Catholic Energizer Making it Happen

Susan Laielli – Special to the Florida Catholic

If you have ever needed bereavement services from St. Cecilia Parish in Fort Myers, chances are you have been hugged, supported, and loved by 88-year old Claire Johnson.

Since 2008, Johnson has been supporting the grieving of the Parish from the beginning of the planning process until the last song plays at the funeral for a loved one.

“I tell them when they come in, it’s ok, go ahead and cry. It’s part of the healing process and it is very therapeutic,” said Johnson, from the Parish library, where she meets those coming in to plan a funeral. “Some of them have never planned a funeral before, there is a lot to know.”

A nurse for 40 years, Johnson understands the grieving process and works very hard to meet a family’s needs because she admits as a volunteer for the Bereavement Ministry, she wants everything to be just right for those suffering the loss of a loved one. It was not that long-ago she was in their shoes.

Moving to Florida in 1970, Johnson lived in four foreign countries and nine states with her husband George, who retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years of service. The pair met in high school at the age of 15 in Lawrence, Mass., and were married for almost 55 years before his death.

“I came to St. Cecilia’s Parish to join a friend after being a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish since 1974,” said Johnson. “After my husband died 13 years ago, I couldn’t go back. It was too hard.”

Suffering the loss of a loved one can change a person forever. Johnson believes the Holy Spirit began working on her more than a decade ago to move into the Bereavement Outreach at St. Cecilia, where she joined many others and quickly learned what needed to be done.

It is not surprising then that Johnson obtained her master’s degree in Public Health at the age of 64 and went to work for the Lee County Health Department for many years, before retiring and volunteering for the Church full-time.

“I attend every funeral with the family, because it’s important they know they have an advocate until the service is completed,” said Johnson, who also serves as the Sacristan for the Masses.

One might think that is quite enough to keep a person busy, however, she also volunteers as a Eucharistic Minister to the Homebound, operates as a sous-chef for the Lenten fish fry, conducts private home visits for hospice patients and prays the rosary at their bedside. She also leads the Rosary Group on Tuesdays following daily Mass.

As a decorator and coordinator for the former Senior Lunch at the Parish, she says the name was changed to Lunch Bunch. It sounds nicer.

“I am part of an excellent, caring team of bereavement ministers – and I’m very blessed!”



A 35-Year Journey from Parish Staff to Volunteer

Who’s Making it Happen

Susan Laielli – Florida Catholic

To experience true energy and joy spend a few minutes with Diane Sochacki, a retired St. Catherine Parish office secretary and obvious jack-of-all trades after 35 years, who now serves as a volunteer, at 81-years young, because she can’t slow down.

It was the mid 1980’s when Sochacki and her husband moved to Sebring from Toledo, Ohio, and became members of St. Catherine Parish.  When registering her young family in the Parish office, she asked the secretary if they needed any volunteers.  The 70-year old woman told her, “No, we are fine.”  So, she never volunteered for anything.

The Pastor at the time, Father Jose Ruiz, caught up with Sochacki after Mass one day and asked why she never volunteered for anything.  Sheepishly, she replied, “I didn’t think you needed any help.”

Sochacki laughs when she remembers a parishioner telling her in front of the broccoli at a Sebring grocery store, that Father Ruiz really needed help with a lot of different things because his secretary became quite ill.

As a former executive secretary in Ohio, Sochacki would then spend the next 35 years as the St. Catherine Parish secretary, and the first face and welcoming committee of the Parish for families stopping in to register for baptisms, confirmations, marriages and funerals. She produced the weekly bulletin and embraced technology along each step of the way, from ledgers and adding machines, to computers and iPhones. Sochacki took many sick calls to help locate Father Ruiz, so he could go to hospitals and homes of the sick and dying.

It brought much sadness when Father Ruiz himself was eventually diagnosed with a fast-moving terminal cancer.

“Oh, that was hard,” she recalls. “Father didn’t want to tell people he had terminal cancer. He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t say he was going to die, so instead he’d say, ‘While I’m away’,” said Sochacki.

The Parish staff became instrumental in joining the Diocese of Venice to plan the memorial service for Father Ruiz and forced all to own up to the reality that Parish life must continue beyond Father Ruiz.

In 2003, Father Jose Gonzalez took over as Administrator, and eventually as Pastor of St. Catherine Parish, having previously served since 1994 in the Hispanic Apostolate in Avon Park, Sebring and Lake Placid. Having a right hand like Sochacki must have been priceless.

