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Hark: 2021 ‘Herald Angel’ keeps Basilica of St. Mary seniors active and connected

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Barbara Juszczyk is not a reader or a knitter. “I like activities,” she said.

After retiring from the federal government more than 20 years ago, she’s had time to explore all the cultural events and recreation the area has to offer, from opera to theater to day trips to horse racing — she and her husband, Bob, attend the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore every year. 

“I keep my husband and me out and about regularly,” said Juszczyk. Her enthusiasm and broad range of interests have made her the perfect volunteer shepherd for the Sts. Anne and Joachim Society, the seniors group at the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria, where she has been a parishioner for 44 years. The group is named for Mary’s parents, the grandparents of Jesus.

Petite and social, Juszczyk is 77, but people often take her for much younger. “I don’t feel like I’m a senior,” she said. She gravitated to the newly formed group about 15 years ago, and soon found herself leading it.

The love and care she brings to her leadership were key factors in Juszczyk being chosen from a competitive field as the Catholic Herald’s“Herald Angel” for 2021. She was nominated for the recognition by fellow parishioner Andrea Scott, a member of the young adult group at the basilica.

“I met her when a group of young adults volunteered to host a seniors dinner, and Barbara was there interacting with every single person,” Scott wrote. “She led the seniors through a hard COVID-19 pandemic, including the loss of several parish member seniors. I attended a few events at St. Mary's in October, and she was at every single one, mingling with parishioners and staying close to her community as a shining light.”

“She is a wonderful and dedicated parishioner,” said Father Edward C. Hathaway, rector.

Juszczyk refers to the seniors as “my people,” and watches over a group of regulars, currently about 30 participants ranging in age from 60 to 90. “It’s so rewarding. A lot of these people wouldn’t be getting out otherwise, and these activities are a place for them to connect,” she said. 

Being around older people is “kind of in my blood, and how I grew up,” she added. Her Polish grandparents lived with her family in Springfield, Mass., when she was a child, passing down a love of Polish foods and holiday traditions. “Helping out somebody who is older or doesn't drive seems like a natural kind of thing.”

Juszczyk said that when the seniors group meets, “I try to make sure I gather them in, and if there is someone new, I look out for that person,” she said. “I’ve never known of anybody that ever felt like they were not a part of what we’re doing.”

When they aren’t going on outings or attending cultural events, the group meets for brown-bag lunches with speakers or to view and discuss videos at St. Mary’s Lyceum, the building around the corner from the Basilica that houses parish offices and meeting spaces. Mobility is an issue for many seniors, and Juszczyk, a member of the parish council, is proud to have advocated for the building’s new elevator, which makes gatherings more accessible.

Most in-person activities have been on hiatus during the pandemic, but in October, there was an outdoor lunch in one of the parish courtyards, at which Juszczyk’s husband played the accordion. He also plays piano and guitar at the group’s events.

When the pandemic hit and the seniors couldn’t meet, Juszczyk started an email list to keep the group connected, so members wouldn’t feel isolated. She forwarded parish news, as well as resources, jokes, photos and links to online lectures, exercise classes, and virtual concerts to keep her people entertained and engaged when they couldn’t go out.

Looking for items to share helped keep her busy too, she said. “I would have gone stir crazy just sitting at home” with no activities.

It hasn’t always been easy juggling logistics, but she tries to roll with the punches. Once, a chartered bus for a trip didn’t show up — the company got the date wrong — so Juszczyk had to sort things out and reschedule. Also, people are sometimes forgetful. One woman who registered for an outing didn’t show up at the designated meeting time, and when Juszczyk called to check on her, the woman said “Was that today? Can I still go?” Juszczyk had the bus stop by her house to pick her up on the way out of town.

She’s occasionally taken members to the opera or symphony when Bob couldn’t go and she had an extra season ticket; she’s even gone grocery shopping for a member who couldn’t get out. It was no big deal, Juszczyk says: “I’m at the grocery store every day.”

At the time, the woman called Juszczyk an angel. Now it’s official.  

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021