By PJ Williams
When he reached 50, John Tomczak started a period of spiritual reflection in his life. “Everything I was reading and listening to was written by Jesuits,” explained John. A lifelong Buffalonian, John is an alumnus of John Carroll, a Jesuit university in Cleveland, Ohio, though by his own account, he did not take full advantage of its Ignatian resources at the time. “No one would accuse me of being overly religious or spiritual while I was in college,” continued John. “But I did have meaningful relationships `with about three or four Jesuits.”
It was on his first Jesuit retreat that John learned about the World Union of Jesuit Alumni, (WUJA), a global Jesuit network. John soon found out that an old John Carroll University classmate, Dave Clifford was a WUJA board member. And John wanted to help with their mission of collaborating with Jesuit alumni. “That spawned the idea of ‘why don’t we connect alumni in the states,’” said John. He was moved to find a way to bring together Jesuit friends and alumni like himself. “When you meet someone who went to Fairfield, Loyola, Fordham, you immediately have a connection, and you have a friend,” said John. “You often have a Jesuit in common, or a retreat experience, or there’s a book that you’ve all read.”
Dave suggested that John organize such a group in Buffalo. “He said find twelve ‘apostles’ since we know that model works,” explained John. As John reached out to people in the Buffalo area, they kept saying the same thing: “We should get Fr. Fred Betti involved!” John had not thought about getting a priest involved, but according to him, “everyone was adamant about having Fred involved.”
Fortunately, John’s timing could not have been better. Fr. Fred Betti, SJ, came to St. Michael’s Parish in Buffalo in June of 2016. That October, St. Michael’s participated in the USA Northeast Province’s Jesuit Friends and Alumni Sunday Mass. The Alumni Sunday Masses were also striving to bring together Jesuit alumni. “That was the first time I met John and his wife Maureen,” said Fr. Betti. “We met and he talked very excitedly about what he was doing with his classmates from John Carroll.” Fr. Betti had come to St. Michael’s after working in Canisius High School’s campus ministry office. “I saw my role as a Jesuit there to be a support person, spiritual advisor,” said Fr. Betti.
The first meeting of these Buffalo alumni ended up attracting more than 30 people, nearly three times the original goal of 12.When the group was asked what kinds of things they would like to do as Jesuit alumni, the answer was nearly unanimous. “Almost everybody said service opportunities because that’s what they remember from college and felt like they were lacking in their adult lives,” said John. The members decided that the group would be founded on the tenants of fellowship, faith formation and service.
Now that John had a group of people (including a Jesuit) and a mission, they just needed a name. “Buffalo was going through a resurgence; we had a lot of media campaigns about ‘One Buffalo,’” explained Fr. Betti. “So we tweaked it and talked about it, and the younger Jesuit alumni in media came up with ‘One Jesuit Buffalo’ and it kind of fit nicely with our region.”
But the members of One Jesuit Buffalo are not limited to those who had a Jesuit education themselves. Parents, friends, and anyone interested are welcome to come and help. “I sorta triage people to all the great Jesuit content that already exists like America Media and one of their podcasts Jesuitical,” said John. By John’s estimate, One Jesuit Buffalo has had a few hundred volunteers since its founding.
Before the pandemic, they were partnering with organizations to help serve others on a monthly basis. “We open things with prayer, many of us attend Mass together on Sunday at Saint Michael’s so we pray together, and work together,” said John. “We like organizing a Saturday morning cleaning at a school or cooking meals or collecting food. I never did any of that in college, but for many is it just an extension of years of work.”
But helping with service projects was not the only thing that One Jesuit Buffalo was founded to do. There is also a spiritual and social aspect to the group. John wanted to do something big in the city of Buffalo on July 31 for the Feast of St. Ignatius, which coincidentally is also John’s birthday. The group decided on a Mass and street festival in 2018 called Iggy Fest. “We didn’t think anybody was going to come; we thought it was going to be me, Fred and my 20 volunteers,” said John. “And then we had 500-600 people come the first year.” While John would be quick to acknowledge that Buffalonians love a good street festival, he was not sure about Mass attendance. “It’s July, it’s hot, the church isn’t air conditioned,” said John. Despite this, more than 400 people attended the inaugural Iggy Fest Mass.
An unforeseen but welcome outcome of the gathering was that One Jesuit Buffalo collected about $10,000 at Iggy Fest. Everything at the festival was donated, from the tents to the beer, meaning that there were no expenses. “I never wanted One Jesuit Buffalo to be a fundraiser; that was not our idea,” said John. “We said if we had any money left over from Iggy Fest we’d give it to the NativityMiguel school.”
NativityMiguel Buffalo is a Jesuit affiliated faith-based middle school working with underserved students. One Jesuit Buffalo volunteers have done things like clean the school on weekends and helped reorganize rooms so that the school could safely open during COVID. In honor of One Jesuit Buffalo’s support of the school, they were awarded during an annual event called the Scholars Award Banquet. “We gave them the Michael P. Kirwan ‘Shining Light’ Award,” said NativityMiguel President Nancy Langer. “The award is in honor of enthusiastic support of our school and school’s mission.” In addition to their financial support and volunteer work, One Jesuit Buffalo members are vocal about the good work of NativityMiguel Buffalo.
When it comes to the future of One Jesuit Buffalo, bringing the community together after the pandemic is the top priority. “We’d like to reclaim our ability to celebrate our Ignatian heritage with events like Iggy Fest. The one we had in 2019 was awesome, it was massive,” said Fr. Betti. “When we’re not just doing this for fun but to benefit one of our important ministries of Western New York, then people just jump for that.”