In an empty chapel in Banneux, Belgium one night, Aloysius Schwartz made a vow to spend the remainder of his life serving the humiliated and disregarded. Louvain’s lone American seminarian had a streak to him. “Al” was disarmingly direct. One might even call him bull-headed, but from an early age he manifested holiness. So when he consecrated his life that night to the Virgin of the Poor at her apparition site, there would be no reneging.
Following his ordination in 1957 in Washington D.C., where he was raised by humble and hard-working parents, he was told of a dire need for priests in war-decimated Korea. He wrote a letter expressing a willingness to lend a hand as a fresh-faced priest. Bishop John Choi wrote back: Come. We need you now in Busan.
On December 8, 1957, “Fr. Al” looked for the first time into the faces of the Korean poor and saw “eyes burned with a fierce, scared, hunted-animal expression.” He tried to say annyeong (hello) to a few boys and was jarred by what seemed animalistic responses. A few spoke, and he heard terror in their voices. He walked further down the road and saw squatter huts and child-scavengers zombieing from trash pile to trash pile. He crawled into a tent stuffed with four men who had contracted tuberculosis. The smell of excrement, garbage and decaying animals hung heavy everywhere he went, into every hut he entered.
He had walked into hell. And he exhaled – alas, he was home.
The honeymoon of his priesthood had just taken hold. On that brokenhearted street, Fr. Al saw the visible need for the steady, helping hand of Jesus Christ.
New Healing Hands
Nearly three decades after Fr. Al’s death in 1992, Fr. Dan Leary, a priest for 23 years in the Archdiocese of Washington, was recently granted permission by Archbishop Wilton Gregory to spend the next 2-3 years as Chaplain to the Sisters of Mary and their Communities throughout the world. On July 6, he touched down in Chalco, Mexico, the Sisters of Mary’s home to 3,300 teenage girls.
“Early on in seminary it was a grace for me to be given the opportunity to spend time with the Sisters of Mary in Chalco. It was a tremendous encounter, incredibly impactful,” Fr. Leary said. “I saw that the Sisters wanted to awaken in these children their full potential as beloved children of God. They wanted to show them who they were, what their purpose was and their dignity as ones dearly beloved by God.”
Fr. Leary has just stepped into a dimension unseen in America or the West. For starters, he has encountered teenagers without cell phones or ear buds. Each prays the rosary at 7 P.M. in what sounds like a harmonious chorus that reverberates like orchestral hives of bees. They are taught fully-accredited classes by some of the finest instructors in Mexico and receive catechism from the Sisters. Their sports programs, musicians and orchestra are among the finest in the country.
Visitors to Boystown and Girlstowns frequently report back a throbbing type of joy, heightened by the knowledge that the children were lifted from harsh lives of poverty.
Many have worked fields, barefoot, at the age of 8 or 9 and returned home to find no food on the table. Almost all have had the fear of not knowing the whereabouts of the next meal. For the five years the sisters will have them, they educate, nourish, catechize, play with, jog with, and pray with them; they do not stop. The eloquence of their maternal love — given ever so slowly, so tenderly — pulls away layer after layer of wounds and horrors too graphic for this writing.
“Time here is like Magdalene’s perfume; it is precious for us,” said Sr. Margie Cheong, the Korean-born sister and head of the Latin American communities. “We give all we are to the children.”
Throughout his ministry, Fr. Leary has been drawn intensely to the poor and broken. During the temporary closing of parishes in the springtime, the former St Andrew the Apostle pastor organized drive-in Eucharistic Adoration and confession opportunities in the church parking lot and a 52-mile fundraising walk for the poor. He has long worked alongside the Missionaries of Charity and the Mustard Seed Communities, which serve the profoundly physically and developmentally disabled. When he recently received donations of thousands of loaves of bread, he made recurring 120-mile round trips for pick-up and distribution to centers, parishes and pantries that serve low-income families in the Archdiocese of Washington.
“Fr. Al was pretty simple and straightforward about the mission. He said, ‘We believe in Jesus, we love Jesus, and we do what Jesus did,’ ” Fr. Leary said. “Christ chose to live in poverty and die in poverty. I know Matthew 25 was a driving force for Mother Teresa and for Fr Al. I guess it’s what’s inspired me as well – to encounter Christ in the poor. The poor deserve spiritual fathers who love them.
“I’m grateful to God for calling me. I’m at peace. He wants something more from me. I know the Lord has a plan – so I’ll just leave it all with Him.”