Shoulder to shoulder in a chapel last weekend, nine young women stood in modest gray habits at the foot of a Mexican altar to proclaim the vows that would lead to their death. As two hundred or so teens sat behind them with teary eyes, the sisters slowly penned their names in consent to the demands of the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mary.
The once-bullied teenagers keenly understood what these newly-professed sisters had just bound themselves to: they would spend the remainder of their lives descending staircases into teenage souls filled with unspeakable wounds—souls just like theirs—and they would climb back up with them in the crook of their arm.
One teenager, three pews back, had been badly hurt by four different men before puberty. Another, a sixteen-year-old whose parents abandoned her at the age of two, was left to fend for herself as an unloved toddler, alone, in a slum. Another, near the rear of the chapel, was beaten, piteously, by her stepmother throughout her childhood, despite striving each day to win her love. These stories—and there are thousands—are why the Sisters of Mary welcome the children each morning as mothers do sons returning from war.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The “wedding day” of the new sisters had no romance. After a celebratory breakfast with forty-seven members of the Sisters of Mary community in Chalco, Mexico, the nine sisters cleared their plates and walked up a path—really, a blood trail in a desert—that led to the inner volcanoes of three thousand teenagers in the Villa De Los Niños (Girlstown Village). The small crucifixes they accepted around their necks last Saturday marked them as anchorites to the brokenhearted for the remainder of their days.
“It is time to die to yourselves,” Fr. Dan Leary said in his homily. The American-born priest has been the chaplain for the Sisters of Mary for three years. “It’s time now to suffer and sacrifice and give everything you have.… I promise this, though, if you fully give yourself to the children, you will have a freedom and openness in your heart that few others know.
“And you will know the way of Fr. Al.”
Thirty-one years ago today, Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, one of the greatest forces for good for the humiliated, abandoned, and rejected in the history of the world, died like a poor man in a small room in a Girlstown community in Manilla, Philippines. In his final days, the 62-year-old Washington, D.C., native kept the pain of his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease) silent as he listened to a recording of his patron saint Therese of Lisieux’s Last Conversations, which had become like desert wildflowers for him as his body atrophied to less than one hundred pounds. Fr. Al had read Therese’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, more than thirty times, often in her French hand.
In a soft voice, on March 16, 1992—when Michael Jordan was just entering the midpoint of his NBA career—Fr. Al told the half-dozen sisters encircling his deathbed that the Virgin of the Poor did not need him anymore. It was time, he explained to Sister Michaela Kim, to whom he had bequeathed his stewardship as Superior General of the Sisters of Mary, that the Virgin worked solely through her and the sisters. “He said at the end, ‘Although suffering is in me, I am not in it. I am in God,’” Sister Michaela shared. “He said that he was nailed to the cross with Jesus and this would be good for the congregation and the poor.”
For the past five decades, more than 170,000 of the poorest teenagers in the world have graduated from fifteen authentically Catholic Boystown and Girlstown schools spread throughout the world like humble kingdoms of resurrection. The majority of graduates attend universities. They go on to run companies. They become teachers and bricklayers and run family farms. They are today’s auto mechanics, policemen, and dentists. They are lawyers, orchestral musicians, and architects.
Some enter seminaries and cloisters to become priests and nuns. Others move into parishes and volunteer as catechists, lectors, and spiritual big sisters and brothers to the poor. Thousands of them would be dead if the sisters hadn’t stepped into their oppressed villages—two-by-two—to pull them from the grip of traffickers, rapists, drug runners, gangs, and murderers.
As of this writing, 381 sisters care for 18,779 students in Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Tanzania, and the Philippines.
Why is this important? At this poisoned hour of civilizational collapse, some believe these waves and waves of resurrected teenagers are today’s greatest Catholic missionaries, young ones unafraid to step into a youth culture they know will often despise them for their traditional beliefs and ordered Catholic soul.
For five years in the Boystown and Girlstown communities, these youngsters do not play video games or browse social media. They do not have earbuds or cell phones. And they do not consider the TLM-New Mass debates, the untamed path of the German Synod, or the latest news from the Vatican. Each evening, at 7 p.m., they pray the Rosary together in a chorus that reverberates like thousands of bees. Thereafter, they adore the Blessed Sacrament, where they often stretch out the tips of their fingers to the base of a monstrance like bands of hemorrhaging women and beg Jesus to release them from the memories of their pasts.
These children attend frequent weekday Masses, regularly confess their sins, and are daily catechized by the sisters who pour themselves out like tipped-over chalices of our Lord’s Most Precious Blood. These nuns mother like blue-collar martyrs, aware every child comes from the drylands of poverty, shouldering whale-sized crosses. Accordingly, the sisters offer their lives seven days a week for their love-starved children. There is great risk for these sisters. Two weeks ago, a pair of them were held up at gunpoint while traveling to a poor village.
How do these sisters attain this level of renunciation, bravery, and tireless work ethic? Each sister walks in the footsteps of Fr. Al, their spiritual father, who once told them, “Our role is to mingle our blood with the blood of Christ—and to shed our blood with that of Christ to the poor. The way we serve is to have a constant crown of thorns.”
