Emerging from Buffalo’s worst blizzard in 45 years were countless stories of people coming to the aid of complete strangers – incredible accounts of heroism and life-saving rescues during last month’s storm that paralyzed Western New York two days before Christmas. One of these stories comes from William (Jud) Weiksnar, OFM, pastor of Ss. Columba-Brigid Church, nestled on Hickory Street about a mile from downtown Buffalo.
On Friday, Dec. 23, as the blizzard struck with a vengeance and stranded vehicles were already dotting local roads, Jud received an urgent call from Fr. Ron Sajdak, a diocesan priest and pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Clarence, a suburb of Buffalo. A friend, Fidele Dhan – who Fr. Ron “adopted” many years ago when the young man arrived from South Sudan – was one of those stranded motorists.
Fidele wasn’t being reckless or ignoring the city-imposed driving ban. He works two jobs, one as a school bus driver and the other in medical transport, a service that he and his friends started. He was trying to get home to his own wife and their six children after safely returning a kidney dialysis patient to his home from a morning appointment.
Fr. Ron explained to Jud that Fidele’s van was low on fuel and that his friend couldn’t make it to his own house and would probably freeze to death in the van. Fidele attempted to seek shelter at a local Family Dollar store and an auto parts shop, but the doors to both were locked shut. He called 911, but it would be hours, or maybe not until the following day, at best, before emergency services would be able to respond because of near-zero visibility and unprecedented hazardous conditions.
Although his cell phone battery was rapidly losing power, before his call with Fr. Ron ended, Fidele told him he was somewhere on Clinton Street, a thoroughfare that runs near Ss. Columba-Brigid. That’s when Fr. Ron reached out to see if Jud could help Fidele, who several years ago established the South Sudan Villages Clinic to provide health care to children and families back home.
“Thinking that Fidele was close to the friary, and that I had a four-wheel drive vehicle, Fr. Ron figured I could rescue Fidele and bring him back to the church. But all I have is a mid-size sedan that doesn’t perform very well in the snow. However, I told Fr. Ron I would set out on foot to search for his friend,” said Jud, who has been pastor of Ss. Columba-Brigid since 2017.
As it turned out, Jud may have needed to be rescued had he ventured out on this mission. “As I was preparing to leave the friary, I realized that Fr. Ron had confused the cross-streets intersecting with Clinton – and that Fidele wasn’t ‘just down the street’ from our church. He was at the intersection of Clinton and Laux streets – more like a mile-and-a-half away from Ss. Columba-Brigid,” Jud said.
With wind gusts of 70mph, temperatures plummeting to single digits, and treacherous blizzard conditions, even if Jud reached Fidele’s location, it would have taken three hours, maybe more, to make the three-mile roundtrip journey on foot. That’s when Jud realized that parishioners of Ss. Columba-Brigid lived just one block or so from Fidele’s location.
“Fortunately, since my arrival at the parish, I have maintained a tradition started by Ronald Pecci, (OFM), many years ago when he was pastor of Ss. Columba-Brigid. Every year, for the feast of the Epiphany, along with volunteers dressed as the three kings, I go to the houses of parishioners, blessing their houses and marking them with chalk. I had blessed this particular house last January and knew exactly where this family lived in relation to where Fidele was,” explained Jud, who called the family to see if they might be able to find him and give him shelter.
“Without hesitation, Pedro Liriano and one of his sons, Mychal, braved the blinding snow and hurricane-force winds – and, in a matter of minutes, located Fidele. They brought him back to the safety and warmth of their house. They welcomed Fidele – a complete stranger – into their home,” continued Jud.
Miraculously, the home of these parishioners had not lost electric power, so Fidele was able to contact his family and assure his wife that he was safe. Fidele spent the entire weekend – Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – with his life-savers until the blizzard passed and he was able to return to his own family on Christmas night.
“The Liriano family is an extraordinarily faithful and generous family that has known the Franciscan friars and Holy Name Province for decades – dating back to when St. Patrick’s Friary and the Boys Club of St. Francis were on Seymour Street. It was an experience that Fidele – and the Liriano family – will never forget,” said Jud, who livestreamed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses on the parish website from the friary chapel – where he was joined by Tim Dauenhauer, OFM – because the bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo advised all parishes to cancel holiday Masses for everyone’s safety and well-being.
Tragically, during the storm, many died in their cars from hypothermia, lack of medical attention, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Thankfully, Fidele didn’t become a statistic because of Jud’s quick thinking and the immediate response of the Ss. Columba-Brigid parishioners who demonstrated what it means to have a Franciscan heart.
“Although considered a small parish, it is a remarkable one, in terms of how we celebrate the Eucharist and how we reach out to others in need. We are a welcoming, inclusive, multicultural Catholic community inspired by the Holy Spirit to celebrate the Risen Christ in how we worship, love our neighbors, care for God’s creation, and work for justice in our daily lives,” said Jud.
“I will be forever grateful to this family for their willingness, at a moment’s notice, to venture out at great personal risk, and take a stranger into their home on Christmas. They likely saved Fidele’s life, and possibly mine as well. It was the best Christmas gift I have ever received,” he added.