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Once a stranger, now a friend

Merida Ntirampeba’s first impression of St. Francis Xavier Church in Winooski was one of welcome.
 
She had left her native Berundi in 1993 and came to Vermont in 2004 after 11 years in an overcrowded refugee camp in Tanzania where threats and violence were not uncommon.
 
So after settling into an apartment in Winooski with her family, she wanted to go to church and was directed to the two-spired brick church on St. Peter St. “The first time I went to the church the community was welcoming. Everyone I met was so kind,” she said in Kirundi, her 24-year-old daughter, Claudine Nkurinziza, translating for her. Someone gave Ntirampeba money to help set up her new family home, another person offered her rides from church, and others helped her family with needed items like school backpacks.
 
Refugees bring to the parish an opportunity for grace, said Msgr. Richard Lavalley, pastor. They give members of the community the opportunity “to discover Christ in a new manner, an opportunity to see Christ — in a very real way — in need.”
 
In addition to helping this woman from Burundi, St. Francis Xavier Parish helps refugees and children of refugees in myriad ways from providing food and clothing, finding a place to live and engaging legal and interpreter services to providing scholarship assistance for children to attend Catholic schools and a cemetery plot for a dying man to ease his anxiety about where he would be buried.
 
It also supports the Catholic CARES Network.
 
“I do whatever I feel I am capable of doing,” said St. Francis parishioner Diane Potvin, the executive assistant to the pastor.
 
Clearly, she has extraordinarily capabilities as she escorts refugees — mostly from Africa — through their needs and requirements until they can function here on their own. She works closely with other agencies that are helping them.
 
“We do anything that makes them have a sense of self worth and that they are not alone,” Msgr. Lavalley said.
 
And the assistance is offered to Catholics and non Catholics alike. “The Gospel doesn’t say just take care of your own,” said Msgr. Lavalley, who was seen in local hip-hop trio A2VT’s video for their song "Winooski, My Town." (It is a tribute to the new home of three young refugees from Africa.)
 
There are about eight African families in St. Francis Xavier Parish, and numerous children have attended St. Francis Xavier School. Currently four Catholic students from refugee families are enrolled.
 
“Our Catholic values extend to everything we do, and the importance of charity and humility that comes with our faith is evident,” said Principal Eric Becker. “It’s important for us to be members of our Winooski community and see all the issues [refugees] are facing. We want to be good neighbors.”
 
Ntirampeba, 59, has given birth to 10 children; seven are still living — four in the United States and three in Burundi. She praises her parish for the help she and her family have received, both physical and spiritual assistance. This includes food, financial help, clothing and scholarships for St. Francis Xavier School and South Burlington’s Rice Memorial High School. Msgr. Lavalley baptized three of her children together.
 
“Only God knows how much the church and Msgr. Lavalley have done for me,” Ntirampeba said. “He is like a parent to me.”
 
She did not expect people here to be “so nice,” she continued. “I feel grateful and cared about. It’s supernatural for so much love.”
 
Her daughter, too, is grateful. Now working as an instructional aid at J.F. Kennedy Elementary School in Winooski, tries to “give back in any way I can.” Often that is by translating for new Americans and assisting with programs of Catholic CARES Network. “I never say no to them because they’ve done so much for us,” she said.
 
Her faith influences this attitude, and she cites the Gospel of Matthew: "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
 
Her motto, she added, is “treat everyone the way you want to be treated.”
 
Ntirampeba offered her gratitude to the people of St. Francis Xavier Parish “because they do so much for so many people.”
 
St. Francis Xavier Parish, once mostly populated by Winooski’s French Canadian immigrants and their families, “is not Winooski anymore,” Msgr. Lavalley said. “People come from all around.”
 
And they are embraced.
 
 
 
 
 

CARES Catholic Network

About a year ago Cecile Robert of Winooski fell, breaking her pelvis, scapula and a rib, and as part of her rehabilitation at a local nursing home she needed a walker.
 
She remembered reading in the bulletin of her church, St. Francis Xavier, about CARES Catholic Network, a ministry that, among other things, provides a medical equipment exchange.
 
Through CARES, Robert got the needed walker plus a shower bench and a bedside commode – all at no charge.
 
The ministry saved her more than $300.
 
“It would have been difficult without a service like this,” she said.
 
CARES – an acronym for Compassion, Advocacy, Respite, Education and Service – has served scores of people in the three years since it began.
 
A ministry of St. Francis Xavier Church and of St. Mark Church in Burlington, CARES provides a host of services in addition to the medical equipment exchange including sewing lessons, a fellowship/arts and crafts group, handyman services, home and nursing home visitors, repair of four-wheeled walkers with brakes, parish nurse services and a rosary group. In addition, volunteers pick up baked goods and bread twice a week from a local restaurant to distribute to St. Joseph’s Home and Mount St. Mary Convent in Burlington.
 
The Francis Center in the former convent next to St. Mark Church is the activities hub for CARES, a ministry that assists people of all faiths.
 
Sharon Brown, volunteer parish nurse, coordinates the health and wellness ministry. She hopes in the spring to add a beginner sewing class and a knitting group.
 
