Could you use some words of encouragement during the Covid-19 pandemic right now? I think we all could use some help lifting our spirits. A little while ago, Michael Coneys, current Chairman of the Board and President of The Leo House, sat down with Hugh Macken of VMR Communications. They shared some ways to spread joy to those around us during the Covid-19 pandemic and in this age of social distancing. Listen on Facebook below or feel free to read the transcription below. Enjoy!
Hugh Macken: Hi, I’m Hugh Macken with VMR Communications and I’m very happy to be here this morning broadcasting from Facebook. VMR does a lot of work with The Leo House on communications and I thought it made a lot of sense to “pull back the veil” during this crisis for words of encouragement from those behind The Leo House including from the person at the very top, Michael Coneys, who is the current Chairman of the Board and current President of The Leo House.
Michael Coneys: Thank you very much Hugh, it’s wonderful to be here.
Hugh Macken: I’m just so happy you agreed to do this. As we were talking yesterday, I realized you had some wonderful words of encouragement and I think people who are supporters of The Leo House and those around the world would really appreciate what you had to say in terms of distancing and what we’re currently doing around the world. A lot of people are making use of new media to help navigate this crisis and to stay connected with family members. You made a comment yesterday about something we might consider in addition to our use of new media in terms of staying connected with loved ones. Would you mind elaborating on that here?
Michael Coneys: Sure, the point being that new technology offers us a great many ways to stay connected to many people but at the same time we’re still doing that in isolation. You’re sitting at your computer or television and you’re not really communicating with people in real time. Whereas you have the traditional means with the telephone and even face to face using social distancing. I take a walk everyday outside my apartment. I live in a small village where I see a great number of people. If I’m walking down the street, I will step off the sidewalk and let the person pass but I will still say hello to that person. Almost always that person will answer back. Some people are very surprised. I don’t call myself the Mayor of Bronxville, where I live but some people refer to me as the unofficial mayor of Bronxville because I say hello to everyone I pass even though I’m not campaigning for anything. When you do that, I get a fair number of people who will stop and chat for a few minutes and we’re standing anywhere from 6-10 feet apart in these days of social distancing. You’re still maintaining social contact because you can see that person. You can have real personal contact with other people that I find spiritually uplifting for myself and for that other person.
On the telephone, I’ve been keeping in contact particularly with my elderly friends and acquaintances of mine not only to make sure they’re alright, but also to give them a sense that somebody cares for them and someone remembers them. People are very happy when others remember them and you give them that sense that they still have value as people. My parents have a house in Crestwood in Yonkers, and we still have that house. I just spoke with my next-door neighbor Carol White. She is 91 years old and she takes care of her 95 year old husband who is in a wheelchair and is still at home. I just had a nice conversation with her and it was really nice for her to have someone to talk to and I was happy to do that. I probably have 15 or 20 people that I call over the last week that are elderly people and are in my social group. It makes people happy to know they are remembered.
Hugh Macken: So much of what you’re talking about really embodies the spirit of The Leo House and it certainly embodies your spirit. It really embodies the spirit of mentality, kindness, and knowing people by name. I was so struck by your interactions with the staff members from the very lowest to the very highest, their level of respect for you as well as your level of respect for them. It is very touching to see that. I know that guests feel the same way. The Leo House is a Catholic institution and yet the beauty of it is that The Leo House welcomes visitors of all faiths and people of New York to people all over the world. The Leo House has such a wonderful spirit of hope and encouragement for everything and it’s wonderful to hear these words of encouragement from you. Before we get to your other ideas let’s come back to The Leo House. Tell us a little bit about your tenure and involvement with The Leo House since 1991. Tell us about the mission and spirit at The Leo House and how everything is going right now in the midst of this crisis. I know at least one person who works at The Leo House has unfortunately contracted the virus.
