On Palm Sunday, April 9, Sister Lucy died in South Buffalo.
I met her there almost two years ago, and she jokingly told me that, “God lives in South Buffalo.”
In retrospect, I think she was on to something. Because one way God certainly lived in South Buffalo was through Sister Lucille Socciarelli, a Religious Sister of Mercy for 64 years who died at the age of 82. She taught in elementary and high schools throughout the Diocese of Buffalo for 30 years, served in youth ministry in Florida and later served in pastoral care at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo for another three decades.
But she is most famous as the teacher who inspired Tim Russert to become a journalist. Russert – the iconic moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press” who died in 2008 – wrote about Sister Lucille in his memoir, “Big Russ & Me.” That’s where I first met Sister Lucille, in the pages of that book.
The title character in “Big Russ & Me” was Russert’s dad, a plain-spoken World War II veteran who worked two full-time jobs for 30 years – with the Sanitation Department and driving a newspaper delivery truck – to send his four kids to Catholic school. The lessons about devotion to his family and his Catholic faith, and about hard work, selflessness and respect for others that he learned from his dad shaped Russert’s life and work.
But chapter nine of that book described another key role model for his life – Sister Lucille, his seventh grade teacher at St. Bonaventure School in Buffalo whom students nicknamed “Sister Kennedy” because of her unabashed enthusiasm for the nation’s first Catholic president.
One day, Sister Lucille told him, “Timmy, we have to find a way to channel your excessive energy. I’m starting a new school newspaper, and you’re going to be the editor.”
His school paper, the Bonette, was printed on a mimeograph machine, but the students put out a special edition following the tragic assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. Russert sent copies of the memorial edition to President Johnson, Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. In his book, he recounted that “to my amazement, all of them wrote back to thank us,” and he added that a lesson he learned then is “that no publication is too small to have an impact.”
Maureen Orth, Russert’s widow, told the Buffalo News that “Sister Lucille’s vibrance, energy and humor, her love of life, her curiosity and astuteness made her the spark that ignited seventh-grade Tim Russert’s passion for politics and journalism.”
She added that the reaction that Russert and his classmates received after their school paper’s coverage of President Kennedy’s death became an “awakening” for the future TV journalist, “when he got it that news could be powerful and a force for public good.”
In “Big Russ & Me,” Russert wrote that Sister Lucille was chatty, had a great sense of humor, liked popular culture and even sometimes played baseball with her students, swinging the bat, and “rounding first base with her black habit and rosary beads flying in the wind.” It was no wonder then, that he and many of his classmates considered her to be “the coolest teacher we had ever met.”
After Tim Russert wrote “Florida, Florida, Florida” on his dry erase board in the early morning hours during NBC’s coverage of Election Day 2000, when the close presidential race depended on the electoral vote from the Sunshine State, one viewer later sent him a note about his penmanship – Sister Lucille.
“She is always with me,” Russert once told a gathering of Catholic teachers.
He later established an award named for Sister Lucille to honor outstanding Catholic school teachers in the Archdiocese of Washington, and an award for Catholic educators begun by Russert in the Diocese of Buffalo is given annually in honor of Sister Lucille and Jesuit Father John Sturm, the prefect of discipline at Canisius High School in Buffalo who likewise had a lasting impact on the future journalist.
Fast forward to 2015, and I was serving on the board of directors for the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, which was having its annual conference that summer in Buffalo, Tim Russert’s beloved hometown. I knew that when the CPA came to Buffalo, we had to honor Tim Russert’s life and legacy as a journalist and as a man of faith.
We invited Luke Russert – who had followed in his father’s footsteps to become a correspondent for NBC – to offer a keynote address, but his schedule during a hectic campaign season prevented him from coming.
At our conference’s opening dinner, we arranged to screen a short video about Tim Russert provided by the Buffalo History Museum, which has Russert’s desk and the contents of his office from his “Meet the Press” days as part of its permanent display.
By happenstance – but I think such coincidences are not a matter of luck or serendipity, but of God’s grace – about a week before the conference, I attended a benefit dinner for a Latin American charity, and I noticed that one of the guests was Maureen Orth, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and award-winning journalist who served in the Peace Corps in Colombia. I introduced myself and told her of our plans to honor her late husband at our Catholic press meeting. She told me that Sister Lucille had just moved back to Buffalo the week before, and shared some contact information for her.
The next day, I invited Sister Lucille to attend our conference as our honored guest, and if she wanted, to say a few words about her famous former student. When we connected in a phone call, she told me to call her Sister Lucy, and yes, she would love to come and speak about her “Timmy.”
At the 2015 Catholic Media Conference in Buffalo, I joined my wife Carol – who is a reporter for the Catholic News Service – in borrowing a colleague’s car, and serving as an impromptu limo service for our VIP speaker, pulling up to the Mercy Center in the aforementioned South Buffalo, where Sister Lucy then lived in retirement.
We had quite a fun ride to Buffalo’s conference center, entertained by Sister Lucy, who turned out to be a world-class character whose sense of humor and enduring faith had perhaps been shaped by Buffalo’s snowy winters that were always followed by spring. On her blazer, she wore a “GO BILLS” button, which almost seemed to be part of her habit as a Religious Sister of Mercy in Buffalo. Like Russert, she was a diehard fan of that city’s NFL team, which went to four straight Super Bowls between 1991 and 1994 but lost all four championship games.
I experienced her pastoral side, too, as she offered words of encouragement for my family, which was enduring the heartache of my dad’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Later, I learned how meaningful our conference invitation was to Sister Lucy. She had moved back to Buffalo on the anniversary of Tim’s death.
I sat by her at the opening dinner, and she had tears in her eyes as she watched the video tribute to Tim. After I introduced her as our honored guest, Sister Lucy offered a touching remembrance of her famous student, and noted that he once told her, “One nun can make a difference and you did.”
That year, the Catholic Church happened to be celebrating the Year of Consecrated Life, and Sister Lucy’s appearance at our conference offered a testimony to the impact that women and men religious have made, and continue to make, in individual lives, and in our nation’s Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable outreach programs, every day.
When she finished her remarks, my colleagues gave her a standing ovation, and many lined up afterward to greet her. Carol and I had another delightful ride with Sister Lucy back to the Mercy Center. I asked her to sign my copy of “Big Russ & Me,” and she did.
A few days later, Carol and I received a sweet card in the mail from Sister Lucy, in her lovely penmanship. She wrote, “You and your family are always in my heart and daily prayers.”
Sister Lucy added, “The Conference brought Tim home to me, as always, and I was home in his Buffalo! God is so good to me.”
She also included a little prayer card with words from St. Francis de Sales, that read in part, “God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things… Do not fear what may happen tomorrow, the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day… He will either shield you from suffering, or will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.”
Those words from the patron saint of journalists undoubtedly gave that Sister of Mercy strength when she learned the devastating news on June 13, 2008 that her former student, Tim Russert, had died of a heart attack at the age of 58.
What a blessing it was for me to meet Sister Lucy, first in the pages of Russert’s book, and then in person, when she became our teacher at the 2015 Catholic Media Conference in Buffalo. She proved to me that God does indeed live in South Buffalo, and everywhere else where we share and live his story.