Norm Paolini had an instinctive ability to comfort people in need.
“He would always go to someone that he knew was either in trouble or alone or something,” recalls Amy Betros, who co-founded and co-directed St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy with Paolini.
Amy first met Norm during a pilgrimage to the Fatima shrine in Portugal in 1992. They developed an instant connection that would lead them on a spiritual journey, and a friendship of nearly 30 years.
“I think God had this planned for these two people to meet,” she said.
Betros sold her restaurant, ”Amy’s Place,” which she ran in the University Heights section of the city.
Paolini took an early retirement from his job as a cancer researcher at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
With help from a generous donor, they purchased St. Luke’s parish on Buffalo’s East Side from the Catholic Diocese.
“It sounded absurd. People thought we were absolutely crazy,” Betros remembers.
There was no blueprint for this type of work. Instead, they relied on faith, instinct and a deep desire to comfort, feed, clothe and care for those in need.
Betros says there was “something about Norm” that pushed her.
“I followed Norm because of who he followed. And I can tell you that he’s the closest person to Jesus I’ve ever met.”
Betros and Paolini served their first meal at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy in 1994.
As the need grew over the years, so did the mission. From free meals, thousands of holiday dinners to housing, programs for families and troubled teens, or a warm place to stay on a bitterly cold Buffalo night.
“We’d feed them and we would talk to them,” Betros said.
Norm Paolini died last week at the age of 71 after battling cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Known to many around the mission as “Uncle Norm,” his passing has opened the door for reflection on what many call an extraordinary and remarkable life.
“He was always encouraging. Always listened. He always supported. You know, he was my best friend,” explained a tearful Betros.
Joe Mombrea, a friend for 45 years, says Norm would be drawn to the disenfranchised, the poorest of the poor and those who no one wanted.
“He had such a sense of compassion for people. Never judged them. Never told them what you’re doing is wrong; you have to stop this behavior. He would always try and make people understand why they were hurting themselves,” said Mombrea.
Those who knew him best say Paolini lived the gospel and led by example through words, prayer and song.
“He heard a call and he felt he had to answer it immediately,” said Linda Paolini, Norm’s wife of nearly 50 years.
The two began dating as teenagers. She says Norm had this special quality about him from the beginning, and that it evolved over time.
Throughout their life together, she supported, nurtured and encouraged her husband’s spiritual calling.
“It’s all a series of yeses to God’s plan. And when you’re open to what God has in mind you’re always surprised,” she explained.
She was especially surprised when he decided to retire early and leave a steady, good paying job at Roswell Park, only to open the Walden Avenue mission.
Linda says it was a big step. They had to think about provisions for the family.
“That was a huge unknown. I wasn’t that secure in it at the time,” she said.
Joe Mombrea recalls the time Norm approached him about the idea leaving his job and starting a mission.
“ ‘What do you think?’ And I said, don’t ask me, ask Linda your wife. I mean, I don’t even want to be responsible for giving an opinion on that,” Mombrea said.
“If it wasn’t for his wife there would be no St. Luke’s mission as we know it. She was always the unsung hero in this story,” he added.
Linda did say yes, and over time she grew to accept, and eventually love the mission’s work.
“I wasn’t a happy camper in the beginning of it all, but God saw me through. He changed my heart like he changed many hearts over there. Saved many lives and it’s something to be thankful for,” she said.
The Norm Paolini story is one of compassion and goodwill.
It’s about a man with a spiritual calling who ministered naturally and without reservation. He was laser focused on helping those in need, making a difference one person at a time.
“He always went to the ones who felt unlovable, felt alone, felt that no one in the world cared about them. Norm would be sure to make that person the most special,” said Amy Betros.
As for his wife Linda, “I knew I was his number one as far as people in this world. I knew I was always, but I had to share him,” she said.
“It wasn’t easy, but it was a beautiful thing. Beautiful thing.”