Michael Coneys: Well, The Leo House right now is closed. Governor Cuomo has ordered all non-essential businesses to be closed. We have been very prudent over the years and have enough money to keep some staff onboard but we’ve had to furlough most of our employees. We’re looking to find ways through the new CARES Act to make an application for a loan to put our employees back on payroll. We’ve also been studying the possibility of having medical personnel to stay at The Leo House but we don’t have the funds to donate towards that right now. Our normal charitable programs for hospital and nursing home visitors, our clergy and religious hospitality program and our heroes hospitality program have used up all our charitable money that we’ve had before the pandemic caused the closure. We can’t allow medical personnel to stay at The Leo House without having some kind of remuneration, at least to cover the cost of leaving the lights on, you know, our basic costs. We are going to see if we can find a way to offer hospitality to medical personnel in New York without costs to the medical personnel. If either the government could pay for the rooms, or if we could get a loan with loan forgiveness to cover the costs then we’d be happy to do that and we are exploring that as we speak.
Ashley Bryant who is our COO, her title is Assistant Executive Director has contracted the virus and she has been working from home to see if we can find a way to do that. In 2001, after 9/11, we opened the doors of The Leo House to first responders and had them stay without costs to the first responders nor costs to the City of New York. We were able to do that because we were open at the same time for other guests and we had revenues coming in. Because we don’t have any revenue coming in at the moment, it is tough for us. We ask for the prayers and thoughts from our friends around the world to enlighten us to find ways so that we can reopen our doors for medical personnel in the NYC area.
Hugh Macken: And how about donations Michael. If someone wanted to donate, how would they do that?
Michael Coneys: Absolutely, our website is still up and can be reached at leohousenyc.com or leohousenyc.org. We have a donation page and you can make a donation to The Leo House directly on our website, that is the easiest way.
Hugh Macken: Maybe there is someone listening that can make a larger donation. Send us a message on Facebook or a direct message and we can put you in touch with the right people.
Michael Coneys: Absolutely. We’d be very grateful and very happy with that.
Hugh Macken: That would be wonderful and a great way to give hope and encouragement to the people of New York. Both the medical personnel and their family members are on the front lines of this pandemic and just a word of thanks to them at this moment and all the people who aren’t thought of at this time. So thank you to all of you out there who are literally risking their lives at this time, grocery store workers etc.
Michael Coneys: I was at the bank the other day. As I was finished with my transactions, I thanked all the people at the bank for their work and for being open (socially-distanced of course) and I thanked the branch manager for their good service to all the bank customers during the pandemic. That kind of encouragement goes a long way towards making people feel better and reminding them that their customers really do appreciate them. I do that at the supermarket, drug store, grocer etc. I like to say thank you to those people for being open and for their hard work during this time and the fact that they have the courage to continue to work during this period of real anxiety. That’s what it is. It’s not just the virus itself, it’s also the anxiety that people suffer just going about their normal activities with the virus hanging over our heads. We can give some words of encouragement and you really do help people. Kindness goes a long way. People seem to be very surprised when you treat them with kindness these days.
Hugh Macken: Courtesy goes a long way. There’s just one more thing I wanted to bring up that you mentioned was writing letters. What can you tell us about that?
Michael Coneys: Yes. That’s a dying art. But you can go to any local stationary store, it doesnt have to be a fancy long letter and just writing a letter and getting mail that is not a bill is nice. Most of the mail we receive is solitiations or catalogs and bills. People don’t get letters as much as they used to. I’m trying to think of how many letters I’ve written in the past month. I’ve written about 7 letters to friends who are a long distance away. While I’ve spoken to them using lInkedIn or Facebook, at the same time there might be something you want to tell them that is really personal. Sitting down and taking the time to write a letter, even a short one, can be a real sign that you care about that person. That will really brighten someone’s day. It can be one of those “thinking about you” cards or even an email. It doesn’t take a lot of time and it doesn’t have to be formal. But the fact that you sat down and you might remember something you talked about with that person. That people might be very happy being remembered. If you send someone a paper letter, you really will make that person very happy. It’s lovely to receive something that isn’t junk mail or bills.
