By Mike Rizzo
There’s plenty of hustle and bustle in the kitchen and dining room at the Immaculate Conception Center (ICC) in Douglaston as seminarians and retired priests in residence gather for their daily meals. One constant on weekday mornings has been Theresa Polese overseeing breakfast and lunch for Diocesan Food Service. But change has come now that Polese has hung up her apron after 33 years of service.
“She has such a dedication, almost a vocation to take care of the retired priests,” Jim Austin, director, Diocesan Food Service said about Polese whose last day a ICC was Sept. 12.
Theresa Polese didn’t exactly pursue her “vocation” when she began at ICC in 1985. She came to Douglaston trying to help her daughter get a job and she ended up working there herself.
“They are all my babies,” Polese said to describe the seminarians and priests she serves. “They touch my heart,” she added. “They deserve to be taken care of for the sacrifices they’ve made.”
When Polese began in Douglaston, the facility was Cathedral College with professors conducting classes on site for the diocesan seminarians living there. Polese, who originally worked evenings, helped serve and prepare food for the residents and then fell into her morning role more than 25 years ago.
Father George Sears, rector for the now Cathedral Seminary House of Formation at ICC, said in his three years there Polese has always been thinking of the seminarians.
“With the care she has for us,” he said, “our moms couldn’t do it better.”
The 72-year-old Polese is a longtime member of St. Robert Bellarmine parish, Bayside. Her workday is supposed to begin at 6 a.m. but it’s not unusual to see her in the kitchen by 5:45 getting the breakfast items ready and coordinating with the chefs at the facility to prepare the special items that individual retired priests want.
Polese grew up in Jamaica, Queens, before moving to Bayside and remembers her father teaching her to stand on her own two feet to overcome any challenge.
“She’s always looking to do something for you,” said Msgr. Michael Cantley, one of the priests living at the Bishop Mugavero Residence at ICC. “She reads right into your heart.”
As seminarians and priests take their morning meals now, Polese is, as usual, in and out of the kitchen. She checks on those eating breakfast and then returns to prepare salads for lunch. She loves to make her tuna salad, mixing large cans of tuna into a bowl with mayonnaise for the roughly 100 people living at ICC.
Polese said she tries to get to know the residents to make sure they get the items they want.
“Father Cowan likes apple pie, Deacon Stan Galazin likes olives and if I find out some priests like a certain cereal, I make sure they have it,” she said.
“When I come up from Mass, I see my grapefruit that she’s put out for me and I know my day will go well,” Msgr. George Deas said.
Father George Cowan, another Mugavero resident, said Polese puts her heart and soul into everything she does. He has a special connection to her through his grandniece Emma who has Down syndrome. “Emma took the name Theresa as her Confirmation name because of her,” he related. “Emma says she comes to see me, but I think she comes to see Theresa.”
“I wish her joy,” he said for Polese. “Joy is the presence of God in a person’s life and I want her to know that God loves her.”
“Her position will be filled,” Austin added, “but she’ll never be replaced.”
Polese said a recent knee problem made her realize that this was the right time to retire. She says she just wants to “putter around town,” but will spend time with her two children, her grandchildren and hopes to travel with her husband Joseph, who is also retired and has been an usher at St. Robert’s for more than 20 years.
Midway through one of her final days at ICC, Polese was doing her regular work and interacting with other employees in the kitchen. As she looked ahead to the next chapter in her life, she was wistful about leaving her colleagues.
“These are the nicest people,” she says. “We are like a family.”