“Father Jose grew this Parish to include the school and added many different ministries and activities which were not here before,” added Sochacki.

The Parish has also become increasingly diverse with Filipino- and Indian-language prayer groups, Masses in English and Spanish, as well as religious education classes in English and Spanish, not to mention all the School activities occurring regularly. Now as a volunteer, Sochacki oversees Liturgical Ministries for the Parish.

“I like to say that Father Ruiz built the Parish, and Father Jose grew the Parish,” Sochacki said, smiling.

She was also responsible for learning, growing and using the new software for ministry scheduling for the Parish. Let’s hope Sochacki doesn’t forget to schedule in her own 50th Wedding Anniversary on August 25, 2020.

“I already attended the Anniversary Mass on February 1 at Epiphany Cathedral with Bishop Dewane. We were so excited to have our picture taken with him!” she giggles.

Former surgeon cuts to the heart of the matter

Who’s Making it Happen

Susan Laielli – Florida Catholic

For much of his career as a general surgeon in Chicago, Ill. and a small Kansas town, Dr. Fernando Ugarte admits he didn’t make too much time for Church outside of Sunday Mass. That changed dramatically since his retirement three years ago with a move to Southwest Florida, and an influx of time and talent.

It seems Ugarte now makes himself available for Parishes in the Sarasota area which may need something.  Whether as a Eucharistic Minister with Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch, or through the lens of his camera as a photographer for special projects with St. Jude Parish in Sarasota or the photography club with Our Lady of Carmel Parish in Osprey, Ugarte is ready to help.

“Photography makes me realize the beauty of the world and the loveliness of the things that are around us,” said Ugarte, a Peruvian born Catholic. “I discovered through the lens of my camera I can see things that other people don’t notice.”

Parishioners of St. Jude Parish may have spotted Ugarte’s work through the refurbishment of the Parish’s outdoor Stations of the Cross, which appeared rundown next to the new walkway surrounding a serene lake filled with beautiful birds.

“This is one of those little miracles for me, that I still find shocking,” Ugarte explained.

When he was seven-years-old and attended Jesus Hostia Parish in Lima, Peru, Ugarte grew up admiring the Stations of the Cross in his hometown Church. Now, 70 years later, he would photograph each Station, with a plan of creating permanent metal images for the Parish, which are better designed for outdoor wear and tear.

Mistakenly, the manufacturer sent the wrong size pictures, which were too small. How disappointing, he thought, to know the beautiful Stations of the Cross might go to waste. That was until he happened to be at St. Jude Parish and noticed that their Stations of the Cross needed an upgrade.

“I went right home with the measurements, and what do you know, the pictures of the Lima Stations that I received in the wrong size, fit perfectly in the little frames at St. Jude,” he laughs. “What are the chances of that!”

Parishioners can see the colorful metal Stations of the Cross currently on display at St. Jude Parish, but mostly Ugarte can be seen during Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Angels Parish, where he only trained to be a Eucharistic Minister three years ago.

“Oh, I was extremely nervous, I was shaking like a leaf the first time I gave Communion to people, thinking that I was going to do a bad job,” Ugarte recalls.

This, from a man who spent his entire 52-year career as a successful surgeon operating on people.

“Well, I soon discovered how important it was to be a Eucharistic Minister,” Ugarte admits. “It’s important not to rush, and I learned how we should look at people in their eyes while giving Communion. You can see how they feel, and you can see the soul of a person by looking into their eyes.”

Ugarte says it’s important for him to connect with God and the person, as a Eucharistic Minister.

“I have the feeling that I am doing something wonderful,” he says, tearing up.

Who’s Making it Happen – Smoothie lady feeds the soul

Susan Laielli – Special to the Florida Catholic

A heart of gold is what you’ll find when meeting and getting to know volunteer Rebecca Linarez of St. Michael Parish in Wauchula; but she’ll simply say it’s her gratitude to Our Lord that keeps her working nearly seven nights a week for the Church.

Volunteer volunteer Rebecca Linarez of St. Michael Parish in Wauchula is know for making smoothies.

