By Woodeene Koenig-Bricker
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? … If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jas 2:14-17).
What kinds of works of faith does a man who works with the faith his entire life choose to do? For three priests, their need to put belief into action has taken them out of ordinary clerical life to explore unexpected frontiers. For Father William O’Carroll, the road has been a literal one. For Father Marc Boisvert, the path has been one of compassion and practicality. And for Father Andrew O’Connor, the way has led from the poor of Guatemala to the pages of Vogue magazine. What they have in common, however, is their desire to bring their faith — and that of those they encounter — to life through hands-on activities.
Father O’Carroll believes in putting his feet where his faith is. For 13 years, he has made a sponsored walk across the islands of the West Indies to raise money, most recently for the restoration of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
A member of the Missionaries of St. Patrick, he served in Nigeria for 20 years. After having malaria 50 times, he was brought stateside to do fundraising, but he soon volunteered to go to Grenada in the Caribbean, where he has worked for 21 years.
His unique fundraising appeal, making an annual 100-mile walk across the islands of the West Indies, began as a response to Pope John Paul II’s request that priests do something special for the Jubilee Year in 2000. Now, walking for nine days each year in December, Father O’Carroll says, his walk is his annual present to Mary.
Beginning each day with Mass at 6 a.m., Father O’Carroll and whoever will be accompanying him that day say the Rosary continually and stop at each church to pray. “Jesus was a man of nature,” he says, and so Father O’Carroll uses the journey to link walking with the life of Christ.
Father O’Carroll’s annual walking pilgrimage has raised enough money to help rebuild houses and schools across the islands, but his current goal is to rebuild the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the oldest historical building on Grenada. This year, he was able to raise about $50,000.
At age 77, he isn’t sure how many more years he will be able to do the walking novena, but he says that he does it for Our Lady. “She’s giving me the power to walk,” he says, and “she will tell me when to stop.”
Another priest who has found his faith work in the islands is Father Boisvert, founder of www.FreeTheKids.org, a charitable organization whose goal is to alleviate the crippling poverty that faces the children of southern Haiti.
A member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Father Boisvert worked in France, Hong Kong and the United States until he joined the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps and served with the Marines in Iraq during Desert Storm in the early 1990s. His next assignment took him to Guantanamo Bay where he worked with 10,000 Haitian refugees.
When his tour of duty ended, then-Lt. Cmdr. Father Boisvert was given permission to go to Haiti to work with the poor. Starting with literally nothing, Father Boisvert founded Pwoje Espwa, a humanitarian Christian charity, in southern Haiti. In 1998 he rented a small house and brought young boys off the street to live in it.
Today more than 600 children live at Hope Village, a property outside the city of Les Cayes with two schools, a carpenters’ workshop, an agricultural center, a small medical facility, and an all-purpose space for chapel services and theater productions. Funded by donations, Hope Village has provided shelter, clothing, food, education and vocational training to thousands of children during the past 11 years.
For Father Boisvert, his work and his faith are linked. “The thing I have noticed over the years is that humanitarians tend to run out of steam after awhile,” he said. “If they don’t see results, discouragement sets in.
“Faith allows us to have a much broader perspective. We are planting seeds, and the harvest may or may not be ours to witness. Faith allows us to remain motivated because the focus is not on results so much as it is on giving expression to what or in whom we believe.”
Father Boisvert also emphasizes that while some people think missionaries are out saving souls, in fact, “we are simply trying to save our own souls by being faithful to [God’s] call. What is his call? Well, Matthew sums it up pretty nicely in his 25th chapter: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and imprisoned. Nothing ambiguous about that!”
Father Boisvert added, “the bulk of my work is development: feeding, sheltering, educating, providing medical care to orphans and vulnerable children, building homes for the poor. My seminary training has certainly come in handy here, and my faith is being tested daily. I could have used some courses in management, construction, plumbing, mechanics, but somehow, with God’s help, we manage.”
However, he stresses that he isn’t doing this on his own. “Missionaries are only effective if they have support in the form of prayer and finances,” he said. “If I am successful then it is because there are a lot of people working with me.”
High fashion might seem like an odd place for works of faith, but that’s where Father O’Connor, a diocesan priest in the Bronx, has found his place of service.
During a retreat in the mountains of Guatemala, Father O’Connor was moved to found Goods of Conscience, a line of clothing that uses the traditional art of Mayan backstrap weaving to provide a living wage to the weavers.
His first projects were albs, using cloth woven in Guatemala and sewn by seamstresses near his parish in New York. Soon, he branched out into unique, practical clothing that has caught the attention of the high fashion industry. Actress Cameron Diaz modeled a pair of his shorts in the June 2009 issue of Vogue and editor Anna Wintour made special mention of the line.
The cotton garments begin with Guatemalan heritage cotton, which is woven into fabric by two teams of 20 weavers. Then, in New York, it is dyed with natural pigments and hand-sewn in a small Bronx workshop. Proceeds from sales fund community projects and services, and also provides living wages for the workers.
While he is a visual artist, it’s not fashion that motivates Father O’Connor. It’s what the clothing can do for people both in Guatemala and in New York.
“I am interested in a living identity that testifies to Catholic social teaching, and a comfortable garment that will last a long time,” he said. “This is an alternative to the disposable fashion of the moment.”
He pointed out that monks make their own clothing, and that it used to be commonplace for many people to do so. “Making fashion,” he said, “is another matter, and that is not conventional. Making it say something about our times is where clothing becomes a commentary.”
Father O’Connor said he has witnessed the ways many young women in his neighborhood get caught up in the illusions of identity.
“I live on the block where [actress Jennifer Lopez] comes from,” he said. “Fashion and success that are synonymous with escape from life’s problems often influence bad choices. Making clothing here suggests that this place is redeemable and worthwhile.”
In the organization’s mission statement, Father O’Connor explained, “Goods of Conscience is clothing with a mission — to truly help those in need in a way that is lasting, meaningful and dignified. ... Goods of Conscience is a means by which we can satisfy our spiritual yearning to give and experience its enormous healing power. In this giving and receiving, we amplify our humanity and that of others.”
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes from Oregon.
Father William O'Carroll
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
P.O. Box 224
St. George's, Grenada
Father Marc Boisvert
Free the Kids
2303 W. Market St.
Greensboro, N.C. 27403
Father Andrew O'Connor
Goods of Conscience
New York, N.Y. 10023