By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published April 28, 2016
ATLANTA—For more than three decades, Katie Bashor lovingly served Atlanta’s homeless at Central Night Shelter, an ecumenical ministry of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Central Presbyterian Church.
On April 23, friends and loved ones, co-workers and students, former and current shelter guests came to Mass at the Shrine in celebration of Katie’s life.
She died unexpectedly April 8 of natural causes while visiting family in Oregon. She was 59.
A Shrine parishioner, Katie was the volunteer executive director of the shelter for the last 16 years, succeeding her husband, Mark, in that role. She also worked for 18 years as a health and physical education paraprofessional at Fernbank Elementary School in Decatur. The shelter, open from November through March, had just completed its 35th season.
“She was just a go-getter,” said Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Margaret McAnoy, a longtime friend.
Before the couple married in August 1983, Mark, a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control, was a dedicated volunteer at Central Night Shelter and introduced Katie to the ministry, which became an integral part of their lives. Serving others in need was a family affair for the Bashors and included their son, Ryan, and daughter, Jessie, said Sister Margaret.
“They took the children with them (to the shelter) from the time they were babies,” she said. “Her children were just the light of her life.”
To members of the school community, she was known as “Coach Bashor.” A whistle and her running shoes rested among family photos on tables at the back of the church.
From the choir loft of the Shrine, the angelic voices of Fernbank’s fifth-grade chorus sang “Seasons of Love,” asking the question, “How do you measure a year in the life? How about love?”
The Atlanta Homeward Choir, made up of men from Central Night Shelter, also sang at the Mass. Katie had accompanied the choir in December when they went to Washington, D.C., to perform at the White House.
Respect for others
Debby Wolcott Wetterhall, Bashor’s youngest sister, spoke on behalf of the family.
“During our childhood years, Katie was often left in charge or maybe she took charge,” said Wetterhall. “She was a leader right from the start.”
Growing up in Vermont, Wetterhall recalled Katie’s first night as an activist, when she and several friends went out after dark to cover up profane graffiti on an abandoned building, replacing it with quotes from Shakespeare.
Wetterhall said her tall sister with size 10 shoes was always fighting for a cause.
“Katie was a master at getting others to join in,” she said. “She did not discriminate. She accepted each of you for who you are without judgment and expectations.”
Her only requirement was respect for others.
“She treated me like I was the most important person in the world,” said Wetterhall.
Bashor’s son died in 2014 and Wetterhall said some speculate she died of a broken heart.
“But I believe her heart was still whole and full when she died,” she said.
After the loss of Ryan, she had renewed desire to serve, drawing strength from her family, purpose from her shelter ministry, and joy from the laughter of her students.
“Let each of us strive to continue Katie’s legacy of serving others in need,” said Wetterhall.
Sister Margaret said Katie once told her about driving Ryan and a friend of his to the shelter to help. The friend was terrified of the prospect of being there with the homeless. Bashor heard her son say reassuringly, “They’re just friends we haven’t met yet.”
Shortly after their marriage, Katie began coordinating the numerous volunteers needed to keep the shelter running. Mark served as shelter director. In 2000, he stepped down, and Katie accepted the challenge of serving as its next director.
Initially located in the gym of Central Presbyterian Church, Central Night Shelter opened for the first time from January to March of 1981. After a number of years, the shelter expanded to include also the fellowship hall of the adjacent Shrine.
Sister Margaret said Katie Bashor got the shelter incorporated, a designation that enabled the program to apply for grants instead of relying solely on donations. She implemented a new way of checking guests into the shelter by way of a picture identification system.
The all-volunteer shelter has always conducted a medical clinic to provide over-the-counter medications and a foot clinic. Under her direction, a Sunday afternoon yoga class was added. Recently basketball and art therapy programs began. Ninety to 100 men stay in the shelter nightly during the winter months.
“There will never be another Katie”
Eddie Henry, who now lives near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, stayed at the shelter for five winter seasons after a divorce left him with no money and nowhere to go.
His sisters recently asked him to return to North Carolina to help them during illness. He was unable to attend the Mass for Katie, whom he called a “big sister.”
“She’s a good woman,” said Henry. “She brought me through a whole lot. We just hit it off the first time.”
Henry has no doubt that Bashor is in heaven.
“I know where she’s at because everybody loved Katie,” he said. “If you had a problem, she’d sit down with you and talk to you.”
Within a few weeks of coming to the shelter, Henry started to learn various duties from her to help out at the shelter.
“You’re going to be my number one man,” she told him.
Teaching transferrable skills was part of the shelter’s mission of helping homeless men move to self-sufficiency.
Henry was devastated to learn of her death after a friend called.
“I had to cut the phone off,” he said.
The Bashors also opened their home to those who are homeless.
Randy Spann lived with the Bashors for about a year in the 1980s.
“I was homeless at the time. I ran into Mark. He talked to Katie, and I went to live with them,” said Spann, at the reception following the Mass.
“They were such wonderful, wonderful people,” said Spann. “When I first met them, they just had Ryan. Him and Jessie both grew up around me.”
“She had a wonderful heart. There will never be another Katie,” he said.
Former shelter resident John Frye said Bashor saved his life.
“She got me off the streets. I was about ready to give up. She wouldn’t let me,” said Frye. “She inspired me to want something different. She taught me that service was the most important thing. She loved people and there was always a second chance with her. She was an inspiration to everybody.”
