By Dave Jolivet, Editor
HYANNIS — It’s not often when a vehicle, one that is much needed, breathes its last, and it turns out to be not a burden, but a blessing. However, the past year hasn’t been one in which normal is the rule. Yet for one agency in the Diocese of Fall River, that’s just what happened. An Easter miracle of sorts.
The diocesan ministry, Catholic Social Services, has served countless women, children and men who lack the basic necessities over the years — and continues to do so during this pandemic that has placed so many more in dire need. In addition, the ministry continues to provide safe refuge for women and children, and offers those who have made mistakes in their past the opportunity to turn their lives around.
Recently, CSS itself faced a great need. Among its many services, CSS runs the Grace House in New Bedford, which assists homeless women; and St. Clare’s House in Hyannis, a place where women coming out of incarceration can be re-integrated into the community.
Both houses rely on providing transportation for the women they assist for a number of reasons: providing rides to job interviews or training sessions, connecting with services in the community, and even shopping and learning the basics of day-to-day tasks. And both houses had such a vehicle, and both were in states of disrepair.
“God bless the staff there because the van we utilized at St. Clare’s House was basically being held together with duct tape and wires,” Susan Mazzarella, CEO of Catholic Social Services told The Anchor. “Eventually the van just died.” The van used by Grace House was experiencing a similar fate.
“We started the process of looking for a decent used vehicle for each site,” Mazzarella said. “The cost of a new van for each was so prohibitive, but we didn’t want to get a van that would constantly need repairs or that maintained smells like pets or tobacco smoke. The women we assist are used to having low self-esteem, and such a vehicle would do nothing to change that.”
But the search was difficult to come up with a decent product.
Recently CSS has developed a good working relationship with the diocesan Catholic Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts, a ministry responsible for raising, managing and distributing philanthropic funds to provide long-term, sustainable support for the parishes, schools and life-changing ministries across the diocese.
Mazzarella reached out to Miriam [Mim] Finn Sherman, CEO of the Catholic Foundation. “I contacted Mim and she and her staff were awesome,” Mazzarella said.
That contact ignited a chain reaction which started the wheels in motion. “On March 22, Mim contacted Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. and told him of our needs,” said Mazzarella. “Very quickly after that, the bishop reached out to a friend and very generous benefactor of the diocese, Jeff Cappo, who owns Victory Automotive Group, a conglomeration of more than 44 auto dealerships across the U.S.” On its website, Victory Automotive Group, promotes philanthropic endeavors citing: “Family. Faith. Future. These values help guide our giving.”
After contacting Cappo explaining the CSS needs, Bishop da Cunha called Mazzarella. “He called me back the same day Mim contacted him, and said to me, ‘What do you need?’” said Mazzarella.
She told the bishop what she was looking for. “The bishop simply said, ‘What color?’” continued Mazzarella. “I also expressed my concern that the vans be something the women riding in them can feel good about. The bishop told me that Jeff would get us two vans. The only smell they would have is that ‘new car’ smell. They were both brand new.”
Cappo reached out to Lou DeFranco, the general manager at Ocean Honda in Brockton and told him what CSS was looking for and DeFranco quickly accomplished the task.
“Mr. Cappo is very involved with the Church and the Fall River Diocese,” DeFranco told The Anchor. “Whenever Mr. Cappo wants to help others, I am also so happy to be a part of that, always willing to help. As general manager of the Brockton and Weymouth dealerships, I obtained exactly what Susan was looking for, one from each.
Mazzarella was floored with the news, overjoyed beyond her wildest hopes.
“A few days later, we went to Ocean Honda to sign for the vans,” Mazzarella told The Anchor. “Mr. DeFranco and his staff rolled out the red carpet for us. It was just wonderful. I started to cry. The vans were beautiful — they were 2022s! I was overwhelmed by this unexpected generosity.”
“It was great to see when the folks from CSS came to pick up the vans,” said DeFranco. “They were ecstatic. It feels so good to be able to help people like this. Victory Automotive Group does so many great things for people, and we here at Ocean Honda are grateful to be a part of that. It’s an awesome feeling knowing it will help people who really need it. I feel not enough people do things to help others, and when they do it goes a long way.
“We are blessed to be able to make a difference. It was a difficult year at the beginning last year, but things picked up and we’re doing very well. It is so worth it to be able to make a difference in others’ lives.”
“I Facetimed with Jeff to thank him,” Mazzarella told The Anchor. “It was Lent at the time, but it felt like Christmas. And if that wasn’t enough, each van came with a five-year service plan. The homes and those who utilize the vans will enjoy them for years to come.
“I don’t know if anyone knows just how impactful this incredible gift will be for two humble little shelters.”
“When I mentioned to Mr. Cappo that our Catholic Social Services was in need of two vans for the shelters, he didn’t hesitate and told me, ‘I’ll give you the two vans,’” Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor. “I know how important these vans will be for the work of St. Clare’s and Grace House shelter! I am personally encouraged by the generosity of many good faithful people who are ready to reach out and share their gifts and resources with those in need.
Sherman told The Anchor, “The Catholic Foundation is so pleased to be serving and working with our friends at Catholic Social Services. Since our founding in 2018, it has been our goal to help gain philanthropic support and donations for entities throughout the Diocese of Fall River, like CSS. Catholic Social Services truly does God’s work and it is wonderful when we can help shine the light on their mission and make others aware of how they can be of help.”
Mazzarella said that not only will the vans be a great and reliable asset to continue both shelters’ mission, but it goes beyond that. “What it would cost to buy two vans would have been equal to the salaries of three employees,” she said. “Keeping those funds allows us to preserve the status of our employees. It’s also uplifting to them and a morale boost, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These wonderful people couldn’t stop assisting the women during the pandemic and they put themselves at risk doing so. Being handed the keys to two brand new vans gave them such joy and a sense of value.
“And the residents, who don’t have many possessions, are impoverished and have low self-esteem, now have seeds of hope and worthiness planted, restoring some of their dignity.”
Mazzarella also told The Anchor that this story is a perfect example of what can happen when different agencies and ministries within the diocese can work together, for and with each other. “We’re all brothers and sisters called to solve problems utilizing and combining the resources that we have.”
That’s what Church is, and this, by far, is one of the best feel-good stories to emerge from a year-plus of fear, doubt and sadness — the Church in action.