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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Saying goodbye to a classmate

The loss of any classmate and for any reason is a loss for all of us. When we lose someone to untreated mental illness, we are diminished all the more. Such is the story of our classmate, Joseph G. Slovinec, Jr. Joe died in January of 2020. He was living at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, Illinois. The Pacific Garden Mission provides shelter, food and clothing to those without. Joe needed just that assistance and, frankly, more.

Our worst fears were actually not realized. Though COVID had hit the shores of America, our friend had not succumbed to it. Rather, he perished quietly, it seems, in his sleep in his bed at the Mission. Joe’s story tugs at one’s heartstrings. He attended Our Lady’s University — his dream and great love. He even graduated with honors, though his friends back in the day could see the onset of his mental illness even if he could not. And never would. In fact, he graduated early and went on to earn two masters’ degrees. He would not hold a job for any length of time and family grew distant as his illness took hold.

If his family struggled, his friends — both from high school and ND — cherished their enigmatic friend. A fixture at parties on campus and after graduation, his true friends were loyal and fierce protectors, though it was not always easy. The reality of Joe’s last days became inescapable when an old friend pondered if Joe’s “next of kin” might know what had happened to him. No one had seen him. Two social workers were assigned to help Joe and a dear friend would drive by the Mission to see if he could see Joe about in compliance with the requirements of the Mission.

In acts of true fidelity and love, a group of Joe’s friends arranged to secure his remains, to have a funeral Mass said — virtually due to the constraints of COVID — and hosted an Irish wake, also virtual, but story-telling and adult beverages flowed freely. This story came to its natural conclusion on Friday when Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy, C.S.C presided at a ceremony marking Joe’s interment in Notre Dame’s Cedar Grove Cemetery. A group of 50 of Joe’s friends joined Monk in our final goodbye to our friend. Joe will rest forever at a place he loved with Mary smiling over him from her place far above the Golden Dome. It is our dearest hope that Joe is finally at peace, a peace that oft eluded him on this earth. Joe’s illness left him ever at odds and ends, a restless soul struggling always and never quite at ease.

We are grateful beyond measure to all those who befriended Joe, who lent a hand and their kindness and assistance. We are especially indebted to Sexton Leon Glon. Our request to inter Joe’s remains required special approval. Space is limited in Cedar Grove. Upon hearing the story of Joes’ demise, Sexton Glon immediately offered to secure that permission. One could sense Glon’s compassion and caring. We are honored to have Monk join us and to help us say goodbye.

Rest well, dear friend. May Our Lady watch over you and all those who came together to say good bye to our friend. And a special thank you to all those who befriended and loved Joe over the years when he wasn’t always easy. In the words of one of those who tried to help him, “The world would be a much better place if more people had friends like Joe did in his ND community.”

Mary Ellen Woods is a graduate of the Notre Dame class of 1980. She has returned to campus as a Fellow in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI). As an undergraduate, she lived in Breen-Phillips and now lives off campus. Her columns appear every other Thursday. A longtime resident of Chicago, she can be reached at mewoods80@nd.eduor @MEWsmuses on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.