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Ten Catholics doing amazing work

Mary O’Regan profiles 10 Catholics who are quietly using their talents in the service of others in an astonishing variety of fields

By on Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Fr Patrick Desbois has dedicated his life to seeking out witnesses to Nazi mass executions in Ukrainian villages (CNS photo/ Debbie Hill)

Fr Patrick Desbois has dedicated his life to seeking out witnesses to Nazi mass executions in Ukrainian villages (CNS photo/ Debbie Hill)

1. Gerry Straub

Gerry Straub has had an illustrious career as a television producer in New York and Hollywood, producing extremely popular shows such as General Hospital and The Doctors. But he is now applying his considerable expertise as a film producer, filmmaker, and critically acclaimed author to uncover the living conditions of the world’s poorest people.

Straub has written and directed 18 documentaries, including Embracing the Leper, which shows a Secular Franciscan valiantly bringing support to the lepers of the Brazilian Amazon. Straub is himself a Secular Franciscan, and founder of the San Damiano Foundation. This organisation makes films about the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan care of the poor. One such notable film is Where Love Is, which shows the work of a Capuchin soup kitchen in Detroit. Straub has taught television directing at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

His new film, Mud Pies and Kites, captures life in Haiti before and after the catastrophic earthquake of 2010. When researching the film Straub visited Haiti seven times, and the title is a reference to the fact that the Haitians were so short of food that they ate mud mixed with spices.

With his firsthand knowledge of the world’s underprivileged, Straub lobbies the US Congress for the rights of the poor.

2. Fr Patrick Desbois

A million and a half Jews were murdered after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. For the most part, the “Holocaust of bullets” which preceded the Final Solution has slipped under the radar. But France’s Fr Patrick Desbois is dedicating his life to uncovering its full scale and horror.

Fr Desbois can be seen wandering through the forgotten forests and fields of the Ukraine and Belarus, Russia and Poland. Fr Desbois has found more than 800 mass graves of Holocaust victims, and recorded 1,800 videotaped interviews. He travels with a team of two interpreters, a photographer, a cameraman, a ballistics expert, a mapping expert and a note-taker.

Fr Desbois has a particular style of asking questions in a neutral tone. Then he listens to the testimonies without showing any shock and never judging those who worked for the Nazis. This is precisely why many Holocaust scholars say that he is so successful in gathering evidence. Fr Desbois is also very thorough, and has a policy of only registering a grave site or place of execution after getting three independent eye-witness accounts. Many of the witnesses were children and teenagers at the time and are now elderly.  

In 2004, he helped create the Yahad-In Unum, an organisation based in north-eastern Paris, which funds and supports his work. The words yahad and In unum mean “together” in Hebrew and Latin respectively. As the organisation’s name suggests, it strives to further mutual-understanding between Christians and Jews.

Fr Desbois spent time in Israel as a priest, speaks Hebrew and is now director of the French bishops’ committee for relations with Judaism. Fr Desbois’ 2008 book, The Holocaust by Bullets, won the National Jewish Book Award. You may follow the developments of Yahad-In Unum on its blog, http://yahadblog.weebly.com.

3. Fr David Beaumont

He started his mission by riding a donkey into the remote areas of northern Mexico and getting to know the four native tribes. Capuchin friar David Beaumont has spent the last 20 years as a missionary. It took Fr Beaumont four years to learn the languages of the tribes: the Pimas, the Guarijíos, the Yaquis, and the Mayos. He has since written four different catechisms in each tribal language and compiled dictionaries.

The biggest obstacle he faces is that his mission is based in one of the biggest drug-harvesting areas in the world. Growing cannabis and heroin is a lucrative, billion-dollar business, and the native people might live in shacks or mansions. A challenge is to promote the harvesting of crops such as corn and beans, so that the local people can become self-sufficient. Among the poor inhabitants alcoholism is rife. As a consequence, wife-beating is an attendant woe. Escaping their troubled home life, the native children flock to his side. He has started a soccer league for children and teenagers. Fr Beaumont has started programmes for treating alcoholism, and has acted as a spiritual father to thousands of families when the biological father was either absent or too inebriated. But Fr Beaumont is in the middle of starting a programme for men that will encourage them to take up the traditional tribal role as providers and protectors.

Much of his hard work came to fruition in March 2010, with the inception of the Beaumont Foundation, which is named in his honour. It has a particular aim in giving immediate aid to the poverty-stricken people of the lower Pima Region.

4. Sister Mary Scullion

Time magazine has on three occasions hailed Sister Mary Scullion as one of the “100 Most Influential”. In 2009 Philadelphia’s Sister Mary, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was nominated for this honour by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love.

