At an inch or so over five feet and weighing, I would guess, something on the underside of 100 pounds, Sister Winnie, a soft spoken Filipina, is not your typical dinner speaker. Yet a few weeks ago she held a room full of Washingtonians spellbound with her story—which is also the story of a largely unknown American of whom the Church in the United States should be very proud.
Sister Winnie was born, and lived the first years of her life, in a shanty built on an enormous trash dump (politely known as a “landfill”) outside Manila. The locals called it “Smoky Mountain” because of the fires that spontaneously combusted from some two million metric tons of trash. Winnie was rescued from Smoky Mountain by the Sisters of Mary and, with the permission of her family, was raised in the sisters’ Girlstown, where she became a skilled accountant. She then took a job with a major German industrial firm, sending much of her salary back to her family to help her parents and siblings. But corporate accounting paled after awhile, and Winnie decided to put her professional skills at the service of the sisters who had given her a new life.
You can guess the rest: while working for the Sisters of Mary, Winnie discerned a vocation to religious life, joined the congregation that had done so much for her, and now works in one of the sisters’ missions in Mexico, doing for other waifs and abandoned children what the sisters had done for her: giving them a life.
I had never heard of the Sisters of Mary, or the Boystowns and Girlstowns in South Korea, the Philippines, and Latin America where they now serve some twenty-thousand desperately impoverished children, or their parallel men’s order, the Brothers of Christ, which serves both children and people with disabilities, until earlier this year. Then, happily, my friends Tom and Glory Sullivan, Catholic philanthropists who’ve generously supported this work for years, began to tell me about the founder of the Sisters and the Brothers, Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz, whose heroic virtues were formally recognized by Pope Francis this past January 22—thus making him Venerable Aloysius Schwartz.
“Father Al,” as he was universally known, was born during the Great Depression in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Holy Name parish, near the Capitol and Union Station. As a boy living in tough economic times, he decided early on that he wanted to be a missionary priest among the poor. Ordained in Washington in 1957, he was incardinated into the Diocese of Pusan, South Korea, where he soon discovered a tremendous human problem: children living in the direst poverty, often without parents, because of the devastation caused by the Korean War.
And he decided to do something about it.
Fifty years later, the Girlstown and Boystown homes for indigent children that he founded have served some one hundred thousand youngsters: not only by feeding, clothing, and housing them and providing medical care, but by offering these youngsters an education that gives them the financial possibility of gainful employment, and the Christian and human formation that teaches them to give back to their parents and siblings. Sister Winnie is a spiritual daughter of Father Al; she is also a wonderful example of what Aloysius Schwartz understood to be the fruits of a missionary vocation to the poorest of the poor—she is a fellow-disciple who, having received great gifts, gives them to others.
Watching him working the soda counter at a People’s Drug Store, few would have imagined that the youngster they knew as Al Schwartz would die in 1992 at age 61, after years of patiently bearing the cross of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Perhaps even fewer would have imagined that young Al Schwartz was a nascent saint of the Church. Venerable Father Al’s life and accomplishments are a reminder that God really is profligate with gifts of grace, and that saints-in-the-making are all around us as companions on the way.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.