Once the wheels started turning in Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s head during a visit to the southside Society of St. Vincent de Paul meal program in late March, there was no way to put the brakes on his blossoming idea.
And, as the idea took hold, the wheels kept spinning – literally – last Saturday, as 62 bikes, bike parts andbicycle repair tools rolled into the Cousins Center in the first of two Saturday collections to benefit a bike ministry operated at the southside meal program.
As he explained in an interview with the Catholic Herald last week, during his visit, he was given a tour of the facility at 931 W. Madison St., Milwaukee. He saw the prayer room, the clothing room, the food pantry – things you’d expect at one of the two St. Vincent de Paul meal sites that combine to serve more than 167,000 meals annually.
But, he admitted, his interest was piqued when they walked into a large room filled with bikes and people repairing them.
“One area that caught my attention was a ‘bike’ shop,” he wrote in his May 6 weekly “Love One Another” communiqué sent to 9,000 clergy, parish staff members and other church leaders throughout the archdiocese. “There I was introduced to a wonderful ministry.”
He learned that the bikes were an outreach effort, known as the Southside Bicycle Co-op, started about four years ago by a small group of people, led by Chris Jaszewski, 62, a Society of St. Vincent de Paul member, and avid bike rider, who doesn’t even have a driver’s license.
Bikes – new or used – bike parts, tools or tires may be dropped off at the Cousins Center, 3501 S. Lake Drive, St. Francis, on Saturday, May 24, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monetary donations may be sent to Catholic Charities of Southeastern Wisconsin, 3501 S. Lake Drive, P.O. Box 070912, St. Francis, WI, 53207-0912. Place “bike” in the notation line and donations will be sent to the St. Vincent de Paul bike shop.
Individuals interested in helping to repair bicycles at the St. Vincent de Paul southside meal program site, 931 W. Madison St., Milwaukee, should call Chris Jaszewski, (414) 255-8578.
Jaszewski and his crew, including James Laes, Kelly Krachtt, Charles and Clarence Perez and Lisa Bray, repair bicycles and piece them together from parts in order to provide a means of transportation to those in need.
The archbishop learned that about 20 bikes have been distributed to needy individuals in the past three years, and during that time span some 250 to 300 bikes had been repaired.
The idea took hold of Archbishop Listecki. He thought of the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and you offer him a source of food for the rest of his life.”
But, as he explained in his communiqué, “Someone has to provide the fishing pole. For me, the bike was the fishing pole. A bike is a high maintenance vehicle, wear and tear is heavy and it was here at St. Vincent de Paul that the bike was repaired and maintained.”
He envisioned himself and other church members as providing the “fishing pole” to the needy. In this case, they’re providing used bicycles, bike parts, tools and even monetary donations to keep this ministry going.
After a second visit to the meal site, this time with two “biker”-friends from the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Jan Wagner and John Lancaster, whose “eyes got real big in terms of what they could do,” according to the archbishop, he wrote about his plan in the May 6 communiqué.
He offered the Cousins Center as the drop-off site on two Saturdays – last Saturday and the upcoming May 24 – for old bikes, parts of bikes, tires, tools, anything that can be used in the bike ministry at St. Vincent de Paul.
“Of course, not everyone has an old bike or bike parts, but people may want to help. So there’s always a monetary gift,” he wrote, noting that since he does not have a bike or parts to donate, he would make a gift of $200 – the cost of a new bike.
Without publicity, other than the Love One Another note, the first weekend of donations brought in 62 bikes in various shapes and sizes, assorted bike parts, tires, frame and some tools, according to Jerry Topczewski, the archbishop’s chief of staff.
Additionally, $1,145 has been donated through Catholic Charities, according to communications manager, Sharon Brumer.
Once word was out about the collection, Archbishop Listecki said he began hearing from many people.
“’I’m in. Count me in. Whatever you need, count me in,’” he said people told him, adding he received a call from a bike mechanic who pledged to donate two Saturdays repairing bikes and a tool manufacturer who said he’ll supply tools to repair the bikes.
“You have something that connects with a lot of people with what they do. They see the connectedness of maybe helping people to work,” he said, adding, “all sorts of residual things have happened just from wanting to get a few bikes over to the St. Vincent de Paul (meal site.)”
Happy to have the spotlight placed on a needed ministry, Jaszewski said, as a Christian, this kind of outreach “is wonderful, beautiful, everything I could hope for.”
On the practical side, he hopes the initiative also surfaces volunteers to help repair bicycles as well as much-needed tools.
The bike repair ministry operates at the meal program most days, Sunday through Friday, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Admittedly, it’s not a lot of time to repair a complicated problem, said Jaszewski, who added that sometimes a repair can stretch over several days.
Yet, he knows his efforts are paying dividends.
“Some like me rely on a bicycle to get around and when the bicycle breaks down, there is no place to fix it, no tools, they don’t have the right parts,” he said, adding he’s happy that St. Vincent de Paul has provided the space to allow them to help others.
“It’s extremely rewarding,” said Jaszewski of the bike ministry. “Some come back and congratulate us and say thank you and that is very gratifying and it does happen more often than not.”
Archbishop Listecki is pleased with the traction his idea has generated.
“If you get people excited about something and they can promote it – some things, simple things like this bike thing, will take off almost on its own. Other things you have to repeat again and again and again, then all of a sudden they catch fire,” he said. “This was just one of those crazy things where people got excited by it.”
It also highlights the various ways the Catholic community helps others, according to Topczewski.
“It’s amazing how a simple idea with very limited publicity can generate that kind of response. The archbishop has said people have come up to him at all kinds of different places – at confirmations, at meetings, on pastoral visits – somehow people have heard about it, which is great.
“To me, it’s a sign of the good work of the church. We often forget in how many countless ways, the church does ministry, in all these quiet, almost invisible ways. I’m sure many people – the archbishop included and myself – never knew St. Vincent de Paul had this (bike) ministry, but (it’s) some dedicated, committed Catholics trying to do in their own small ways, something positive to benefit people in need in the community,” said Topczewski.