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Posted August 6, 2009

A Success Story Worth Duplicating

Priest-trucker provides loads of assistance

by John Franko

Father Tom Lewandowski is putting his skills as a former long-distance truck driver to work in order to help the needy of northern Kentucky.

Several times a year, the pastor of North American Martyrs in Monroeville rents a tractor-trailer and drives collected items to the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center in the town of Louisa.

He collects the items from church flea markets and stores them in the rectory garage at North American Martyrs. More than a dozen parishes, mostly in the South Hills, have contributed items, as well as a Lutheran church in White Oak and a church in Cleveland.

Father Lewandowski will take about anything, from clothes to housewares to furniture.

“Quite simply, it’s just following the golden rule to love another,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about — sharing love and kindness, and charity, and being involved with people in their lives.” Father Lewandowski tries to schedule several pick-ups together. He uses a smaller truck to make the local collections.

In June, more than a dozen of his parishioners came together to help him load a 53-foot trailer for his latest trip to Louisa.

“There are so many people who are involved and working together to help people in need,” he said.

The Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center was founded by Msgr. Ralph Beiting in 1991 as an outreach ministry of his parish of St. Jude in Louisa. He continues to be an active force there at the age of 83.

The center offers emergency assistance and economic development. The emergency services are accessed through a warehouse and a number of thrift stores. Transitional housing for at-risk families is also offered through a Point of Hope program.

Father Lewandowski described Msgr. Beiting as “the king of second-hand stuff” and said he finds good use for just about anything.

He noted, however, that Msgr. Beiting does not believe in just giving free handouts. Those who need furniture or other items are asked to volunteer time in one of the thrift stores.

This is done, Father Lewandowski said, so the people develop a sense of respect for themselves.

“He’s all about education and empowerment, and to teach the people the value of what they have,” he said.

Larry Britt, who manages the warehouse in Louisa, said the people of the area have come to know Father Lewandowski and look forward to his visits.

“It helps out a lot of people here,” he said of the priest’s deliveries. “He’s a really great guy.” The warehouse and thrift stores serve people in more than 40 counties. In addition, the center distributed more than 300,000 pounds of food last Christmas.

Father Lewandowski has come to schedule one of his summer trips with a youth camp involving local teens. This month, teens from North American Martyrs, St. Sylvester in Brentwood, St. Basil in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood and St. Peter in Slippery Rock will travel to Louisa.

Their activities will include painting, home repairs, working at a vacation Bible school, unloading the trailer and working on the warehouse.

Father Lewandowski noted that Our Lady of Joy in Holiday Park, St. Bede in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood and St. Benedict the Abbot in Peters Township have also been involved in sending young people.

“He (Msgr. Beiting) has quite an extensive Diocese of Pittsburgh connection,” he said. Mary Ellen Phillips, youth minister at St. Basil, will make her ninth trip to the area this year.

She described the harsh conditions of the region, but she noted that the people are proud and follow Msgr. Beiting’s example of giving back in service.

Phillips also pointed out that Msgr. Beiting’s vigor, despite his age, and the example of other committed volunteers leaves an impression on the young people.

“It shows them by example what they need to do,” she said.

Father Lewandowski’s association with Msgr. Beiting’s mission began in 1995 when he was a seminarian at St. Thomas More in Bethel Park.

He made his first delivery to Louisa in 2001 when he was a parochial vicar at St. Basil. He started out using a box truck, but he soon needed a larger trailer.

Father Lewandowski estimated that he has made between 18 and 20 trips to Louisa, located just across the Ohio River from Huntington, W.Va. He averages about three trips a year.

The trips allow Father Lewandowski to keep in touch with his truck-driving roots, and he appreciates the opportunity to combine his skills with his church ministry.

“It gives all of us a way to live out our baptismal commitment in our various and our unique vocations,” he said.

Father Lewandowski will make his final trip of the year to Louisa in late August. Parishes with items to contribute should contact him at 412-373-0330.