WORCESTER – Deacon Frank Myska and his wife, Elizabeth Myska, of Immaculate Conception Parish, both learned several years ago that they had disabilities, disabilities which have since gotten worse. That hasn’t stopped them. Instead, they’ve let their handicaps lead them into new ministries, ministries reminiscent of Pope Francis’ call to go out to the peripheries and to live out Christ’s mercy. Deacon Myska, diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis in 2012, gets around in an electric wheelchair.Mrs. Myska, a lawyer, legally blind since 2008, walks with a white cane.
Deacon says MS diagnosis ‘almost a gift’
By Tanya Connor
“I’m dealing with a segment of the population that I normally wouldn’t think about,” says Deacon Frank Myska, 60. “Now I have to.”
As a participant in a program for the elderly, he says he’s identifying with fellow participants’ problems, not just empathizing.
As a permanent deacon, he has an unusual opportunity for ministry.
“I do go out to the peripheries because I go to Summit,” Deacon Myska says of Summit ElderCare, where he spends his weekdays. This Fallon Health program is called PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly).
Tuesdays Deacon Myska joins an MS support group and a men’s group at the Leominster site; the other weekdays he receives services at the Grafton Street facility.
A few years ago he offered to do Communion services and lead the rosary at Grafton Street and now does one or the other each week, he says.
It is very uncommon for a program participant to lead religious services; this is a first at this location, explains Nancy Grigas, activities coordinator. She gave a sabbatical to the volunteers who used to lead these services, she says.
“We really need it in this life today,” program participant Ford Tingley says of the Communion service. “It’s something I don’t want to miss. I can’t go to church because I have no feet. … Church is in your heart and that’s where I keep it. I listen to it on TV. I receive Communion at home too,” from a representative from his parish, St. Luke the Evangelist in Westborough.
Deacon Myska says he thinks he belongs at Summit. As a deacon, he reaches out to the Catholic population there. But they’re not the end of his reach.
“I just interact with them,” he says of other Summit participants. “In a way, I’m evangelizing.… People open up to me.… I’m not one for giving a lot of advice. I’m there to be a sounding post.” He shares their suffering, though he doesn’t see himself as suffering, he says.
“It was almost a gift for me to be diagnosed with this MS,” he says. “The Christian existence is one of suffering. Jesus suffered too – he died. Our job is to persevere through the suffering. Having the faith that Jesus is walking with us, no matter what – it’s really a wonderful support for me.”
In the late 1990s, Deacon Myska says, he realized he had walking problems and his wife had vision problems.
In 2003 he was diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), which was not thought to be progressive. A few years later the diagnosis changed to primary progressive multiple sclerosis. He “graduated” from a cane to a walker to the power chair and gave up driving. He says he gets the only treatment he can – baclofen, an anti-spastic drug.
He didn’t see this future when he felt the call to the permanent diaconate around 2003, he says. Seeds had been planted by a deacon and men preparing to be deacons.
“I left teaching and I tried to start a career in information technology,” he says. (He has a master’s of business administration and a master’s in secondary education, and his wife pursued law. They don’t have children.) “I wanted to know more about the Catholic Church, and I thought being a deacon might help me do that.”
It took him about 45 minutes to get up the courage to make the call for an application, he recalls.
A few years later, as he recalls it, Msgr. F. Stephen Pedone told his class: “Gentlemen, in a few weeks you’re going to be ordained. That means you’re going to be different people. Not better, just different. … People are going to be watching you, because you have the credential of being clergy. You’ve got to be very careful how you lead your life.”
April 12, 2008, they were ordained, a few months after he started working as a bookkeeper for The Catholic Free Press.
“Friday night I left the office, Saturday I was ordained, Monday I was treated differently – because I was clergy,” Deacon Myska says. “I always felt like I was unworthy, but somehow people looked at me differently.
“I felt like I was a servant of God. … It’s a calling. And my life has not been the same since. I have more interactions with people, deeper interaction.”
“I’m doing a lot less as a deacon,” as the MS progresses, he says. “But I’m still doing it.”
He helps with Mass at Colony III Congregate Housing, an independent living facility behind Immaculate Conception. But his assignment is at his own parish, Immaculate Conception, for his safety and convenience, he says. He no longer preaches there and doesn’t prepare the altar, which he can’t get to. But he distributes Communion from his power chair and does baptismal preparation, he says.
“He’s got the heart of a deacon – he’s a man of service,” says his pastor, Father Walter J. Riley. “We love him here. His presence is an asset.” He’s willing to do anything, and does what he can.
Deacon Myska says that when he talked of stepping down, Immaculate Conception parishioners told him he’s an inspiration.
Being a deacon isn’t about being in front of people at Mass, says Deacon Anthony R. Surozenski, director of diocesan Office of the Diaconate. It’s about serving people outside of Mass, and Deacon Myska is doing a fantastic job at Summit, he says.
“He’s a compassionate presence to the people around him,” Deacon Surozenski says. “And he’s a witness that no matter what type of impairment he has, it’s not blocking him from doing God’s work.