Frye said he came to the shelter last November. After a week of staying there nightly, she asked if he wanted to help set up and take down tables and beds and be part of a group of guests who also volunteer to help.
He accepted. Eventually, Bashor got Frye a job interview in Avondale and clothes to wear to work.
“I have a job, thanks to Katie. She is really the best person I’ve ever known,” he said.
“You’ve got to slow down, Katie”
Father Steve Yander, who concelebrated the Mass, said Katie looked for the humanity in all.
“She shared the love in her heart so visibly to the homeless and she came to know their names,” said Father Yander. “She was very, very focused in living her faith and on Mark and the kids. She was fearless. She trusted.”
Damian Whitaker, a member of the Atlanta Homeward Choir, also used the word fearless in describing Bashor.
“If Katie asked you something, you better not say no. She was a very strong presence,” he said. “Katie was just masterful at coordinating people and getting people behind a good cause.”
Bashor brought an optometrist to the shelter annually and arranged for guests to have eye exams and get glasses if they needed them, he said. “Every year she got a truckload of shoes. A podiatrist came in and everybody got shoes. Christmas was a big feast,” said Whitaker.
He said the choir wouldn’t have taken hold without her backing and “she showed up at nearly every yoga class.”
Recently Bashor and a group of other volunteers slept outside to raise awareness and learn more about being homeless.
“She said she’d never been so cold in her life,” noted Sister Margaret.
Bashor also drew her Fernbank family into the efforts, holding drives at school for items the guests might need from toothbrushes to shampoo.
“She absolutely loved doing physical education with the children at Fernbank,” said Sister Margaret. She also enjoyed organizing the parents for projects.
John Poelker, a Fernbank parent, attended the funeral with his family.
“They love her,” said Poelker of the students. “She was instrumental in developing the Fernbank Fun Run.”
Poelker said Coach Bashor was very focused on fitness and held a “Mile Monday” program, where children received “Fun Friday” rewards for completing miles.
Poelker and his family typically go to Mass at St. Thomas More Church, but decided Christmas Eve to go to the Shrine. As he sat in a back pew before the Mass, Poelker remembered that Katie was their Eucharistic minister that night—a comforting memory during the loss.
Sister Margaret shared a story related to Katie’s love of running. A group of men from the shelter wanted to meet her one morning to run. She told them to meet her at Grady Hospital.
The 12 men and Katie began running around Grady, but she quickly outpaced them. A police officer began to curiously watch this group and the men began to worry it looked as if they were chasing her.
“You’ve got to slow down, Katie,” they told her.
“Great love … birthed by her family”
The Bashors received numerous awards in recognition of their service to the homeless. Most recently they were jointly recognized with the Mercy Care “Mercy Moves Through Me” Award in 2014.
In a video produced by the Communications Office of the archdiocese in March, Katie called efforts with Central Presbyterian Church an “interesting collaboration.”
“It think it’s been a great thing for both congregations and it’s been a real blessing for our family because I feel like we have two faith communities,” she said in the video.
She emphasized that volunteering is life changing for those who come to give to others.
“And so they come with open hearts and unconditional love … and that’s the difference,” she said.
Shrine pastor Msgr. Henry Gracz was homilist for the Mass, which was also concelebrated by Father John Adamski, former Shrine pastor. The pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Gary W. Charles, and the Rev. Caroline Kelly, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Cumberland, Maryland, also participated in the celebration. A joint choir from the Shrine and Central Presbyterian Church sang under the direction of Donal Noonan.
Central Presbyterian Church opened its doors to the overflow crowd and its garden for the reception provided by Fernbank Elementary School.
Msgr. Gracz echoed the Easter theme at the Shrine.
“We come to share our story. We come to break the bread. We come to know our rising from the dead … and what a story to tell about Katie Bashor,” he said.
She challenged all, “and that’s why we are here,” he said.
He highlighted the words of St. Vincent De Paul, saint of the poor and those struggling with mental health.
“Unless you love, the poor will never forgive you for the bread you give them,” he said.
“We celebrate that great love in Katie … that love, birthed by her family and by Mark.”
The pastor shared that the couple had an unusual prenuptial agreement. Mark agreed to adopt her cats, but Katie agreed to adopt those they would serve together.
Msgr. Gracz said she was known as a “mean momma” on the streets with emphasis on momma. One man told the priest that Katie talked straight to them, telling them exactly what they needed to hear.
“And that was her gift,” Msgr. Gracz said.
Her collaboration with the Presbyterian church, in the spirit of Jesus’ call to unite, helped bring the communities together.
“She was only on loan to us from God. But what a loan God gave us,” he said. “May she live in fullness of life with all the saints.”
Kathleen Elizabeth Wolcott Bashor is survived by her husband, Mark Bashor; her daughter, Jessie Bashor, son-in-law, Cathal Doyle, and grandson, Liam Doyle, of Atlanta; daughter-in-law, Rachael Bashor, and grandchildren, Jocie and Owen Bashor, of Portland, Oregon; her mother, Elizabeth Wolcott of Moscow, Idaho; three sisters, one brother, and eight nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her father, George Wolcott, and her son, Ryan Bashor. Memorial donations may be made to Ryan’s Run, a fundraising event for the work of Central Night Shelter. Donations can be made at http://www.cnsatlanta.org/.
Gretchen Keiser contributed to this story.