Because the sisters’ eyes blaze with a deep love for their holy founder, many of the children now desire to proclaim the Gospel as Fr. Al once did—to share the fullness of the Catholic faith at universities, workplaces, and back in their villages. “Fr. Al is as much the children’s spiritual father now as he was when he was alive. Every single child—so many of whom have lost their own earthly fathers—are aware they have a spiritual father in Fr. Al,” Fr. Leary said. “They know he will never leave them. He is as close to them now as their next breath.”
The majority of readers will have never heard of Fr. Al, who in 2015 was declared Venerable by Pope Francis. Fr. Al prayed to be unknown. But as time moved on, his desire for anonymity became impossible; he was changing the face of the world.
Who was this uncommon priest, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, whom Monsignor James Golasinski called the boldest man he had ever known? “People say that St. Vincent de Paul was the great apostle of charity and that Fr. Al Schwartz based his entire missionary life on his,” said Monsignor Golasinski, who served alongside Fr. Al for ten years in South Korea. “But I’ve told people that Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz accomplished more than St. Vincent de Paul. What Fr. Al managed to do is beyond the pale. I was there and I saw what happened.”
It would have been difficult for Aloysius Philip Schwartz to have picked a worse time to arrive in the world than on September 18th, 1930. The Great Depression fell like a guillotine into the Schwartz home, which sat forgettably on the slum side of the Benning Road trolley tracks in Washington, D.C. Every day, the front page of the Washington Post reported the latest stories of local and national heartbreak—which worried little Al’s father, Louis, a grade-school dropout struggling to feed his growing family.
As an eight-year-old, Al told his older brother, Lou, that he wanted to become a priest who would serve poor families just like theirs. Fifteen years later, Al became enrolled as a seminary student at Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, where he was the lone American acclimating himself with members of the Société des Auxiliaires des Missions, an obscure order of priests dedicated to living as poor-men priests in the most poverty-stricken villages of the world.
While studying in Belgium, two important events impacted the future of the American seminarian. He had been jolted by British poet Edith Sitwell’s depiction of Christ as a “Starved Man” in her poem “Still Falls the Rain,” where, nailed to the cross, Christ observes a German air squadron’s merciless bombardment of London in 1940. In her poem, Sitwell takes inventory of humanity’s gruesome tendencies—its pride, greed, black-heartedness, and shameful behaviors.
Bombs are made analogous to our sins against Christ, dropped as “blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails upon the Cross.” It is only through Jesus’ spilled blood, Fr. Al saw in the poem, that grace and love are made incarnate. The redemption of humanity, Al understood, would be found both through God’s mercy and through those willing to starve—even die—as an expiation for a sinful world.
Thereafter, as a twenty-five-year-old seminarian, he asked Jesus to nail him to a cross of a priesthood that would resemble a Golgotha-like shedding of love. He prayed to be the Starved Man able to enter the sweet violence of untiring sacrifice for the poor.
Of greater import, Al discovered the apparitions of the “Virgin of the Poor” that took place in Banneux, Belgium, in 1933, when Mary appeared eight times to a twelve-year-old peasant named Mariette Beco. By the time he was in his second year of seminary, the tiny village of Banneux had become a part of his soul. He desired total union with Mary, whose words to Mariette rose in him like a small flame of consolation during tough seminary days, when he was often struck with illness.
Mary introduced herself to Mariette as “The Virgin of the Poor,” the first time in the history of apparitions that she had identified herself with those living in poverty. In the days that followed, the Blessed Mother told Mariette she had come to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and broken-spirited, while emphasizing the need for unceasing prayer.
In effect, Mary’s words to Mariette acted for the American missionary priest as the raw material to build perhaps the broadest non-governmentally-funded service for poor children and orphans in the history of the world. Everything mentioned to Mariette, in a sense, was stolen, contemplated, mentally engineered, and effectuated by Fr. Al. Under the banner of his spiritual muse, Fr. Al fashioned an integrated system of authentically Catholic temporal and spiritual care for countless poor children, for whom he would provide an education, housing, meals, medical care, catechesis, the sacraments, vocational job training, sports teams, orchestras, and other extracurricular activities for five years.
A week before his ordination on June 29, 1957, Al visited Banneux for the last time, and he surrendered to her all of the future merits of his priesthood. He vowed to Our Lady he would work to become a Starved Man for the materially and spiritually poor, in the fashion of her Son. He was uncomprehending of all the Mother of God would do through him.
All these years later, because of his vow to Our Lady, tens of thousands of students have graduated these past few decades and gone into the world to help heal the wintertime in the Catholic Church and society. Those graduates, fully immersed in the trench warfare of leading an increasingly godless culture to conversion, know the work is as unromantic as it is lonely. Fr. Al’s startling words on the demands of true discipleship echo as a reminder:
In the psalms, the Holy Spirit says, and He is quoting God, “I dwell in a place which is dry and waterless.” God dwells in the desert; He dwells in nothingness, emptiness, and extreme poverty. If you want to find God, renounce all your possessions and seek God. Jesus died poor on the cross. He is stripped naked. He has no good reputation. He gives His mother. He is alone. His disciples have left Him, and He has no friends. The blood leaves His body—health and strength and life leave his body.… He empties Himself completely and the figure of Jesus on the cross is that of total, absolute, terrible, frightening poverty. Jesus says, “If you wish to be my disciple, you must renounce all that you possess.” All means visible possessions and invisible possessions. What is on the outside, what is on the inside—all.
To donate to the Sisters of Mary World Villages for Children and learn more about their spiritual work for the poor, please visit: www.worldvillages.org/poverty.