Hugh Macken: The last thing any of us need right now is a bill, right? You mentioned prayer and you mentioned Ashley Bryant, The Leo House Assistant Executive Director, who has contracted the Coronavirus. I just want to encourage everyone to please pray for everyone at The Leo House and especially for Ashley and her speedy recovery. Put it in the comments for her and hopefully she’ll be able to see them. And also everyone who is listening, we are praying for you. You also are suffering the effects of this virus.
Michael Coneys: Yes, we pray for the whole Leo House community. Many people think of The Leo House community as the just 35 employees and 11 board members and the small group called the St. Rapheal Society. In normal times, we have over 40,000 guests at The Leo House every year. That’s the Leo House family. Not only our 35 employees, not only our board of directors, not only the St. Rapheal Society. We have the Congregation of St. Agnes, with 4 sisters who live at The Leo House. We have Father Ed Conway, who is our Chaplain. All of our guests are our family. We regularly have masses at our chapel that include prayers for everyone at The Leo House. Father Ed came down with the Coronavirus and he is coming to the end of his confinement in our priest’s residence which is in our annex building right next to the chapel. I’ve been praying for him. Fortunately he is doing alright. I am going to give him a call today. Even if a person is in quarantine, you can still reach out to them. Doing that helps those people to remember that people are caring about them. Hopefully he will be back up and doing his daily routine. In addition to being the Chaplain at The Leo House, Father Ed is the Chaplain for the Veterans Administration and that is his full time job, The Leo House chaplaincy is his part-time job. He says mass at The Leo House four times per week. We don’t have any guests at the moment but once he recovers from quarantine he will be able to continue saying mass which the Sisters still attend. At The Leo House we are praying for everyone in our community. We’re praying for anyone and everyone who is suffering. We are praying for all of our supporters and our wonderful community.
Hugh Macken: The Leo House really is a home-away-from-home for many around the world who visit NYC. How many hotels can say that you can have mass and confession there? You can even see rosaries there.
Michael Coneys: We have an employee named Michael Lucci who leads a recitation of the rosary at 3pm every day during the week. One of the nice things about the Leo House is we have the Catholic church available to people. We don’t force it on anyone but it’s there if you want it.
Hugh Macken: I’ve seen the comments on Booking.com about The Leo House and oftentimes people who are not Catholic are often the most moved by The Leo House and your gentle approach.
Michael Coneys: No, we are not proselytizing. We have a frequent guest, Father Pierre de Bethune, who is a Benedictine Monk who wrote a book called “Interreligious Hospitality” in which you really get to know people much better and people respond better when you are not trying to force your religion down their throats and they aren’t trying to force their religion down your throats. When you simply react with kindness to each other and people can become aware of who you are and what you believe through gentle hospitality. That’s what we try to practice at The Leo House, that everyone is welcome. If you need anything there, we have staff that can help with anything you need. If you need religious help, if you need to contact social services, we have people who are able and willing to help you. We have a full range of services for all of our guests and we are happy when people take advantage of those things.
Hugh Macken: As I said earlier I’d like to bring to mind prayer and the importance of prayer. Pope Leo XIII is known as the rosary pope. Prayer is one of our most helpful allies against our enemy of anxiety and fear, as well as fellowship as we’ve mentioned here. Let’s end with a prayer.
Good and gracious God, Thank you for bringing us all together today. Thank you for this moment in time and opportunity to have a discussion with Michael and to show that discussion with all our supporters on Facebook.
We ask you, Lord, to please encourage all those who are watching, listening or suffering from this illness right now whether through anxiety or through their experience of the illness itself. Quiet their minds. Give peace to their hearts. Give hope and encouragement to their spirits and our spirits. May the Leo House give hope and inspiration to the world from the heart of New York City. From our homes to everyone’s homes and those who are listening. May you bring them peace. We pray especially for Ashley, for Father Eddie and for the whole Leo House family and for all those who are watching.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for our sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.
St. Corona, pray for us. St. Raphael, pray for us. Mary, help of Christians, pray for us.