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The good shepherd of Linden Street 

click to enlarge Margaret Nordbye and her friend, Joseph Pasquarelli.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY JOSEPH PASQUARELLI

Margaret Nordbye and her friend, Joseph Pasquarelli.

A small group of people gathered outside St. Boniface Catholic Church in the South Wedge on an overcast day in January to remember a friend to the neighborhood.

Her name was Margaret Nordbye, and that day would have been her 102nd birthday had she not died the previous August. Those gathered shouted out “independent,” “devoted,” “grateful,” “giving,” and “beautiful” when prompted for words to describe her.

They came to dedicate in her memory what might seem the most trivial of objects — a shepherd’s crook about 8 feet in height — but it was a fitting tribute to Norbye, who had spent some 60 years keeping watch over the neighborhood from her home on Linden Street.

“It symbolizes the good shepherd, and she was a good shepherd to all of us,” said Joseph Pasquarelli, who lived across the street from Nordbye.

The crook was affixed to the empty and outstretched right hand of a statue of St. Boniface that, until recently, had spent nearly 60 years on a pilgrimage of epic proportions after being knocked off its perch outside the church by a fire that gutted the house of worship in 1957.
click to enlarge The statue of St. Boniface outside the namesake Catholic church in the South Wedge has a new staff dedicated to Margaret Nordbye, who was called 'a shepherd of the neighborhood.' - PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • The statue of St. Boniface outside the namesake Catholic church in the South Wedge has a new staff dedicated to Margaret Nordbye, who was called 'a shepherd of the neighborhood.'
The return of the statue to the church in 2016 made headlines because the story of its travels was so incredible. After having been carted away with the rubble from the fire and reportedly placed in storage to “rise again,” the statue disappeared.

It was only later pieced together that, over the years, the 800-pound effigy had stood in the garden of a Penfield home, on an auction block to benefit public television, as a novelty outside a Livingston County antique shop, and who knows where else.

The odyssey of the statue was not unlike that of the real St. Boniface, an English monk who surfaced here and there in what is now Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, introducing Christianity to the masses before being killed by marauding robbers in 754.

His eponymous statue, originally a sheen of ghostly white, was at some point painted red and white, giving it the look of a gargantuan garden gnome or a scraggy Santa Claus, and the Bible clutched in its right hand was painted black.

But when the statute was returned to the church by the antique dealer who researched its provenance and donated it to the parish, the outstretched right hand of St. Boniface was empty — its staff, or what is known in the church as a crozier, having apparently been lost to time.

click to enlarge The statue of St. Boniface, outside of St. Boniface Catholic Church in the South Wedge, with its new staff dedicated to Margaret Nordbye, who was remembered as a shepherd of the neighborhood. - PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • The statue of St. Boniface, outside of St. Boniface Catholic Church in the South Wedge, with its new staff dedicated to Margaret Nordbye, who was remembered as a shepherd of the neighborhood.
Nordbye, a devout Catholic and parishioner at St. Boniface since moving to the neighborhood in 1953, couldn’t get enough of the story of the statue’s sojourn. She loved her church and carried with her memories of that terrible fire in a mind that her neighbors described as a steel trap.

All the years that the statue was missing, Nordbye acted very much like the real St. Boniface, ministering in her own way to thousands of people in and around Rochester, including countless in the South Wedge.

Nordbye (pronounced nord-BEE) delivered hot lunches and cold dinners as a volunteer with the Visiting Nurse Service’s Meals on Wheels program for 45 years, many of those years spent simultaneously shuttling meals and helping coordinate the agency’s 900 volunteers. Before she died, she was recognized as a “lifetime volunteer.”

“She just is someone who can always be counted on,” the agency’s director of volunteer services, Carol Zoltner, said of Nordbye in 1991. “If there’s a need for someone, she is always right there to fill it.”

Nordbye also gave of her time at the Girl Scouts, Monroe Community Hospital, the Rochester Psychiatric Center, and the Genesee Conference of Senior Citizen Directors, an organization that advocated for the aged.

In her later years, though, her neighbors said, it was from the front porch of her Linden Street home that she continued her outreach. From there, they said, that Nordbye drew neighbors into each other’s orbits with greetings, stories, news of the neighborhood.

She was a fixture on that porch, often with a friend of hers, Jessie Reuter, who had a reputation for driving her Chevrolet Impala around the neighborhood to make sure all was in order. The pair were known to some as “the shepherd” and “the sheriff.”

“I don’t know if ministering is the right word, but I would say she ministered from her porch daily,” said Kristana Textor, who lives across the street from where Nordbye resided. “She would sit on her porch and engage with passersby in almost a lost art of conversation.”

“The porch,” Textor added, “almost became a magical place.”

Nordbye was born Margaret Gillen on Jan. 14, 1919, and raised one of nine children in an Irish Catholic family in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, a small town outside Scranton.

Her independent streak manifested itself early, when as a teenager she did something few women of her generation did — moved away and went to school.

She relocated to New York City and attended Browne’s Business College in Brooklyn. From there, she found work in 1942 at the former American Water Works and Electric Co. in Manhattan, where she met the man who would become her husband, Earl Nordbye, according to their engagement announcement in The Scranton Times.

He was a soldier in the Army Signal Corps from North Dakota with experience in radio repair and electrical work. She was a Gray Lady with the American Red Cross, doing then what she would do in some form the rest of her life — being a friend to the sick and injured. Perhaps fittingly, they were married at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Manhattan.  
click to enlarge The statue of St. Boniface was painted red when it was discovered in an antique shop in Avon, Livingston County, prior to its return to St. Boniface Catholic Church in Rochester. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY JOSEPH PASQUARELLI
  • PHOTO PROVIDED BY JOSEPH PASQUARELLI
  • The statue of St. Boniface was painted red when it was discovered in an antique shop in Avon, Livingston County, prior to its return to St. Boniface Catholic Church in Rochester.

The Nordbyes never had children, but their lives were full with work and volunteering and friends and family until Earl died unexpectedly in 1976. Years before his death, the newspaper in Scranton reported that they had taken in an ailing aunt of hers who would die in their home.

Nordbye never remarried and lived alone for the remaining 44 years of her life in the house they bought together. But, as her friends recalled, she was rarely lonely.
She helped neighbors shovel driveways and rake their yards, and when she became too frail, a new generation of neighbors did hers for her. When they did, they could expect a handwritten thank you card in penmanship as neat as a pin.

Nordbye prayed for her neighbors, too. Even the unfaithful, neighbors said, found solace in her company on the porch, where she sat seemingly to them around the clock, spinning yarns, welcoming strangers, being a good neighbor.

Pasquarelli, who knew Nordbye for 29 years, said she embodied a life of service.
When she died, he recalled, neighbors wanted to do something to memorialize her, but nothing they considered seemed like the right thing.

The right thing would dawn on Pasquarelli during a walk past St. Boniface Church, where the outstretched hand of the patron saint of Germany beckoned something to hold, something to lean on, something to help him shepherd the neighborhood.

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.

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