Thanksgiving to me has always been the start of the holiday season. It’s a time where people seem to be a bit more appreciative of the things they’ve received and a desire to share those blessings with others. While we typically think of family and friends sitting around a large dining table decorated in a harvest motif, adorned with a variety of homemade dishes and a succulent roast turkey, I find in recent years my sentiments have turned more to ways we can share our abundance with others less fortunate. However, my thoughts this Thanksgiving season were inspired by a story I recently heard at church from a very special lady whose mission trip years ago to Nicaragua exemplified the true meaning of gratitude that will impact me for the rest of my life.
Gwen Coté, is this special lady who grew up on a family farm in the small upstate town of Plattsburgh, New York. As a teenager, Gwen began to recognize “the place and importance of God in her life”. She said, “I felt a calling to serve the poor and to help people know God was loving.” Where some of us growing up were inspired to be policemen or firemen, Gwen always felt called to be a priest, but that wasn’t an option in the Catholic Church. With fleeting thoughts of moving to a church that would afford her that opportunity, the Catholic Church was where her soul was firmly rooted, and at age 18 Gwen entered the Religious Sisters of Mercy and served as a Sister of Mercy for the next 30 years. In 2006 God called Gwen to serve in a new direction where she continued her role as a Catholic school Principal until 2017 when she retired from education.
Gwen initially moved to Punta Gorda to care for her elderly mother who was suffering from age-related dementia, but needing to work, she added, “no one gets rich being a nun for 30 years,” she applied to Sacred Heart Church. Pastor, Jerome “Jerry” Kaywell recognized Gwen’s talents immediately and hired her to be his Pastoral Associate. Technically her role is defined as meeting the pastoral needs of the people of the parish however, to those who know her contributions her handprint can be found in almost every corner of the church. Gwen reflects, “Giving was a family thing. My Mom was very attentive to the needs around her and she seated the responsibility to help others deep in our hearts from my earliest memories. She would often adopt a project and we were always a part of the service.” She recalls one of the most “powerful” examples was when her mom “adopted” a man who lived a few miles from them. The man wasn’t related to them and didn’t have family to take care of him. Gwen’s mother decided that once a month they would bring him food she had frozen from what she made the family the month before. Then on a Saturday every month for years, they would clean his house, tidy his yard, plant flowers, and bring in wood, as he heated his home with only a wood stove. This care for others leads us to the inspiring story Gwen shared with the congregation that touched the lives of everyone present.
Looking back during the time she served as Principal of Seton Catholic High School in Plattsburgh, Gwen said for several years she had been involved with a group called “Mission of Hope.” Created as a result of a mission trip to Nicaragua that was inspired by one family from Nicaragua who attended the school to help their family back in their homeland recover from the mudslides from a devastating hurricane, this non-profit took on a “life of its own.” Today, Gwen adds, “it serves the people of Nicaragua in a multitude of ways from hospitals to eldercare, food to clinics and education to hope.” However, it was that trip to Nicaragua that left a lasting impression.
Gwen recalls, “Several times I was tasked with bringing a bag of rice and a bag of beans to the homeless families living in the woods. It was perhaps enough to feed a family of 5 for a week if they had light appetites.” She continued, “We would travel along the dirt road, and wherever there was a worn footpath into the woods, we would walk in and bring our simple treasures to these families. It never ceased to amaze me that before we were even back to the road, we would hear the people calling for other families who were deeper in the woods to come. They were not calling them to come to us to get rice and beans for themselves, but instead, they were calling them to come and share in the bounty they had received.” If this isn’t touching enough, Gwen reflected on a day when she was leaving one of the homes having delivered the bags of rice and beans, when she heard a little girl of about 3 years of age calling out to her. “She was stark naked and dirty from head to toe, running down the path after me. With enormous brown eyes and a smile that overshadowed the filth, she handed me a wildflower, hugged my leg, and whispered, “Gracias, Santa dama.” Thank you, holy lady.” Gwen said, “I didn’t feel much like a holy lady. I had given her family perhaps a couple of days of food. She gave me all she had.”
Gwen’s story reminded me of the bible story of the “Widow’s offering,” found in the twelfth chapter of the book of Mark, verses 41-44. It tells how Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were placed and watched the crowd putting money into the temple treasury. “Many rich people threw in large amounts, but a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins worth only a few cents.” Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything; all she had to live on.”
During our trying times, whether through the devastating effects of a hurricane or more recently the pandemic, there have been those who selfishly took more than they needed while others shared what little they had. As an educator, and now in the capacity as a Pastoral Associate, I asked Gwen if she had seen a marked difference in how people respond to adversity over the years. She responded by saying, “I think people are people and they are the same in every age. Our country often seems negative and divided right now and if that is what you focus on, that is what you see. But people are also amazingly generous and giving. We have seen that throughout the pandemic and over and again after any natural disaster. Where you look determines what you see. If you focus on the good that is what you see. We all choose what we focus on and how we respond. If we as a country can turn the prism we see through just a little we could easily see all the goodness and kindness taking care of one another.”
As our time came to a close, I shared with Gwen my thoughts on Thanksgiving and its significance to me. I asked if there is a life lesson or message she felt could be learned. She replied, “I think the message is simple. We are one. We are one people, on one planet with one set of resources. Whatever barriers we build between people and nations are temporary and somewhat of an illusion. We will be saved together or damned together. We are responsible for one another. We need to make the tough decisions and get to work making our world better for everybody. We are ONE.”
As I reflected on Gwen’s closing thoughts, I couldn’t help but reflect on that little 3-year-old girl with the flower whose gesture of gratitude left a lasting impression on me. I had to ask myself if I was doing enough to make a difference in the lives of others, not just once a year, but throughout the year. I realized more than ever, how blessed I was and the best way to show my gratitude was to help others in their time of need. After all, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about?
We wish you and your family a blessed Thanksgiving