How would you feel if you worked at a problem for 53 years and it just got worse and worse?
In August, Franciscan monk Kevin Crowley, 87, retired from heading the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin that he opened in 1969, just down the street from the Jameson Distillery.
Before going to visit him in 2018, I read some recent articles in the Irish press. In 2013, Crowley said “it’s very sad to see young children having to come to a place like this” — an old building where homeless men and women, many suffering from alcoholism and addiction, crowd in for hot meals: “No questions are asked and nothing is expected in return.
In 2014 Crowley spoke of the soaring demand for the Centre’s services since it started serving soup and sandwiches to about 50 people in the city each day in 1969. Forty-five years later desperation had grown 16-fold: The Centre fed around 800 people a day.” Newspapers quoted Crowley saying more “people have died on the street. We had a man coming in here who sleeps in a cemetery because he finds it’s the safest place for him.” He remembered a man who arrived with a beard “frozen solid. We had to thaw him out.” The man later died of a suspected heroin overdose and was found in the street.
In 2015 Crowley said “a new drug is making some users at the centre very violent and that extra security had to be brought in.” In 2017 a headline read, “Young mothers queuing for handouts of nappies [diapers] is the new normal for a Dublin charity.” But Crowley, who lived very frugally, continued to raise about $4 million each year, 15 percent of it from Irish government.
During my visit in 2018 I saw Crowley’s feeding room with its faded white walls, a scarred tile floor, and 20 rectangular tables, each of which seated six. Off to one side lurked a “family area” for women and children with two security guards standing by. Crowley’s office, up two flights of stairs, displayed a scarred desk, old Post-it Notes on the wall, a mismatched set of chairs, and a photo of him with Pope Francis.
I pressed him about what he learned of the people who came to the Centre. He said it’s wrong to “pry into the personal lives” of those he feeds. He saw some of the same people coming year after year, but said, “I don’t go into the details of how many people have mental problems or drinking problems or drug problems. … Our main concern is the dignity of each person. We don’t ask them questions.”
Crowley had begun feeding not only those who sat at tables but those who wanted to have even less contact with others. He gave out 200 food parcels once each week, and by this year the number of parcels had grown to 1,000. I asked Crowley, “Do you pray with the people who come here?” He responded, “We don’t shove prayer down their throats.”
Crowley did say that the center has worship services: “Twice a year.” I asked Crowley whether he helped some of his daily eaters get jobs. He replied, “Some people probably have gotten jobs, but… I’m very concerned about the privacy of each person, and what he does after leaving here, whether he makes good or does badly, that’s his concern.”
Since just about every anti-poverty ministry I’ve visited in the United States makes much of its success stories, I three times asked Crowley for stories. Finally, he told me one: A man in his 60s had recently died. He had eaten at the Centre off and on since he was 17 or 18. He drank up to 20 cans of beer every day and slept on the streets. Eventually he developed cancer. Crowley’s medical team got him hospitalized. He then entered a hospice and “died in great dignity. He had a good death.”
So, I’m thankful for Crowley’s dedication for 53 years, but his lack of interest in helping people escape poverty is very different from what impresses me at shelters like Watered Gardens in Joplin, Missouri. (I’ll describe it next week.)