Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz, a missionary priest who founded programs serving orphans and street children in South Korea, the Philippines and Mexico, was recognized as “Venerable” in a decree by Pope Francis on Jan. 22, becoming the first native Washingtonian to achieve that designation. PHOTO COURTESY OF ASIAN RELIEF
Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz, a missionary priest who founded programs serving orphans and street children in South Korea, the Philippines and Mexico, was recognized as “Venerable” in a decree by Pope Francis on Jan. 22, becoming the first native Washingtonian to achieve that designation. PHOTO COURTESY OF ASIAN RELIEF

As a boy growing up in his native Washington, D.C., Aloysius Schwartz dreamed of becoming a missionary priest and serving the poor.

As a man, Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz did just that, founding an order of religious sisters, the Sisters of Mary who joined him in bringing an education, housing and job training to thousands of orphans and street children, and hospitals for the poor in South Korea and the Philippines, work that expanded to Mexico before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1992 at the age of 61. He also founded the Brothers of Christ, who serve the poor and people with disabilities at centers in South Korea.

On Jan. 22, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing that Msgr. Schwartz lived a life of “heroic virtue,” meaning that he has been declared as “Venerable,” making him the first native Washingtonian to achieve that title. The priest’s cause for canonization has been promoted by the Archdiocese of Manila in the Philippines, where the priest known as “Father Al” died and is buried.

In an interview, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said, “The news that Father Aloysius Schwartz, one of our own who became a priest, has been declared as ‘Venerable’ is not only a great joy and inspiration, but it is a beautiful invitation to all young people to know God has something in store for every one of us. If we simply open our hearts and let God speak to us, wonderful things can happen.”

Venerable Aloysius Schwartz’s legacy lives on the Boystown and Girlstown programs that the Sisters of Mary continue to operate in South Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras, where they are educating more than 20,000 poor children. Over the years, those programs started by Msgr. Schwartz and continued by the Sisters of Mary have had 100,000 children graduate and go on to become priests, sisters, teachers, doctors, engineers and accountants, among many careers, after having once been orphans or street children.

In a 1987 interview with the Catholic Standard, Msgr. Schwartz said, “As the Spirit leads, I will follow.” Five years later, as he was paralyzed from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the priest supervised the building of a new outreach center for children in Chalco, Mexico, and he wrote two books about his work and the spirituality underlying it. Msgr. Schwartz told a freelance journalist just before his death that he wanted his epitaph to read simply, “He tried his best for Jesus.”

The son of devout Catholic parents – Louis and Cedelia Schwartz – the future priest was born in 1930 and grew up in a family with six siblings, and was baptized, received his First Holy Communion, First Confession, and Confirmation at Holy Name Church in Washington, where he also graduated from the parish school.

Father Michael Briese, now the pastor of Holy Name Parish, noted that Msgr. Schwartz was also an altar server there. “He lived a blessed life, a holy life, and now Father Al is remembered here at Holy Name Parish and throughout the whole Church,” the pastor said, noting that the parish has a small display in the back of the church devoted to telling the story of Msgr. Schwartz’s life and legacy, and the parish bulletin there has a section each week encouraging people to pray for his cause of canonization.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website notes that the next steps on the road to sainthood are beatification, in which the candidate is recognized as “Blessed” and one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession is required, in addition to heroic virtue or martyrdom. The final stage, at which a candidate is canonized and declared a saint, requires a second miracle, although the pope may waive those requirements.

Currently, the cause of canonization for another native Washingtonian – Mary Virginia Merrick – the founder of the Christ Child Society, is currently underway. Cardinal Wuerl initiated her cause with a decree in 2011, and it is currently in the diocesan phase, with her extensive writings being reviewed. Merrick, who gained nationwide fame for her outreach to needy children that continues today through the work of the Christ Child Society, died in 1955.

A fellow Holy Names School student, Father Paul Liston, now a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, remembers that Msgr. Schwartz used to walk a mile from his home to serve as an altar boy at the 7 a.m. Mass at Holy Name Church. Father Liston, a longtime member of the Catholic Historical Society of Washington, said that Msgr. Schwartz as a boy liked to swim and play neighborhood sports, and worked one summer at the soda counter at People’s Drug Store in Washington.

Msgr. Schwartz was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1957 at St. Martin of Tours Church in Washington by Bishop John McNamara, for whom Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville is named. While studying as seminarian in Louvain, Belgium, Aloysius Schwartz served the poor in Paris during school breaks. A visit to the shrine of the Virgin of the Poor in Banneux, Belgium inspired him to dedicate his future priesthood to the Virgin of the Poor and to serving the poor.

After his 1957 ordination, Father Aloysius Schwartz began serving as a diocesan priest in Busan, South Korea, where he was shocked by the condition of thousands of street children left orphaned and destitute following the Korean War. He founded the Sisters of Mary in 1964, and they joined him in establishing and operating Boystown and Girlstown programs for children in South Korea, work that later expanded to the other countries where the sisters continue to serve.

The priest carried out his work serving the poor with faith and tenacity. A slim, short man with boundless energy, he liked to run marathons. In a 2005 reflection, Father Liston wrote. “(Msgr.) Schwartz’s many accomplishments were not without extreme difficulties caused by corrupt politicians, antagonistic clergy and local gangsters. On several occasions, Father Schwartz was physically attacked because his courageous efforts  were upsetting the ‘established order.’”

The priest was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and once for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he received the top humanitarian award bestowed in Asian countries, the Magsaysay Award in International Understanding. But he said in the Catholic Standard interview that his greatest honor came in serving “my kids.”

Msgr. Schwartz was also known for his devotion to Eucharistic Adoration, for praying the rosary, and for the joyful way he lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease in his last years.

Father Carter Griffin, who serves as vice rector of the St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington and as the vocations director for the Archdiocese of Washington, has researched Msgr. Schwartz’s life, and said he is a great role model for priests and seminarians, demonstrating a “committed, prayerful, generous and faithful” example.

Corazon Aquino, when she was president of the Philippines, praised Msgr. Schwartz as a man with “a golden heart.” Today, a life-sized bronze statue with a golden finish depicts “Father Al,” holding the hands of a young boy and girl, and it stands at the children’s village in Busan, South Korea, the city where the priest began his outreach to street children.