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New biography looks at life and ministry of ‘American superhero,’ Venerable Aloysius Schwartz

Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz, the founder of the Sisters of Mary and the Brothers of Christ who serve the poor and people with disabilities at centers around the world, is shown in an undated photo with children at one of his outreach programs in South Korea. A new biography, “Priest and Beggar” by Kevin Wells examines the life and legacy of the missionary priest whose cause for sainthood is under consideration. In 2015, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing that Msgr. Schwartz lived a life of "heroic virtue" and declaring him "venerable," making him the first native Washingtonian to achieve that title. (CNS photo/courtesy Asian Relief)

November is the month when the Catholic Church asks the faithful to learn about and honor those saints, well known and lesser known, who have lived holy lives and whose virtues we can emulate. This is also the perfect time to learn about and honor those who may be future saints whose causes for canonization are underway.

One possible future saint is Father Aloysius Schwartz, a Washington, D.C.-born missionary priest who began his ministry serving destitute street children in South Korea after the Korean War and who went on to establish homes and villages for the poor in several nations. Should his cause for canonization be successful, he would become the first declared saint from Washington.

He is the subject of a new biography – “Priest and Beggar,” subtitled “The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz” – written by local author Kevin Wells.

“I am from the Washington, D.C. area, and over the years I’ve heard about this great missionary priest from D.C., but I didn’t know much about him,” Wells said. “But after understanding his holiness, I became fascinated by his life. What he accomplished seemed astonishing to me.” 

Written in an almost conversational style, Wells’s biography of Father Al (as he was known by those he loved and served) is an interesting, sometimes thrilling, and always fascinating and inspiring look at a great humanitarian of this generation.

Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, a missionary priest from Washington who founded Boystown and Girlstown programs for poor children in several countries around the world, died in 1992, and his cause for sainthood is underway. He is the subject of a new biography, “Priest and Beggar” by Catholic author Kevin Wells. (CNS photo/courtesy Asian Relief)

Aloysius Schwartz was born in 1930 and grew up in Holy Name Parish in Northeast Washington, where he was baptized and received his First Holy Communion and where he was an altar server at the church and attended the parish school. He was ordained in 1957 at St. Martin of Tours Parish in the District by Washington Auxiliary Bishop John McNamara.

Not long after his ordination, he ventured to war-torn South Korea to serve as a missionary.

Immediately upon his arrival there, he encountered streets filled with orphans, widows, lepers, the devastatingly poor, the homeless. It was then that he decided to dedicate his life and his ministry to serving these poorest of the poor.

In this photo from 1976, Father Aloysius Schwartz stands with orphaned boys in front of their future seven-story Boystown home in Busan, South Korea. (Photo courtesy of World Villages for Children)

“One of the most baffling paradoxes of Christianity is that in order to fully realize one’s capacity as a child of God, one must surrender freely and joyfully all that he is and has in an interior act of abandon,” Father Al once wrote in his journal. “The total renunciation of self is the only door that leads to fulfillment of self.”

The priest founded a network of Girlstown and Boystown villages offering poor and homeless children housing, education, vocational training, faith formation, and services. Along the way he founded the Religious Congregation of the Sisters of Mary and later the Brothers of Christ to assist in serving the poorest of the poor.

“Father Al wanted to bring Christ to ruined places, where the poorest of the poor were dying on the side of the road, which was never easy or pleasant,” Wells said. “He wanted to be the guy cleansing the sores of the leprous with a smile and kind word. In 1957, he felt strongly that Our Blessed Mother wanted him to set up shop among the most humiliated and abandoned. He wanted to bring the forgotten orphan into places of love.”

Father Al was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 1989. Despite his debilitating illness, he was tireless in his service to others, right up until his death in 1992.  In 2013, his cause for canonization was opened, and in 2015, Pope Francis recognized Father Al's heroic virtue, bestowing on him the title “Venerable,” the first step toward canonization.  

To date, the outreach established by Father Al has helped more than 150,000 people in the Philippines, South Korea, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and Honduras.

In an undated photo, Venerable Father Aloysius Schwartz is pictured with Bishop John Choi of Busan, South Korea and children of the Amidong slum there. (Photo courtesy of World Villages for Children)

Father Al was “not just a social justice worker. He prayed three hours each day, was deeply Eucharistic, and mortified his senses through penances,” Wells said. “Hundreds of thousands of bodies and souls were saved because he amputated every measure of comfort. A priest is ordained to save souls. Father Al died to himself each day of his priesthood and saved generations of souls.”

It was in serving the less fortunate – and living with them and suffering with them and sharing misfortune with them – that Father Al lived his belief “to become one of  them and one with them.”

Father Al had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title Virgin of the Poor. That is the name given to Our Lady of Banneux, who in a series of apparitions in 1933 to a young girl in Belgium said, “I come to relieve suffering.”  The Catholic Church officially recognized the apparitions as authentic in 1949.

In a prayer to the Blessed Virgin of the Poor that he composed on New Year’s Eve 1958, Father Al praised Our Lady: “You have given me the gift of poverty and suffering and by these two pearls I am grounded into a Host.”

“For a long time now, I have entrusted to you all that I have and all that I am. You have taken all, and I have nothing,” the saintly priest wrote in that prayer. “I thank you. I wanted poverty, and it embraces me fiercely.”

Father Al “moved into a condemned shack for five years. He hungered for the austerities of the great desert fathers, hermits, monks and suffering saints. Like John the Baptist, he wanted to annihilate every measure of comfort before heralding the Gospel,” Wells said. “Outside the finger of God, what he did for the humiliated and the orphan simply could not have happened. What he managed was incomprehensible.”

A young Father Aloysius Schwartz is seen in this 1965 photo taken in front of his rectory in the poor neighborhood of Song-do, South Korea. (Photo courtesy of World Villages for Children)

The author also likened the venerable priest to “the great priest-saints” of the Church – St. John Vianney, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Damien of Molokai, St. John Bosco, and St. Philip Neri – “because he felt his mission for the poor was uniquely protected by Our Lady. From a very early age, he wanted to live the same poverty as Christ.”

Wells said he wrote “Priest and Beggar” because “he (Father Al) was the most intense and hard-working priest I had ever encountered or read about – and I wanted to find out what made him tick.”

“He wanted to crucify his vocation to suffer with Christ on the cross. All he did was for the Virgin of the Poor. He had no comforts, although he had managed to raise tens of millions of dollars in donations for the poor,” he said. “Father Al was a radical; all saints, of course, are. He didn’t make sense to most who met him.”

Wells makes it quite clear that he is fond of his subject: “Father Al was an American superhero,” he said. “As a former sportswriter, I have always in a sense been paid to write about heroes. Writing about Father Al was like writing about a Sonny Liston … or a Ted Williams.”

“Priest and Beggar” is gripping, uplifting and fascinating. More than just another biography of another saint (or future saint), “Priest and Beggar” is written in such a way that it makes one eager to read, anxious to learn more about this great priest’s holiness, and then regret when the last page is reached.

“His story is vital, especially for today,” Wells said. “His story is most important for perhaps this reason: he made a decision to die to himself each day to save the poor. He knew Mary would work through him if he remained poor and hard-working.”

(“Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz” is published by Ignatius Press)