It’s hard to say no to Leona Katorski. Just ask her dentist, the secretaries in her doctor’s office, area funeral home directors, women at the bakery counter and the man at the beer depot.Leona Katorski, a member of St. John Paul II Parish, Milwaukee, has been the top fundraiser for the St. Vincent de Paul Friends of the Poor Walk for several years. This year she singlehandedly brought in $4,260. (Catholic Herald photo by Maryangela Layman Román)

Those are among the many people who can’t turn down the nonagenarian who is not quite 5 feet tall, and have helped her become St. Vincent de Paul’s leading fundraiser for the society’s annual Friends of the Poor Walk.

Katorski, a member of St. John Paul II Parish, Milwaukee, singlehandedly brought in $4,260 this fall and each year, since the event began in 2009, she has brought in nearly $3,000, bringing her total to almost $18,000.

A member of Catholic Financial Life who celebrated her 92nd birthday at the end of November, she was recognized with an award from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for the most funds raised by an individual for the annual walk. 

Most of the donations she receives are small — $10, $20 from neighbors, parishioners or workers in her neighborhood.

“She asks in such a nice way, not in a forceful way,” said St. John Paul II Parish administrative assistant, Doreen Petrovic, one of the regular contributors that Katorski “hits up” each fall. “She’ll come in and say the walk is coming up … she is like a go getter – for her age. People just love her so they just do it. …. That’s a lot of work for her to do and every year she wants to do it better and better.”

Calling Katorski a grandma figure, Petrovic said they met about 12 years ago when she began working at the parish.

“She has a lot of spunk for her age,” said Petrovic, explaining that Katorski is an inspiration for others in the parish. “With her involvement in the parish, the school, St. Vincent de Paul, and the Knights of Columbus, when she goes to Masses and talks to people and does the walk, and collects donations, people think, ‘Wow, this woman has been here for so long and is so involved, has so much faith and a lot of good things happen to her.’ She has a lot of friends, and I think it does inspire a lot of people who probably think, she’s so old, but so involved and want to be like her.”

Humble about her efforts, Katorski was hesitant to talk about her fundraising. 

“My motto is, ‘I’m here to serve not to be served,’” she explained, adding, “I feel God has blessed me in so many ways, I have to share with others.”

Tops among her blessings, according to Katorski, are the three children she and her husband, Len, raised: Janice, a special education teacher; Gregory, an information technology architect; and Mary Beth, an accountant. She is also a proud grandparent of four, and great grandmother of one.

Katorski lives in the modest home on Milwaukee’s southside, near the St. Alexander site of St. John Paul II Parish, that she and Len built in 1950. Her “honey,” as she refers to Len, died in July 2012, and Katorski admitted she misses him deeply.

“Sixty-six years is a long time with a wonderful person,” she said reflecting on their marriage, “and I still talk to him every day.”

The couple met when she was 19, but shortly after, Len was drafted and spent the next four and a half years overseas. They wrote to each other regularly and soon after he returned from service, they married.

She was determined to provide for her children the education she herself did not receive. Katorski, the youngest of seven, dreamed of being a teacher and, in fact, was tops in her grade school class. She won a one-year scholarship to Holy Angels Academy and excelled there, but her family was unable to afford to have her continue at the Catholic school when the scholarship ended. She transferred to South Division High School.

Because of her experiences, she said she made sure her children received a Catholic education, and she and Len, a former postal worker, enrolled them in private schools: St. Alexander for elementary school, and St. Mary’s Academy and Don Bosco for high school. 

She and Len were involved in their parish and once it formed a St. Vincent de Paul conference, they joined.

“I remember my dad belonged and I said to my honey, ‘I think it would be nice if we joined,’” recalled Katorski of their introduction to SVdP. For 12 years she served as president and currently is vice president.

“I don’t go on house visits anymore. I broke my hip the same year my hubby died. I was doing a good deed and broke my hip,” she said, explaining she recovered as quickly as possible to be able to take care of Len. “I had surgery May 10 and my man died in July. Boy, I got to walking so fast. They never saw anyone recover so quickly, but I was doing that for my man.”

In the last five years of Len’s life, Katorski was his caretaker. 

“I took care of him all the time and they always brought him back,” she explained after Len suffered health setbacks such as a mini stroke, had a pacemaker inserted and had respiratory problems. “But one day, the Lord said, ‘This is it, Kiddo, I’m taking him.’”

After Len’s death, Katorski said she stepped up her efforts with the SVdP fundraising.

In the weeks before the late September walk, Katorski begins asking nearly everyone she encounters if they’d like to contribute. Her approach is not hard-sell, she explained, adding she places a lot of phone calls to solicit, but will also walk around her neighborhood asking friends and strangers alike.

“One fellow told me, ‘No one can say no to you,’” said Katorski, adding that her parish allows her to speak briefly about the fundraiser at Masses.

Noting that she keeps her pitch “short and sweet,” Katorski said, “I walk up there and say, ‘Hello everybody, I’m back again. The St. Vincent de Paul Walk is coming up.”

She gives her pitch in English, and said that at the Spanish Mass, Fr. Javier Guativa translated for her. The Masses generated several hundred dollars each.

She can only recall being turned down for a donation once. An elderly man in her neighborhood who had donated in the past told her, “No,” one year, explaining, “Kid, everything is going up, but my pension is not going up,” said Katorski.

Instead, the reaction is often the opposite, she said, where people will see her in fall and remember, “I owe you money.”

In fact, she said, one Saturday, way ahead of when she was to begin collecting, a man in the neighborhood came up to her and pressed $20 into her palm.

“What are you doing, Hank?” she recalled asking. 

He responded, “That’s money for the walk so you don’t have to ask.”

Catholic Financial Life is a sponsor of the Friends of the Poor Walk, and according to president and CEO, Bill O’Toole, Katorski carries out the mission of the organization through her efforts.

“As Catholics we are called to reach out to individuals in need, especially those lacking the basic necessities of life. Members like Leona bring our mission of serving God by serving others to life,” said O’Toole in a press release announcing the award she received in September.

As for Katorski, she plans to continue her fundraising for as long as she’s able.

“I enjoy doing it and I know where the money goes. I see it and know the money is well used,” she said, adding, “I feel we are blessed. Our family, Len and I were blessed. We are not rich people, but I’m here to serve, rather than to be served, and if I can share my blessings in helping them get money, that’s what I do.”