Sister Mary started as a teacher, but discovered that her true vocation was caring for the homeless when she helped to open Mercy Hospice in 1976, a shelter for women and children. She co-founded Woman of Hope in 1985, an organisation that provides permanent residences for homeless, mentally ill women. In 1989 she co-founded Project HOME, with Joan Mc Connon, and is now the executive director. Today, the organisation is credited with halving the number of people living on the street.

Due to her tireless efforts Philadelphia continues to have one of the lowest rates of homelessness in America. An average of 95 per cent of people who come to HOME never return to life on the streets. The acronym stands for what they offer the homeless: Housing, Opportunities for employment, Medical care and Education. Musician Jon Bon Jovi was so impressed that he sought to collaborate with Sister Mary, whom he now calls his mentor. His organisation, Soul Foundation, has collaborated with the HOME project, and has an ongoing project of providing housing for homeless women in north Philadelphia, the Bon Jovi Homes. Known for her earthy sense of humour and humility, Sr Mary crossly protests being called “Philadelphia’s saint”.

On May 22 this year she received the Laetare Medal, American Catholicism’s most prestigious award.  

5. Michel Ozorak

Canadian Michel Ozorak was recently awarded the Golden Rose by the Friars Minor of Chicago for making Gregorian Chant sheets accessible to the whole world. Ozorak was a protégé of Philip Adamson, professor of music at the University of Windsor, Ontario.
For over four years, Ozorak has used a software programme called Grégoire to compile online sets of Gregorian Chant sheets to assist priests, deacons, and subdeacons with chanting the Mass.

Nothing like this has been available before. Several books provide the tones for chanting, but one needs to be expert in Gregorian Chant to use them.

The Priestly Fraternity of St Peter was the first to put Ozorak’s chant sheets of the Epistles and Tonus Antíquior Gospels on its website.

The website for the Assumption of Our Lady Church in Windsor houses the St Athanasius Chant Sheets which include the Collect, Epistle, Gospel and Postcommunion of the Extraordinary Form Mass. You may access them here; Windsorlatinmass.org/
latin/chant.htm
.

Two versions of the Collects and Postcommunions are available, in the Tonus Festívus and Tonus Solémnis. Three versions of the Gospels are available, in the Tonus Antíquior, Tonus Ad Líbitum and Tonus Evangélii.

Ozorak’s painstaking work will enjoy greater attention in the wake of Universae Ecclesia, the recently published Instruction on the application of Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum.

6. Seth Williams

In January Seth Williams became the first African-American District Attorney in Philadelphia. The 44-year-old has had a glittering legal career, having previously served as Assistant District Attorney. He is married with three daughters, and is a committed Catholic who has served on the boards of Catholic community organisations, including St Cyprian Catholic church, Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and the St Martin de Porres Foundation.

Williams hit the headlines in America and elsewhere when this February he held the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to account for clerical abuse. The grand jury in Philadelphia charged two priests, one defrocked priest and a teacher with rape, and controversially found another priest guilty of imperilling children through complacent priest transfers. The report presented in court said that 37 suspected abusers remained on duty. Since February, 26 priests named in the grand jury report have been placed on leave, while complaints against them are being reviewed.

Williams has said that he has seen other Catholic parents become fearful of bringing their children into the Church, and wants to correct the image of the Church as a place where sexual abuse is tolerated. But despite his thorough knowledge of the sins of some priests, Williams remains a steadfast Catholic. In his office there is a crucifix on a side table, and a photo of his time as an altar server. He says: “I love my Church, but I detest the criminal behaviour of priests who abuse.”

He is a member of “the cardinal’s cabinet”, a group of Catholics who advise Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali.

7. Fr Rick Frechette

Fr Rick Frechette was ordained a Passionist priest in 1979, and has worked with orphans in Mexico and Honduras. In the 1980s Fr Frechette came to Haiti as a priest. He then started training to be a doctor, but simultaneously worked in the Haitian slums whenever he wasn’t studying. He qualified as a doctor in 1998, and is now director of medical services for Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos International (“Our Little Brothers and Sisters”), and oversees the medical needs of children in nine countries. He is gentle but outgoing and bears a resemblance to George Clooney.

Stationed in Port-au-Prince in Haiti, Fr Frechette is only 58, but says he is considered an old man because the life expectancy is around 46. The conditions are deplorable, with little water, no electricity and few medical supplies. 

Fr Frechette has established medical clinics, the St Hélène orphanage, which has over 450 children, street schools and a 12- bed paediatric hospital. He arranges for critically ill children to be airlifted out of the area and taken to Italy or the US for urgent medical attention.

But Fr Frechette is also like a modern day Tobit of the Old Testament. He gives particular attention to burying the dead, organising funeral services for unknown people who were killed by gangs or found dead along the wayside.

8. Fr Shay Cullen

Fr Shay Cullen, 68, a missionary priest from Dublin, has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. For 42 years Fr Cullen has worked to protect the rights of women and children in the Philippines.

