The future of Cincinnatus’ New Ministries Gathering Place is in flux after its leader, Sister Kathleen Heffron, had a stroke in January.
The Cincinnatus nun moved into St. Joseph’s Provincial House in Latham, a home for nuns, after she was hospitalized and then completed her rehabilitation.
“I’m OK. I’m good. At least I survived the stroke,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I don’t know where I am going in life.”
New Ministries Gathering Place, at 2708 Lower Cincinnatus Road in Our Lady of Perpetual Help church, provides socialization and connects seniors and people in need with services.
It will be open 10 a.m. Tuesdays until the end of June, with Norma Rathbone and Karolyn Whaley, both of Pitcher, overseeing the nonprofit agency until the group decides whether it will continue.
“Things are still very much up in the air. They are taking shape. The final form is not clear,” said Dorothy Hathway of Lisle, an associate with the Sisters of St. Joseph office in Binghamton, which supports the nuns in a variety of ways.
“I have the place opened till the end of June,” Heffron said in a meeting at the center Thursday.
Heffron is the last of three nuns, Sisters of St. Joseph, who came to Cincinnatus in 1987. She, Sister Maureen Burns and Sister Genevieve Glennon started Cortland Chenango Rural Services, an outreach program of the Syracuse Diocese.
Their mission was to help families in Cortland and Chenango counties. They began the Cincinnatus Farmers Market, Nearly New Clothing Outlet and a food pantry.
Burns and Glennon died in 2006. Heffron directed the rural services for more than 30 years. After she retired, she started New Ministries about six years ago, because she saw senior citizens needing help.
Last week, Heffron met with her fellow volunteers to discuss plans for New Ministries’ future. Norma Rathbone and Karolyn Whaley do not want to direct the agency.
“We want to be here to help the people. But we don’t want to be head honchos,” Rathbone said.
“I don’t know how long I will be there,” Heffron, 80, said of the Latham home. “It depends on my health. Right now, I just finished therapy this week. I had the stroke on New Year’s Day. I was celebrating New Year’s.”
She is OK, enough to joke about New Year’s, anyhow. But she lacks energy.
“Until I get my energy back, I can’t make a real decision,” Heffron said. “If I don’t change, I will be shuffled into a wing of our community, in the sister home, which is active.”
“There’s a lot in this decision. The church is up in the air,” she said of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. “Father’s last Mass was Easter Sunday.”
“There is no clergy serving this church at this time,” Hathway said. “Maybe someone will be appointed in June. Maybe not.”
“There’s such a shortage of priests,” said Andy Baker of Pitcher.
“If everything was OK and I could find a place to live on the first floor …” Heffron said. “I can’t find anything. We have been working on that issue for years. I did apply for Cortland Housing Authority, but you are on a waiting list. There’s all these variables. Even if I came back and everything is the same, I don’t think I could do the four days.”
Before COVID-19, the center was open four days, including a Bingo social time and meal. Now it open on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. and people wear masks, do social distancing, get temperatures checked. The first Tuesday in May will feature a speaker on strokes, Rathbone said. “Five of our people have suffered strokes,” she said.
Heffron is forthright, no nonsense and gets people the help they need, said Bill Hopkins of Homer, who has been presenting “Life Challenges After 50” at New Ministries.
Heffron’s approach is thus: “If you are hungry, we will feed you. If you are cold, we will clothe you. If you are lonely, we will get you someone to talk to,” Hopkins said.
“I am a different person from knowing her,” said Hopkins, a retired SUNY Cortland professor. The nun taught him to never be reluctant to be generous.
“I needed help with the farm,” said Mary Mark of Pitcher, who came to the area from Long Island. “I needed help with the horses.”
“There’s a good man down the road,” Heffron told her.
The fellow, Tim Mark, helped her with barn cleaning. Side note: The couple married two years later; that’s another story.
“She was a strong supporter of me,” said Mary Mark. “I knew her for years. I was new to the village. I was not a Catholic. She was always supportive.”
“She always gave to someone else,” said Traci Baker of Pitcher. “Take it. Take it,” Heffron would insist, Baker said. “She is very, very kind.”
Hathway remembers the time Heffron and two other women came to her home to help pick pears from her pear tree. It was so loaded with fruit, the branches were hanging to the ground.
Heffron could not bear to see the fruit go to waste. She tried climbing the tree. That didn’t work. A ladder was added and everyone held onto the ladder. Heffron shook the pears off that tree.
“The thing that struck me was Sister Kathleen’s sense of adventure, her initiative and common sense approach,” Hathway said.