Regardless of her full-time job as a senior clerk with the Florida Department of Health’s WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and Nutrition Division, Linarez can be found Monday through Wednesday evenings at St. Michael Parish. Sometimes she is preparing snacks and making her famous fresh mango smoothies for the children in Religious Education, or teaching the Catechism to first graders on Thursday nights. Maybe she is helping with youth group events on Friday night, or serving in the food bank on Saturday mornings, and then it’s back to making smoothies and snacks most Sundays.

On some nights, if needed, she even may be driving the school bus to pick up children for Religious Education.

“The moms and dads are working in the fields all day and are too tired sometimes to get the kids to Church, so we help them get here,” said Linarez, as if she’s caring for family.

It all began nearly 20 years ago when Linarez, who was not really involved with the Church at all, says her husband walked out leaving her with their three children, ages 17, 14, and 7-years old to clothe, feed and raise. Regardless of having a job working for the Department of Health, she was worried about her children’s future, and their well-being. That’s when she visited St. Michael Parish to speak with the Sisters about finding help for her family.

“Oh my, the Sisters were so helpful to me at that time. I wanted to direct my kids to something better in life – I owe God a lot,” said Linarez.

Her new relationship with God Almighty would soon be put to the test it seems when in 2004 Hurricane Charlie destroyed her family’s mobile home, leaving the family homeless. Adding insult to injury, when the application process was beginning for emergency aid, she was told she made too much money to qualify for assistance.

“It was only a few dollars over, but we were left in limbo with nowhere to go,” said Linarez, who never gave up praying and having faith despite some pretty dark days.

Linarez was blessed to receive a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer, but this would be allowed for a short period of time, and it took forever to figure out the system in order to start to repair the hurricane damages to her mobile home, and the land costs where the trailer sat were adding up.

“I didn’t have enough money to pay for the land where the destroyed property was located, and repair the house, so it was like a ‘Catch-22,’” explained Linarez.

When times seemed the darkest, a woman came out of nowhere she recalls, and told her about a program through the county to help repair the mobile home.

“I couldn’t believe it! I filled out an application and it was approved. The county’s program helped me tear down the old home and rebuild another one on the same spot, and that’s where I live today, all these years later,” said Linarez, smiling.

Her glowing eyes tell the whole story of the joy she feels today, and the consistent need deep in her heart to give back to God for all she has received from Him.

Seven days each week, St. Michael Parish and the students are blessed to have the Linarez making her famous smoothies and teaching the Catechism while instilling her thankfulness in the more than 900 children who attend Religious Education classes at the Parish.

“They say, Ms. Linarez, are you making your smoothies?” she laughs.  “Oh yes, you bet!”

Former lawyer now visits prisoners to teach the Bible

Who’s Making it Happen

Susan Laielli – Florida Catholic

Retirement for many successful former Florida labor attorneys might encompass sunny days on the golf course and fancy lunches with his wife and friends, but not for Gene Tischer, who spends weekdays giving back to others in the name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Most days Gene can be found teaching a Bible study at St. Patrick Parish in Sarasota, volunteering to gather food and supplies for a homeless mission in Bradenton or serving as a Diocese of Venice Prison Minister at the DeSoto Correctional Facility and the Florida Commitment Center in Arcadia.

Every Wednesday he awakes before dawn to prepare for the 135-mile round trip to the prison in Arcadia, where he holds Bible study classes for some of the most isolated people in our society – convicted felons.

He admits the men are so thankful for the teachings of the Bible and it becomes clear those in attendance want to repent for their mistakes, which is why Gene says he does this type of volunteerism.

“These are souls, and no soul shall be left behind,” he said, confidently shaking his head yes.

Since November 2016 he has been volunteering with the Diocese of Venice Prison Ministry first inside the Sarasota County Jail before being asked to join the DeSoto Correctional Facility in March of this year. He recalls how that happened.

“There wasn’t much to it. Father Russell (Wright, Parochial Vicar of St. Patrick) asked me to join the prison ministry team in Arcadia. Have you seen Father Russell?” Gene said, laughing. “It’s hard to say no to him!”

Father Wright is known to be persuasive when he believes in a cause such as sharing the Bible with prisoners.

Teaching the Bible is something Gene is not only passionate about but is skilled and trained to do. He entered St. Andrew Seminary in Rochester, N.Y., as a junior in high school, followed by four years at St. Bernard College Seminary. He attended Gregorian University in Rome for one year before deciding to study law at Georgetown University, where he met his wife Bobby.

The pair would adopt two sons, Jason and Tanner, just like his parents did when they thought they couldn’t have children.

