Today 31 Oct. is my birthday. I feel that birthdays & family go together - and that includes my brother and sister, and the slum families here, who, if have not adopted me, at least tolerate me(probably since I have been in Klong Toey so long) and our 181 Thaichildren who live with us here at Mercy Centre, who now more than ever, call me “Fr. Grandpa.”
Long before Thailand, the slums and the slaughter house. when we three children (my sister, brother and I) were growing up, with dad long gone, mother slept in the front bed room.Usually with the door open a bit.We could hear her softly saying the rosary night after night, together with an old tape recorder to keep her company.In our better moments we would join her.
Saying the Rosary lulled her to sleep – she totally believed if she dozed off first (and she mostly did) her guardian angels would finish “telling the beads” for her.Knew that with only the sound of the tape recording of the Hail Mary’s, she was safe and we her children were safe. We lived in a tiny house in a poor district of a small lumber mill town, never thinking it a slum.We and our neighbors kept up our yards and rosebushes, and the neighborhood was safe.
Mom in her later years suffered from dementia, and in her moments, she’d hold on to her Rosary Beads.Never once did she forget how to say her Hail Mary’s. We her children said:“that’s all that’s left, but it’s more than enough." She taught us the rules of life as her prayers flowed along the beads between earth and sky.
Mom was an Irish lass, and her favorite song was Galway Bay, and I remember how she changed the lyrics:
I am a single Catholic mom praying in a language the strangers do not know, for they come and try to teach me their ways and laugh at me for my Rosary Beads and my skimping, wearing used clothes, nearly starving, so I can send my children to good Catholic Schools.But they might as well go chasing after moon beams or try to light a candle from a star.
And that was yesteryear. Mom was correct: we attended good Catholic schools and the education has served us well. And all my life, I’ve repeated mom’s words:to every slum child I meet: Go to School.No matter what.Go to School.
Me? Today. My birthday dream at 74?I asked my old neighbors in the Slaughter House if it would be proper that I move back – would they accept me? – and they said, they’d help me fix up my old wooden shack there.
It’s the one I rather abandoned for some years: tilting a bit on one corner, the roof leaks a bit.So we need to firm up the foundations, patch the roof, etc. It was home for 27 years.I moved here to our Mercy Centre, to direct our apostolate; teaching over 40,000 slum kindergarten kids how to read and write.
But now we have a new priest carrying much of the burden, and it’s time for me to move back – at least a couple days a week – to where I grew up as a priest in the Catholic ghetto Slaughter House of Klong Toey, where I belong. Where I am happiest. Where I think, as a priest, I am most needed. True, I can’t do slaughter house living 24/7, as they say, because it would ruin my health, but a day or so a week will be okay.
I have one of mom’s rosaries.She had three, so there is one for each of us children. And I have my big Redemptorist Rosary – so I am well prepared and protected, as mom would say.
On my birthday – the Vigil of All Saints – I hope to say the rosary, to visit some of my life-long slum neighbors, and feed a couple of slaughter house (junk yard) dogs,. And Holy Mass and a party.Our mob of 181 orphan/street kids, 50 with HIV/AIDS and the rest abandoned plus rescued from being trafficked… they want an ice cream-and-cake party, and it shall be. I’m sure one of the adults will buy a lottery ticket with the number 74 – or maybe 7 + 4… whatever.
Someone whispered today that the Buddhist Abbot from the Temple down the street might send lotus blossoms and the Imam will come offer a Blessing. Also we have 32 five- and six-year-olds for whom our Mercy Centre is their only home, who told me this morning that, eventhough I speak Thai with a funny accent, and am grumpy sometimes, that it’s okay for me to stay around and be their grandpa.
Photos: Above: Fr. Joe serves cake at the Rom Klao Mercy Kindergarten, just beside the site of last week's fire; below, our Mercy children present a birthday gift of roses.