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Westbury woman jumps at another chance to see pope in New York City

Winnie Mele, 57, a nurse, holds a photo

Winnie Mele, 57, a nurse, holds a photo of her and her family who were invited to St. Patrick's Cathedral in1982 to see Pope John Paul there. She now has a ticket to see Pope Francis at Madison Square Garden. Credit: Uli Seit

Winnie Mele, 57, is a devout Catholic who believes in a life of service.

She's also not someone to turn down a chance to see Pope Francis Friday at the Mass at Madison Square Garden -- her second time seeing a pontiff, actually.

"I kind of feel bad, like I've already been there," said the assistant executive director of perioperative services at Plainview Hospital. "But I don't feel that bad."

In 1995, Mele, of Westbury, one of six raised in a fervently Catholic family in Flushing, met Pope John Paul II at St. Patrick's Cathedral and was given a set of rosary beads by the pontiff. At the time, her sister, Eileen Dillon, was chief of staff and lawyer for John Cardinal O'Connor, archbishop of New York.

The cardinal was also involved with the family in another way: Mele's father, Jim White, had Huntington's disease, a fatal genetic disorder that causes the breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. Children of those with the disease have a 50-50 chance of inheriting the mutant gene. Mele's sister, Liz Regan, also had it -- although Mele and Dillon were spared.

As a family friend, the cardinal was instrumental in opening up a Huntington's disease unit in 1985 at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in Manhattan, Mele said, which has now expanded to 50 beds and is named The Mary and Jim White unit, after her parents.

Her father lived there for about 10 years, her sister for about two years, until they both died.

Every year since its opening, the family has held a fundraiser around Christmas, raising about $100,000 annually that goes for care at the unit.

The mission remains personal. Mele's nephew, Bob Regan, 28, son of Liz, also has the disease.

The chance to see this pope came from another sister, Mary Moore, who serves on the board of Huntington's unit at Cooke. When Moore sent out the email to siblings saying she had gotten two tickets through the archdiocese for the Mass at Madison Square Garden, Mele leaped at the chance.

"I am one of those people who doesn't want to meet anybody but the pope," she said.

She said she feels drawn to this pope's sense of service and humility -- which she said appeals to a younger generation.

Bob Regan, who had just finished a visit to his neurologist at North Shore-LIJ Medical Group in Great Neck, accompanied by Mele, agreed.

"I think this pope is less about the rules and more about the spiritual," he said. "The rules are where religion gets bogged down -- then it's less about Jesus. That's where this pope hits it on the head."

For Mele, attending the Mass will be about sharing an intense sense of community.

"There's so much hurt and sadness," she said. "There you are, surrounded by people all with the same sense of communion. You think, if we could all just take this spirit of goodness and fellowship and keep it alive somehow. My wish is that we all go back and have the sense that it's about helping the other guy."

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