures that all parishioners, especially the aged, the ill, the young, the homebound, the hospitalized and those who live in alternative care facilities stay connected to Holy Faith. This might include sending an extraordinary minister of holy Communion to a nursing home, making sure an individual who can’t drive has a ride to Sunday Mass or visiting an individual in the hospital. Gina also keys individuals into community resources they might not otherwise know about.

The ministry is based on the adage that “many wings make light work.” It’s divided into three outreach areas: Angels of Mercy who serve members of the parish family in need of help; Pathfinders, a faith-based grief and bereavement ministry; and Sunflowers, individuals who keep the semi-retired and retired parish members connected with parish activities.

“How blessed we are to have the number of parishioners involved in helping to build a parish of compassion,” Gina

The ministry is a wonderful concept that has been picked up by other parishes in the diocese as well as a few protestant churches in south Florida. But one only need talk to the individuals it has served to develop a clear understanding of the compassionate community Holy Faith has become.

Pasquale D’Onofrio, 68, lives by himself. He suffers from lymphedema, venous insufficiency and osteoporosis. Bent over in an ‘S’ shape, he relies on oxygen at night to help him breathe. He had to move out of his apartment a few years ago. The Sunflowers ministry found a place for him to live and the Knights of Columbus got together one Saturday morning to move his things. “These were people I didn’t even know,” Pasquale said. He also needed a new washer and dryer. They ‘miraculously’ appeared in his new apartment.

“They are always giving,” Pasquale said. His Angel of Mercy is Alice Wynter, and she takes Pasquale to Mass and accompanies him to doctor’s appointments. “I thank God every night for these people. It means so much to get a phone call. It brightens my day.”

To find out more about the Angels of Mercy Ministry at Holy Faith Parish, call Dr. Gina Giovinco at (352) 376-5405.