“Flabbergasted”: Plumber and his wife leave millions to church

And a lot of people are stunned.


Gus and Marie Salenske, a plumber and a nurse, lived a quiet, modest life on the North Side of Syracuse. They enjoyed 46 years of marriage in Gus childhood home on Turtle Street, just a few blocks from where Marie grew up on Lilac Street.

They liked to square dance, and Marie made their matching dance outfits, bright colors for both. They loved to travel, Marie enjoyed playing the organ and they were active in several local Roman Catholic churches.

Gus died in 2001 at age 80. And when Marie, 88, died in May 2009, their secret was revealed. The couple had amassed nearly $4.3 million and they were giving it away.

Marie’s will called for this: $1 million split among a niece, a nephew and two friends; $1.2 million to St. John the Baptist Church on Court Street; $821,637 to Assumption Church on North Salina Street; $410,665 each to the Cloistered Dominican Monastery on Court Street and St. Stephen’s Church on North Geddes Street and $205,486 to Chicago’s National Shrine of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

The money surprised everyone. Their generosity did not.

“I know people were dumbfounded and astonished. It was astounding,” said Kenneth Sprague, director of mission advancement for the Franciscan Church of the Assumption. “This is somebody who helped out at all of these churches and no one ever suspected. She never gave the pretense she had these plans or had these monies.”

Family and friends describe the Salenskes as caring people who always considered the Catholic church a big part of their lives. Both Gus — short for August — and Marie, hailed from German families on the North Side. The Rev. Jon Werner is the priest at St. John the Baptist, which has since merged with Holy Trinity Catholic Church. Werner said churches like St. John the Baptist, which was built in the late 1860s, were important to ethnic neighborhoods. “Neighborhood parishes were hubs of activity,” Werner said.

Since Gus died, Marie attended noon Mass at St. John the Baptist almost daily, Werner said. Only once did she talk about leaving the church money, Werner said, but she never mentioned an amount. More than a year after her death, the church learned about its windfall. “It flabbergasted me,” Werner said.

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