She delivers medical equipment to people like Robert, 89, and instructs them in the proper use. The elongated shower bench, for example, is safer because it allows the user to sit down and then lift his or her feet into the tub, reducing the risk of falling.
 
Items like shower benches, walkers and commodes are donated to CARES for distribution to those who need them, and when the items are no longer needed, CARES asks for them back to offer to someone else.
 
Donations are accepted but not solicited.
 
Robert said this is just one way the parishes are helping others: “Doing good: Isn’t that what the Church is all about?”
 
For more information about CARES or to volunteer or donate goods or services, contact Sharon Brown at 802-922-2958 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

--Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
 
  • Published in Parish

The Easley Family and the Holy Family

The Easley Family of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Winooski embraces the Holy Family as part of their family.
 
Parents Jordan R. H. and Leah Elizabeth Easley, both 33 and converts to Catholicism, teach their daughter, Magdalena, nearly 2, that Jesus, Mary and Joseph are integral members of their family.
 
Before they became members of the Church at Easter 2016, the Easleys learned that they were infertile. “As the months turned into years with no children, we began to ask the Lord more intentionally, ‘What does it mean to be a family?’” Mr. Easley said. “And almost without knowing it, we began to realize that our values lined up with the Roman Catholic teaching on marriage and family. It was not up to us to control how God gave us children; it was up to us to obey.”
 
For them, that obedience meant care for the fatherless. Thus, through a long and arduous process with Department for Children and Families, they were matched with their son, Judah, in 2013.
 
In the two weeks that they cared for him, two moments stand out for Mr. Easley, a catechist at four area Catholic churches.
 
The first was their last night in the hospital. Judah had been cleared to go home with them the following morning, so the family had a private room where Mrs. Easley held him; her husband watched in wonder. “The room was charged with holy awe, like at the Nativity. I said to Leah, ‘This is the happiest moment of my life,’” he recalled.
 
The second moment came a few days later, when the Department for Children and Families took Judah away. (There is a time between when a child joins a family and when the adoption is finished during which the biological parents can change their minds.)
 
“In so short a span of time, I also came to the saddest moment of my life,”
he said.
 
In prayer, Mr. Easley said the Lord said, “Jordan, my family was there with you. My mother, Mary, and my [foster] father, Joseph, were in the hospital with you and Leah and Judah. They were weeping with you as you baptized him together. My family is my gift to your family.”
 
Since then, the Easleys have included the Holy Family in their prayers.
 
Mr. Easley consecrates himself and his family to the Holy Family every day.
 
The rosary is the foundation of his prayer life. “Every bead and every mystery is imbued with meaning,” said Mr. Easely who was raised in a Southern Baptist home in Memphis, Tenn. “I am learning to bring Mary and Joseph into every conversation that I have with Jesus. They are the best parents and prayer partners that I could ask for.”
 
His wife, a native of Rockport, Maine, is a religion teacher at Mater Christi School in Burlington. Her family attended a Presbyterian church for most of her childhood.
 
“Mary’s first role and Joseph’s first role is to bring us to their son and their son’s father,” she said. “There have been a few times in my life when I wasn’t able to pray, but, after talking with Mary or Joseph, even for only a minute or two, I could. In those moments, they bridged a chasm I could not bridge on my own.”
 
She sees Mary not so much as a role model as a co-parent. “We explicitly teach our daughter that Mary is her mother too, and we tell her she can always talk to Mary,” Mrs. Easley said. “When I fail as mother, I rest assured in the reality that she has a better Mother.”

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Originally published in the 2017 summer issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.
 
 
 
 
 
 
  • Published in Parish

Sewing at The Francis Center

A new sewing class at The Francis Center at St. Mark Parish in Burlington is humming along with nine students, all of African heritage.
 
Their reasons for joining the four-Saturday-morning class include making their own clothing, making alterations for themselves and their family members, making gifts and teaching others to sew.
 
One woman, a Muslim, wants to make a hijab for her daughter.
 
“It’s simple” to make the Islamic headscarf, said volunteer sewing teacher Laurie Browne of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Winooski, owner of the Triple Loop costume shop in Essex Junction.
 
“I like to share what I know about sewing,” she continued. “My faith calls me to share those gifts. It’s part of who I am.”
 
The sewing students gather with two teachers and other helpers for two or three hours each week. They speak various languages, and Claudine Nkurinziza of Winooski, one of the sewing students, translates.
 
This is her first time taking a sewing class. “It’s expensive to pay someone to sew your clothes,” she said. “I like the experience of learning and this opportunity to try something new.”
 
Eleven-year-old Jessica Mujawimana, a sixth grader at St. Francis Xavier School in Winooski, is the youngest of the sewing students. “It’s very cool,” she said of her first sewing experience. “I don’t have to ask other people to sew clothes for me.”
 
In some African cultures, men sew as a job, not women.
 