“I think he is one of the greatest examples of what a deacon can do. And all the guys in formation have somebody to look up to.”
Suffered a loss, experienced a gain
By Tanya Connor
Elizabeth Myska’s experiences and beliefs have influenced her choice of who to help – and who to seek help from – whether its starting a public access television program, a fitness program or a new company. After all, she has wrestled with being marginalized herself.
Her lowest point, she says, was cutting up her driver’s license in 2008, because “driving, in our culture, signifies independence and worthiness.”
She’d lost peripheral vision after cataract surgery in both eyes in 2000. In 2005 she learned she has retinitis pigmentosa, progressive eye diseases. Three years later she was declared legally blind. She can see up close straight ahead; she has “tunnel vision.”
Watching her blind vocational rehabilitation counselor getting around one day, Mrs. Myska asked, “That’s not the white cane, is it?”
“What are you so afraid of?” asked the counselor.
“It was the stigma,” Mrs. Myska recalls. She associated the cane with blind beggars in tattered clothes she’d seen as a child.
She asked about getting a seeing eye dog, figuring that would help hide her blindness, as people would focus on the “cool dog.” But she was told she had enough vision to override and confuse a dog.
“Since losing my eyesight I’ve developed this ministry – I am a spokesperson for other people,” says Mrs. Myska, a real estate attorney who also specializes in elder law and life care planning. “My profession and my personal life are a united ministry … I want to make people think, but I want to empower them to act. …
“So many conclude when there’s a loss that THEY are … valueless. I’ve suffered a loss, but I’ve experienced a gain. I acquired an appreciation for the other senses that I already have.”
She says she wants to help others do that too; “if they’re marginalized in any way, not to perceive it as ‘I’m less,’ but ‘I’m more – more aware, more sensitive, more attuned.’”
So for her television program, Mrs. Myska says, she brought on board a friend who lost his job because Parkinson’s disease impaired his performance. She also held “focus groups” at assisted living and independent living facilities to get ideas from elders living there.
She likened this to a stream flowing into a river that flows into the ocean. She’s bringing people who seem remote – and their ideas – into the mainstream, giving them a voice in focus groups and through her television program.
The program, called “Connecting the Dots,” is aimed at providing helpful information and offering her services as a “trusted legal adviser” in a society where such people are hard to come by, she says.
“Unlike most lawyers, I have … a master’s of law in elder law and estate planning (an LLM)” a complex specialty that didn’t exist a couple decades ago, Mrs. Myska says. She says she tries to help clients find what meets their needs – not what lines her pocketbook.
She uses skits and interviews to address issues on the program.
The first two shows, about scams and “planning for the inevitable,” began airing in January on WCCA TV, Ch. 194. The shows also stream live at www.wccatv.com.
The half-hour shows are aired Mondays at 8 p.m., Tuesdays at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. and Wednesdays at 11 p.m.
Mrs. Myska has more programs planned, including “Canines for Disabled Kids” and an interview with Jayna Turchek, a lawyer and director of human rights and disabilities for the City of Worcester.
Mrs. Myska hopes to keep developing topics and wants viewers’ ideas.
“It really doesn’t take much to connect people – ‘Connecting the Dots’ – to make them feel valued instead of valueless,” she says.
She is also trying to connect people through a ministry she calls Multi-Generational Undertaking and Experience (MGUE, pronounced like Mr. Magoo, a near-sighted cartoon character).
The idea is to start with her fitness program called “Walk Fit” and include “a lot of my other initiatives,” she says.
“Walk Fit” aims to bring together the sighted, including students, and the visually impaired, including elders losing their sight, to take walks. Right now the walks are inside St. Vincent Hospital but may move outdoors in warmer weather.
Some visually impaired people may not be physically fit because they need assistance and don’t know how to get transportation to a safe place to walk, she says. She says people fear admitting that they need help, which might threaten their independence, but also fear being cast aside.
So she’s partnering with the School of Optometry at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and the YWCA Central Massachusetts.
“I want to form … the potential for community, where people care about one another and learn about one another,” she says.
To prepare for this program, she participated in the “Walk with a Doc” program at St. Vincent Hospital, she says. Sometimes she walked with sighted and visually impaired friends.
Asked if her ideas dovetail with the Year of Mercy, Mrs. Myska replies in the affirmative.
“In our society we’re so judgmental,” she says. “We’re always elbowing other people out of the way to promote ourselves. My definition of mercy is being … humble and … realizing that we’re human and we have failings and we’re in this together. …
“Everything that I do is, ‘How can I make this better?’ Not for my glorification but to help other people, because they pine to belong; they pine to be included. They’re worshipping false gods. They’re looking to things to make the pain go away, whether it’s liquor or drugs or excessive commercialism.”
Mrs. Myska says her newest venture is called “Visions Consulting L3C.” She describes it as a low-profit company to educate the public about the “differently-abled.” As she puts it, the idea is to “assimilate everyone into the mainstream – it’s the body of Christ.”
Elizabeth Myska can be reached at: lizbeth@ConnectingTheDots.lawyer or 508-753-7681.