Doris Michalek was a young Air Force wife, shopping with her children at an open air grocery market in Brazil when a man approached her. He, his wife and two children had just come down from the mountains, he told her, and had no money for food. Would she give him some?
The growing Michalek family lived on a supply sergeant’s budget, and she was afraid of what her husband would think if she gave money to strangers.
“No,” she told the mountain family.
That refusal haunted her. It shaped her life, and her family’s mission.
In the family home, then through St. Francis House in downtown Puyallup, that mission has clothed, fed and comforted tens of thousands of people for half a century.
“She never got over the feeling of saying no, because she was afraid to say yes,” said her daughter, Sister Patricia Michalek, OSF.
Doris Michalek, who, with her husband, Stan, founded St. Francis House in 1974, died Thursday. She was 93. Her husband died in 2000.
She had been ill and was ready, said Sister Pat, who is St. Francis House director. With faith as strong as Doris Michalek’s, there is some joy in that. Still, volunteers at St. Francis House clothing bank Tuesday felt the loss.
“She is my mom from my heart,” said Musa Kalis, 71, of Sumner, while he and his wife, Hanneh, delivered bleach for the clothing bank.
Born in Bethlehem and raised in Jordan, Kalis arrived in Puyallup in 1971 as an immigrant with no place to live and no job.
“I went to the church, and father told me to go to that lady,” he said.
Right away, “that lady” settled him in an apartment and steered him to a job.
“Every other day, I found a bag of food at my apartment, and I knew there is somebody who cares for me,” Kalis said.
It was the same for Asians, Russians, Moldovans, Ukrainians and Hispanics who began new lives in Pierce County with help from St. Francis House.
It was the same for anyone who ventured into the Michaleks’ five-bedroom house on Pioneer Way. The seven Michalek kids always made room for foster children and foreign students. Their front porch was always stacked with appliances, furniture, linens and clothes.
“People would drop things off on our porch, and people who needed things would come and look and take,” Sister Pat said of the informal clothing and furniture bank.
“The porch was very hard on him,” Sister Pat said of her ultra-organized father. “My mom enjoyed the creative chaos.”
“She was a kind and giving person,” said Mary Melton, one of Michalek’s six surviving children. “That was her joy in life.”
Michalek was always out to help others find that same joy.
A person who met her at Christmas time would end up buying presents for strangers. Last year, St. Francis House’s Christmas Corner provided gifts to 1,100 families.
A person with idle evenings would end up cooking and serving at St. Francis House’s free dinners for 50-60 people five times a week.
“She was always working on someone,” said Sister Pat.
And she was always working on city and county officials, urging them to recognize needs it was more pleasant to ignore.
“When something wasn’t right, she would go to the city council, the archdiocese and pretty much demand that they do something,” Sister Pat said.
That has led to more volunteers and better programs.
At St. Francis House, the Michaleks and their volunteers expanded the clothing bank, added English classes and collaborated with other agencies.
Over the past three years, Sister Pat led a capital program that brought in $1 million to build a proper storage area for donations, plus an office building for staff and volunteers. The program lends office space to Tacoma-based non-profits, notably Associated Ministries Access Point for Housing, to make services accessible to people in East Pierce County.
That pleased Michalek, who would wrap up in an afghan and read in “Doris’ Book Shoppe” at the new building’s entrance.
When people visited, she welcomed them as they accepted the gifts of a thousand donors and volunteers who, in her spirit, express their faith through firstname.lastname@example.org