"I wonder sometimes if I deserve this beauty," Alice Zacharewicz mused while surveying the landscaped greenery on her four-acre East Nassau property - and the many shrines she's added there.
"You're out with God and nature," she told The Evangelist while pointing out her six outdoor statues, including figures like Mary, St. Francis of Assisi (surrounded by bird feeders) and the Sacred Heart. "It's just so tranquilizing."
Ms. Zacharewicz, 76, has built up her prayer paradise over several decades, adorning the shrines with places to sit, flowers, stones and trees. A dozen people attend "rosary rallies" she holds each year, but the site has mostly served as her private reminder to pray.
She wants to change that.
"I'm still trying to figure out how I can [promote it] so people can come," Ms. Zacharewicz said. "I want to share it with others. I want everybody to love God like I love Him."
Ms. Zacharewicz already shares her faith in many ways. The current presidential race has spurred her to get involved with 40 Days for Life anti-abortion campaigns in the Albany Diocese and in her winter home in Florida, and she may attend the national March for Life in Washington. She recently ordered pro-life brochures and prayers and began circulating them at parishes in Troy and Albany.
Her hope is that "people will say this prayer and God will listen and direct us in the right way" and that "people are aware and will make the right decision" come election time.
The retiree, who worked at an oil company and taught at a West Lebanon school, also makes rosaries for missionaries. She attends Mass at several parishes, including St. Francis Chapel in Albany, and says morning and afternoon prayers.
Recently, Ms. Zacharewicz has been attending the Tridentine (Latin) Mass at St. Joseph's parish in Troy. She said she feels discouraged by the lack of reverence by some Catholics elsewhere; she's upset when church-goers "pass right by the Blessed Sacrament." She worries about future generations of Catholics.
"I can't preach because it turns people off, so I try to do it by example," she said.
But seeing young people attend liturgies at St. Francis Chapel encourages her that "through the prayers of certain faithful, we're coming back. This resurgence is making me feel positive. It's giving me hope for the Church."
Ms. Zacharewicz, one of six children, lived in Brooklyn until the age of 10, when her family purchased the house she currently occupies as a summer home. The family later made it a permanent home.
Her mother earned extra money by taking in friends' and relatives' children during summers; Ms. Zacharewicz began working after high school to help fund her brother's education.
She and her mother, who was her roommate for many years, collected indoor religious statues and attended Mass together. Ms. Zacharewicz started arranging the outdoor pieces after her mother's death in 1996.
Help from saints
"I always call on them when I need help," she said of the saints. "I also rely a lot on the angels because I know God's busy."
Ms. Zacharewicz survived breast cancer in 1983 and again in 2009, with the second stint requiring chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She now suffers from vision problems, blood clots and arthritis as a result.
Prayer, she said, "got me through. God has been good to me. If it wasn't for my faith, I wouldn't be able to accept what happened."