“I was quite a surprise for my parents,” Gene recalls, being the youngest and only biological child of his parents, who raised all three children in Victor, N.Y.

When talking with the prisoners in the Bible Study class he tries to instill a better thought process in the men to have improved judgement in the future.

“I feel terrible sympathy for what some of these guys did. I feel much sympathy for the victim’s families too,” Gene said. “I tell these guys, it’s a horrible thing that you did, but Jesus died for your soul, He was on that cross and sees your face. He knew you were going to kill that guy, and He still wants you to live with Him in heaven – now do the work to get there.”

He exudes joy and confidence, which must be difficult these days as his wife battles chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and is now taking oral chemotherapy. But in typical Gene style he changes the subject to someone else’s misfortune.

“Please pray for our friend’s 16-year old child who is now battling an aggressive tumor.”

How to volunteer

There are approximately 15,000 people incarcerated within the 10-county Diocese of Venice on any given day. These individuals populate 10 county jails and seven state prisons across the region. To minster to the spiritual needs of these inmates, there are about 150 volunteers who are actively involved in prison ministry. This includes 25 priests and 10 deacons. That is not nearly enough. For information about how to volunteer for Prison Outreach in your area, please contact Robert Hiniker at 863-558-0407 or

Who’s Making it Happen – New Catholic makes a difference

Susan Laielli – Naples –

No one wants to get up early enough to make the donuts, but Marcia McShane will gladly hand you one with a warm smile after Sunday morning Masses at St. Ann Parish in Naples, as part of her new duties as an assistant on the social committee.

Marcia McShane, right, is a volunteer at St. Ann Parish in Naples and she is ‘Making it Happen’ seen getting donuts ready on Oct. 6. She is seen with Laura Kowal, left, and Ashley Biffer, center.

When asking around the Parish which volunteers are making it happen for the large Southwest Florida Church, you’ll get plenty of names, almost too many to choose only one.

Before her new duties on the social committee, Marcia was mostly behind the scenes, setting up or cleaning up after the St. Patrick’s Day Party or the Back-to-School Picnic.  Often, she can be found moving books for the Director of Religious Education at the beginning and end of a year, understanding the many needs of educators, since she is a retired kindergarten teacher.

It’s not simply what Marcia does at St. Ann that makes her a standout, but it’s how she came to join the Parish and volunteer there, before eventually becoming a Catholic; that is frankly just as interesting.

Both Marcia and her husband Paul are admittedly children of inter-faith marriages from the 1940’s and 50’s, and when they married that history would continue, but the animosities did not.

“I learned early on love is about the person – my husband was Catholic, and I was not,” said Marcia.  “I grew up on military bases in several states and attended all types of churches and chapels, including one in Maryland where Annie Glenn, the wife of astronaut John Glenn, was my Bible School teacher.”

Before they would become world renowned astronauts John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Gus Grissom would train at a Navy test pilot school with Marcia’s father, and the group would eventually become golfing buddies.

During their 38 year marriage, Marcia and Paul would be blessed with two sons and continued to attend various Churches of all denominations in the north to worship our Lord.  It wasn’t until moving to Naples fulltime after retiring that the couple again began searching for a Church, when something really clicked for Marcia at St. Ann Parish.

“The people are very welcoming, and I love the family values, the history, and traditions of the Catholic Church,” said Marcia smiling.

After volunteering for quite some time in the Parish, Marcia decided it was time to take the next step and become Catholic, which almost did not happen at this year’s Easter Vigil.

On Good Friday, just one day before the Easter Vigil, Marcia’s father would suffer a heart attack and need to be rushed to a Naples hospital.  She would spend the next 24 hours unsure of his outcome, and uncertain if she would become Catholic.

“I almost became a three-year Catholic student of the faith, and one of Ms. Cybil’s eternal students,” she recalls, referring to the Director of Religious Education.

The doctor told her moments before the Easter Vigil started that her father was stable, offering her the comfort to leave and try to make the Mass.  She would make it just in time.

Volunteers in Diocese of Venice Catholic Churches are special people, acting on their faith, offering their time and resources to get a job done, and expecting nothing in return.

When asked what her motto would be if she had one, Marcia responded in perfect kindergarten teacher fashion, “Remember the book by Watty Piper, “The Little Engine that Could” – my motto would be, ‘I think I can!’”