Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

When Brenda Orie retired from a career in management at Newport News Shipyard in 1999, she sensed that her work was not yet done. 

“I still wanted to do something more,” she said. “But I wasn’t quite sure what.” 

Orie, a longtime parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul in Newport News, said that an ad in the church bulletin seeking a parish secretary eventually caught her eye, but when she went into the office to apply, she was asked, much to her surprise, if she might consider filling another position: that of the recently-vacated role of director of social ministries. 

“The timing was perfect,” Orie said. “I had the managerial experience, and although I had never done anything like that before, I’ve always loved helping people. I felt like God had sent me the job.” 

This March, after 20 years of service, Orie retired from her position, but in her heart, she said, her work continues. She hopes to return as a volunteer so that she might continue to work with the people who have become an irreplaceable part of her life.  

“I loved the job,” she said. “I thanked God every day for it. I loved the people who I helped, who I worked with. They became a part of my family.” 

Answering the call . . . and the tap

When Orie started her second career, she didn’t realize that, in answering the call, she would literally be answering the call — not only in the form of emails and phone calls — but in calls across the parish courtyard, unexpected rings at the front door, and even taps on the glass of her office window. 

“Sometimes, I’d be sitting at my computer and I would hear a faint knock, right on the glass,” she said with a laugh. “And I’d look up to see someone was trying to catch my attention.”

The parish offices, located in downtown Newport News, are home to an extensive social ministry program called Backdoor Ministry, so named because it got its start when the rectory’s housekeeper began serving food out of the kitchen door. 

“We serve the people right where they are,” Orie explained, “so it can get busy. Many of our clients don’t drive, and they don’t have transportation. Some are sick, some are elderly. They need somewhere they can go, right in the community.” 

Backdoor Ministry is kept aloft by the efforts of more than 60 volunteers. It encompasses a soup kitchen serving 70 to 140 hot meals daily, five days a week, and a clothing closet. It also offers assistance with finding employment, classes and services. 

Running such a vibrant ministry has presented an array of challenges, Orie said, but a simple message in the parish bulletin under the heading of “Brenda’s Bits” was usually enough to find the help she needed.

 “I was always so grateful for our volunteers, for our parishioners,” she said. “Whatever I needed, people would always come through.” 

‘I can never thank her enough’

Anthony Smith said when he came to Virginia from New York nearly 20 years ago — with a felony conviction on his record — he had difficulty finding a job. 

“It’s hard, once you have that felony. Even now, it’s been years since I was in trouble. I’ve done everything I could — completed programs, gone to speak at programs, but it’s nearly impossible to get that erased,” he said. 

Smith said he went to seek help from Backdoor Ministry, where he met Orie, who helped him and his wife with groceries, clothes for their children and with finding employment. Later, Orie would become godmother to Smith’s daughter, who was baptized at St. Vincent de Paul a few years later. 

“She did everything she could for us, for our family. I can never thank her enough. Without her, I don’t know where we’d be,” he said.  “I love her like an aunt, like she is part of my family. She deserves to be blessed.” 

In the era of COVID-19, Smith calls Orie every few days to see if she needs anything. 

“If I can do anything for her, I would be happy to do it,” he said. “Because what she did for me, for my family? I can never pay that back.”

Bringing people together

Mary Pickerill, a parishioner of Our Lady Queen of Peace, Hampton, has been volunteering with Orie since 2012. She credits Orie’s talent for reaching across parish and denominational lines — and for making volunteers feel welcome — with helping to build a thriving ministry.  

“She has a way of making every single person who asks for help, or who asks to help, feel special, important,” she said. “She makes them feel appreciated.” 

Pickerill said she has especially enjoyed working alongside Orie at the annual Christmas party held at St. Vincent de Paul in which the church doors are opened and gifts are distributed to people in need.  

“The first year I volunteered, I came around the corner, and there were 200 people standing in line,” she said.  “It was amazing. And Brenda seemed to know everyone. She knew everyone by name.” 

“She moves with grace and ease from one thing to the next,” Pickerill said. “I don’t think she will ever stop. She’s still at it.”

A challenge to the end

Orie said that when she announced her intention to retire last December, she had no way of knowing that the ministry she had worked so long to support would soon be changed by the outbreak of COVID-19.  

“It’s sad,” she said. “We’ve had to close the gates to stop people from congregating in the courtyard, so now all we can do is pass bagged lunches over the fence.”

“I worry about everyone in these times,” she said. “You grow close to people. You learn their backgrounds, their stories.” 

Although for now, services are limited, Orie said she hopes that Backdoor Ministry will be able to continue its work. 

“I’m grateful for the chance I was given,” she said. “Every now and then, I get a card or a letter from someone who says, ‘You made a difference in my life.’ And that means all the world to me.”