Sharon Brown of St. Francis Xavier Parish, a parish nurse, coordinates CARES Catholic Network, a cooperative health and wellness ministry of St. Francis Xavier Parish and St. Mark Parish with pastors Msgr. Richard Lavalley and Father Dallas St. Peter, respectively. She helps with the class under the CARES umbrella and said some women buy African fabric for $20 for a simple dress then must pay someone about $80 to make it: “The dresses are out of their budget.”
 
At the sewing class, the students work with donated fabric and on donated used sewing machines. Stephen Richer of St. Joseph Co-Cathedral Parish in Burlington, a former Singer Sewing Machine Co. service manager, spent about 30 hours refurbishing the 18 portable machines that were donated in various conditions. “I had the know-how, and they needed someone to do it,” he commented. “If I can help people, I’ll help. It’s how I was brought up in my faith and in my family.”
 
Richer said a new machine would cost more than $100; but the sewing class participants will receive a class sewing machine at the successful completion of the program (one per household).
 
One of the sewing teachers, Marie Boisvert of Christ the King-St. Anthony Parish in Burlington, is an experienced seamstress. “God gave me that talent,” she said. “I give of myself wherever I can.”
 
Jessica, the 11-year-old student, likes the sewing teachers, describing them as helpful, patient and experienced.
 
“It’s nice they are helping everyone no matter our race or religion or background,” Nkurinziza said. “They see us all as people wanting to learn.”
 
Students and volunteers, Brown said, are learning more about what they have in common, not focusing on their differences. “Muslim women are working with Catholic women, holding each other’s children and talking about their shared interest in sewing.” (Childcare is provided.)
 
They are all stitching together friendships and realizing, as Brown said, “We are women. We sew. This is our bond.”
 
For more information or to donate materials or funds, contact Brown at 802-922-2958 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
 
 
 

Msgr. Lavalley's special devotion

A few days before Msgr. Richard G. Lavalley was ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington in 1964, his spiritual director and confessor went to his seminary room and gave him a five-by-seven-inch picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He told the Rutland native he hoped on the day of his ordination he would consecrate his priesthood to Our Lady under this title.
 
He did.
 
And his devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help continues.
 
Now pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Winooski, he begins each day standing in his room in front of an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help; he recites a special prayer, asking for her help to do his priestly work.
 
The icon depicts Jesus as a child, in the arms of his mother, with one small hand in her hand. Symbolically Msgr. Lavalley places his hand between theirs.
 
The Byzantine icon is believed to have its origin in the 13th-15th Century.
 
Above the mother and child are the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, hovering in the upper corners. They hold the instruments of the Passion: St. Michael holds the spear, the wine-soaked sponge and the crown of thorns. St. Gabriel holds the cross and the nails.
 
The Child Jesus is depicted as contemplating the vision of His future Passion: Frightened by the vision, he had run to his mother for consolation, not stopping to fasten his sandal. “She is His perpetual help,” Msgr. Lavalley said, explaining, “Whatever God has in store for us – sometimes laughter sometimes tears, sometimes Good Friday, sometimes Easter Sunday – it is God’s will. Our Lady stands with you.”
 
He continued, “If we give ourselves to Our Lady, she will be there” at all the events of life.
 
Msgr. Lavalley attended Christ the King School in Rutland where his first-grade teacher, the late Sister Bridget Moroney, a Sister of St. Joseph, had a profound influence on his life and became a lifelong friend. He sent her a dozen red roses each Christmas until she died to thank her for a wonderful first grade.
 
The Lavalley family moved to Burlington when he was beginning sixth grade, a decision that troubled him because he wanted to attend Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland for high school. Little did he know, that after his ordination he would spend 18 years at the school.
 
Instead of MSJ, he graduated from Cathedral High School in 1955 then attended seminary in Arkansas and Pennsylvania. He began his priestly ministry at St. Peter Church in Rutland and years later served as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Northfield. A former vocations director for the Diocese of Burlington, he has served as a teacher at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, was a teacher and the principal at Mount St. Joseph Academy and was a chaplain at Norwich University in Northfield and chaplain to the Sisters of Mercy in Burlington.
 
Now 80 and the oldest pastor in the diocese, Msgr. Lavalley often preaches about Our Lady and relates his appreciation of the Annunciation. “She gives us the key to holiness. It’s one word: Yes,” he said. “Every time we say ‘yes’ to God, we are imitating Our Lady. Every time we say ‘yes’ to God, Jesus happens again in us.”
 
After the Annunciation, the angel left Mary, and “she let God be in charge; she had trust in Him,” he said.
 
People are called to be saints, he emphasized, and Our Lady can help by interceding through her prayer. “We do not worship her. We worship only God. We honor her; we honor the saints.”
 
As he looks to the future, Msgr. Lavalley keeps Our Lady close. “I don’t want to retire. I love what I do,” he said. “We desperately need priests…and that’s what I am, a priest.”
 
He loves being a priest because of the sacramental life of the Church and because of his community. “I love the people. I love this parish,” he said. “And for the most part, they love me. I know that, and I feel that.”
 
So, he said, “If Our Lady gives me some time, (I) will use it…for just being a parish priest.”
 
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