Sister Genevieve
Courtesy photo

After 16 years working as a local customer service representative, and with Christmas just around the corner, Rio Rancho resident Rose Sandoval was laid off Dec. 1.

And while many holiday shoppers were hitting the stores last week, she was standing in line for a food box at St. Felix Pantry in Rio Rancho. She’s not ashamed of her plight, just extremely grateful for the “guardian angel” who founded the nonprofit — Sister Genevieve Ryskiewicz.

“This place is great,” said Sandoval. “We’re already feeling low because we have to come in here and ask for food — but they treat us with dignity and respect. They welcome you.”

This is exactly what Sister Genevieve, 93, had in mind when she started the food bank in 1995 — preserving human dignity, according to St. Felix representatives speaking on the nun’s behalf due to her frail health. The first month the Pantry opened, it served 36 families. Last month, it helped over 4,000 households.

“A tight job market and tough economic times are sending more people who worked hard all their lives and never expected to be coming to the Pantry for help,” said Manuel Casias, the organization’s vice president of development. “The need has significantly increased.”

That’s why the nonprofit wants to honor the woman who started it all and is calling on community members to help sponsor the tribute. Next month, the Pantry plans to dedicate a Wall of Honor in the Felician Sister’s name.

Mayor Gregg Hull said her kind of community service translates to community strength.

“A strong sense of community has always been a hallmark of Rio Rancho and we are blessed to have someone like Sister Genevieve in our midst,” said Hull. “Her vision and dedicated leadership, coupled with the generosity of our residents, have made the St. Felix Food Pantry a refuge for those among us who are in need.”

Sister Genevieve has always been a ‘foodie’ of sorts. She’s trained in the culinary arts and has been a chief dietitian for various hospitals and other facilities, as well as a champion of hot-lunch programs in public schools.

She also launched the annual Thanksgiving Day meal St. Felix puts on in partnership with local McDonald’s franchise holder Julian Garza. The dinner was initially served out of the convent’s garage.

When it outgrew that space, Garza volunteered his restaurant for the event, which consistently attracts hundreds of turkey lovers hungry for a home-cooked holiday feast and community fellowship.

“The idea was to try to help as many people as we could and to bring awareness to the work St. Felix was doing,” Garza said of the collaboration that started about 25 years ago. “There are a lot of people who don’t have a place to go on Thanksgiving Day.”

Divine inspiration on Sister Genevieve’s behalf? Not exactly — but close.

She said it was her mother who initially gave her the idea for the turkey dinner and food bank. The nun recalled how her mom encouraged her to bake and bring fresh bread to neighbors in need when she was growing up in Wisconsin.

“Sharing that loaf daily did something to my heart,” she stated on the ministry’s website. “That experience never got lost and the desire to help the less fortunate grew stronger as the years went by. God must have been preparing me for these years.”

And as much as she loved her Dairy Land upbringing, she loves the Green Bay Packers. It’s a passion she shares with many of her convent sisters, who are also fellow “Cheeseheads” and back the Pack.

“On Sunday when the Packers are playing, the place shuts down and they lock the doors,” Casias quipped. “They are die-hard fans.”

Sister Genevieve is also known for her generous, but direct, demeanor — interspersed with humor. Elizabeth Thomas, one of 110 Pantry volunteers, worked alongside her for the past 20 years.

“She radiates generosity and is one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet,” said Thomas. “But she could also be very stern.”

For example, Thomas remembered a woman who once came into the Pantry complaining about the selection of food offered. Sister Genevieve quickly whipped out two dollars and gave it to the woman saying, “Here, see what you can buy at Smith’s with this.”

Tenacity is another word that comes to mind for those who know the nonagenarian. Despite her seasoned years and failing health, Casias said the devoted sister still bags beans for the Pantry’s clients.

In addition to food, the Pantry provides clothing, household items and referral services to approximately 1,000 clients weekly, according to officials. Right now, there’s also a Christmas room loaded with toys, wrapping paper and other holiday items for parents to choose from for their children.

While an exact date in January for the Wall of Honor’s debut has not yet been confirmed, St. Felix staffers are seeking donors to help fund the memorial’s completion and benefit the Pantry. Sponsorships run from $1,000 to $5,000.

Donors’ names will be inscribed on a plaque and placed next to a photo of Sister Genevieve.

For more information, call 270-1366 or email at mcasias@stfelixpantry.org.

“Sister Genevieve has made a tremendous difference helping to grow and shape this community,” added Casias.

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