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After A Stroke, Sister of Mercy Builds Dollhouses

May 9, 2011

By Gary Loncki

Sister Paul Marie Westlake is not one to sit back and relax. I have often kidded her that she is the reason why I stop at my office doorway and cautiously look both ways to see if she is heading down the hall on her scooter.

Partially disabled from a stroke in 2005, she is quite active and always looking for what’s next.

That has been her life. Before becoming a Sister of Mercy, she was a certified watchmaker before taking to the skies as a stewardess for the former Eastern Airlines, based in Miami. One day in between flights in the 1950s, she was reading a newspaper article on the sad state of education in the United States. (It seems times haven’t changed much, have they?) After some thought, she decided to go to college and earn a teaching degree to make a difference in the lives of young people.

At age 26, she enrolled at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., which is run by the Sisters of Mercy. A year into her studies, she decided to become a Sister of Mercy, too. She entered the Community in Titusville, Pa.

That was 55 years ago. The stroke hasn’t kept her from making a difference. She has taken the past and merged it with the present.

She told me that when she was a young girl growing up on Long Island, N.Y., and Connecticut, she was a “tomboy” building wooden model planes and ships. Now at 83 she is still building-but this time it’s doll houses.

She thought if she could build planes and ships she could build doll houses, too.

A yellow-sided, Victorian-style,two-and-a-half story home with a shingled roof, stands just over 27 inches tall and wide on a table outside the chapel of the Sisters of Mercy, Erie. Like any home, walls are painted or wallpapered, floors are wood or linoleum. Doors actually open and staircases take you from the ground floor to the attic. The back of the home and one side are open to allow placement of furniture for a young girl to imagine what it might be like to live in such a dream home.

She said that she really enjoyed building the doll house over the last three years. She admits it has been a challenge, sometimes wondering if everything would fit. But true to her spirit, she said one just has to keep on going.

Her dollhouse won’t be gathering dust. She is raffling it off on May 13 with all proceeds going to the Mercy Center for Women, Erie, a facility providing transitional housing for women and children. While working as a pastoral associate at Holy Family Parish, Metter, Ga., she raffled off a doll house that she built and raised $1,400 for the parish. She hopes this raffle brings the center from $2,000-$4,000.

Chris Tombaugh, center director, told me she was humbled by Paul Marie’s gesture and that it will give hope to the women served by the center. Chris said Paul Marie worked very hard and diligently to create the doll house. She likened Paul Marie’s effort to that of the women who are served at the center, saying her clients work very hard and diligently to rebuild their lives – so they, too, will have a beautiful outcome.

Paul Marie knows about rebuilding lives. After the stroke left her partially paralyzed on the left side, she battled back to be able to walk with a walker. Today, she takes cautious steps with a walker and covers longer distances on a scooter. She even works out twice a week a local YMCA.

I asked her about the first step in building a dollhouse. Her matter-of-fact answer: “You start by reading the directions!”(Something I, being a guy, would not do!)

She explains the floors go in first followed by the walls and staircases. At one point, Paul Marie was tapping in the staircase and, when finished, noticed that part of the attic floor had been raised.

And that’s the challenge, she said. What she thought would be an easy fit was not. The good news: you can undo your mistakes … with patience. So, in this case, she had to take out the stairs, fix the floor and start again to tap in the staircase.

The roof parts are the last item to be placed on the structure and the most difficult as the thin, wood roof had to be curved by soaking them and then drying them over a two-liter soda bottle and made to fit.

She said she is willing to undertake another doll house project for charity, although that doll house would not be as large as the current one or take as long to complete.

Overcoming obstacles is part of building a dollhouse, a metaphor for what it takes to come back from a stroke.

Paul Marie said she hopes her effort inspires people to not give up. “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with it,” she says.

The drawing for the doll house will be on May 13.

Gary Loncki is Director of Communications for the Sisters of Mercy New York, Pennsylvania, Pacific West Community. He is based in Erie, Pa.

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