In 1974 he founded the Preda Foundation (People’s Recovery Empowerment and Development Assistance Foundation) in Olongapo City. Their aim is to change the social conditions that facilitate abuse of women and children. Preda has developed 12 central projects that include rescuing children from brothels, legal services for the abused and an internet safety campaign.

Presently they are planning a home for street children.

In recent months Fr Cullen has said he may “name and shame” certain hotel chains, especially in Thailand, which traffic children. The hotels ignored Fr Shay when he offered to give child protection seminars to hotel management; so Preda is looking into posting clips of these hotels in Asia that proffer young adolescents to tourists. Fr Shay has fought for a new code of conduct for travel agencies, where they will agree to only send their customers to countries that have “clean” tourism, and not to include resorts or hotels where child sex tourism has been uncovered.

9. Kevin Vost

Illinois’s Dr Kevin Vost was a cradle Catholic but became an atheist in his late teens. Twenty-five years later he returned to the Church. In his early forties, a turning came when he encountered the first-hand writings of St Thomas Aquinas, and steeped himself in Summa Theologica, finding that “true Christian faith complements and perfects reason”.

Since his return to the Church in 2004 he has written books, appeared on television and given talks about how he learned the follies of atheism and returned to Mother Church. He explains that during his decades away from the Church he could have used his efforts in earning a doctorate in psychology, working as a journalist for weightlifting magazines, and as a Research Review Committee Member for American Mensa, for the greater glory of God. But in such books as From Atheism to Catholicism (2010), and his online writings, Vost meticulously picks apart the claims of Nietzsche, Ayn Rand and Albert Ellis.

Vost has another very original, innovative project in that he is using his expertise in fitness and weight training to write about physical and spiritual “fitness”, in Fit for Eternal Life (2008). He is further developing this theme, with a new book Tending the Temple, to be published next Autumn.   

10. Mother Elvira

This July will be 28 years since Mother Elvira founded Cenacolo. In that short time, 60 houses have been set up, in Mother Elvira’s home country of Italy and around the world, including Ireland and Britain. The houses are never government-funded and rely on donations. Cenacolo is the Italian for Cenacle and in each house there is perpetual Eucharistic Adoration. Sr Elvira devised a program that has so far helped thousands of young people to overcome addictions. No one pays anything for living in the community. Every newcomer is given a “guardian angel”, a former addict who guides them through their cravings.

The foundation of each Cenacolo house is prayer, hard work and friendship. Depending on where a Cenacolo house is based, the work may be caring for animals or growing crops. They may also learn the basics of carpentry or plumbing. There is no time limit, and people from every religious belief are welcome.

Mother Elvira prefers to locate a house near a shrine or a monastery devoted to Our Lady, so that they may readily seek her protection. Rather than praise her own efforts for Cenacolo’s success in reforming addicts, Mother Elvira thanks the graces that flow from the celebration of Holy Mass and Adoration in the houses. In 2009 the Vatican recognised Cenacolo as an Association of Christ’s Faithful.

  • A Heley

    this is a very anglo-centric list. I thought the church was universal. 

  • Pastorel

    This is indeed good new!-Wwhat about people who reach out to respond to a need in a secular industralised country?

  • MaryO’Regan

    It may appear that it is an Anglo-centric list, but when I was
    looking for amazing Catholics, it was done on the basis of their immense
    contribution, not whether they are ‘Anglo’ or not. But the facts are that each
    amazing Catholic’s work has universal appeal.

    Fr Desbois is travelling through the Ukraine, Belarus,
    Russia and Poland and always travels with two interpreters so that each indigenous
    person he meets may give their testimony in their mother tongue. Fr Desbois is
    currently talking about his work in Australia. Mother Elvira is Italian and the
    language of all the Cenacolo houses is Italian. Fr Shay Cullen and Sr Mary
    Scullion are from Irish backgrounds. Fr Shay speaks Filipino fluently. Filipinos
    who know him have told me ‘he is one of the people’. Michel Ozorak is from an
    entirely Francophone home in Canada. Michel’s father is fluent in Latin, but
    was born in Czechoslovakia. Seth Williams is the first African-American DA of
    Philadelphia, and is an example of a great Catholic lawyer for the whole world.
    Fr Beaumont is from the US, but is first and foremost a Franciscan who will
    spend his life among the poor. Fr Beaumont has mastered not only Spanish, but
    the four tribal languages of Mexico.

  • emm

    Six of the ten are priests and religious….when looking at the demographic of the Catholic Church, this seems a bit lopsided. I would rather learn about the amazing things all those Janes and Joes in the pew are doing. 

  • Anonymous

    Oh dear.  Look what the Bishop of Mostar has to say about (Mother) Sister Elvira:- http://www.cbismo.com/index.php?mod=vijest&vijest=315