PHOTO BY DAPHNE STUBBOLO Father William Carloni, the pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Washington, preaches during a Sept. 18 Mass honoring the birthday of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, a native son of the parish who became a missionary priest and whose network of schools for the poor are in six countries.
PHOTO BY DAPHNE STUBBOLO Father William Carloni, the pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Washington, preaches during a Sept. 18 Mass honoring the birthday of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, a native son of the parish who became a missionary priest and whose network of schools for the poor are in six countries.
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As a child, Venerable Aloysius Schwartz always had a simple birthday celebration, with a cake and one present, said his sister, Dolores Vita. This year, on what would have been his 86th birthday, the man who could become the first saint from Washington had a more extravagant celebration, when Holy Name of Jesus Parish was filled with people who had gathered to celebrate a Mass in thanksgiving for his ministry.

Venerable Schwartz, who was born on Sept. 18, 1930, grew up attending Holy Name Parish, before he went on to become a missionary priest and found a network of Catholic educational and job-training programs called Girlstown and Boystown, which serve orphans, street children and the poor in six different countries today. Vita said it was appropriate that they chose to honor him on his birthday, since he gave thousands of children the opportunity to celebrate their own birthdays that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

“It seems the perfect thing to do,” she said.

The children in the Girlstown and Boystown programs are often found living on the streets and do not know when they were born. Msgr. Schwartz, who is affectionately known as “Father Al,” believed that every child deserves the opportunity to have the same simple birthday celebration he had as a child, so he decided that all of the children in his network of schools around the world would celebrate their birthday together on Aug. 15 every year, which is the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

Many of the alumni of these programs were present at the Mass and birthday reception, along with several Sisters of Mary, which is the order that Msgr. Schwartz founded to carry on the work he began. He also founded the Brothers of Christ, who serve the poor and disabled at centers in South Korea.

Msgr. Schwartz died at the age of 61 after suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Father William Carloni, the pastor of Holy Name, said after Msgr. Schwartz received his diagnosis, he didn’t have to do much to get his life in order, because “he was always expanding,” doing more and more to serve God and the poor.

“He was never going to stop investing in heaven, in children, in women, and in the poor,” Father Carloni said in his homily.

This was as part of Msgr. Schwartz’s path to holiness, which Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout said has two components: conforming one’s will to the will of God and engaging in a process of gradual development, encountering obstacles, difficulty and struggles along the way.

He noted that the definition of holiness is missing the word “perfection,” because holy people are not beyond the struggles that everyone else faces day to day.  Rather, they are “ordinary individuals, struggling with all the things we do, accomplishing extraordinary things” because they rely on God, and “God’s grace always overcomes the challenges we face,” the bishop said.

Through saints and holy people like Venerable Schwartz, Bishop Knestout said, “We see in them the same struggles we see in ourselves,” which shows that “all of us are called to holiness.”

Msgr. Schwartz, in his book Killing Me Softly, said, “I have no illusions whatsoever about being a saint.” But Bishop Knestout said, “It is in that very humility that we all recognize holiness.”

While he did not think he was virtuous enough to be a saint, Msgr. Schwartz did strive to be holy.

“He did not only want to be a saint, he wanted all of us to come with him,” Vita said.

Vita remembers the first time she and her family ever heard the word “saint” talked about in relation to her brother.  It was the headline of an article in a 1977 Washington Star, titled “Running with Washington’s Saint in the Making.”

“We had never even thought about that,” Vita said.

In January 2015, Pope Francis declared Msgr. Schwartz “Venerable”, which is the first step on the road to sainthood. In order to be declared as a saint, Venerable Schwartz must next be recognized as “Blessed,” which requires one miracle that is achieved through his intercession, and then must be canonized as a saint, which requires a second miracle.

At the reception following the Mass, Tom and Glory Sullivan, who are ardent supporters of Venerable Schwartz’s cause for canonization, invited forward all of the alumni who were present.

“These sisters and these children are the miracles of Father Al,” said Glory Sullivan. By that logic, Venerable Schwartz would have over 130,000 miracles.

One of these alumni is Sister Winnie Valencia, one of the Sisters of Mary who had traveled from Mexico to celebrate Msgr. Schwartz’s birthday.

Sister Winnie grew up in a shanty outside of Manila, Philippines, on a trash dump that is referred to as “Smoky Mountain,” because of how it smokes due to the internal combustion. She was one of the first children that the Sisters of Mary gathered to start the program in that country.

“We were living a wretched life,” she said. “So I was very happy and very grateful.”

Sister Winnie recalled seeing Msgr. Schwartz at Mass and in Confession, and while she never talked to him one on one, she said, “I consider him a father, probably even more than my biological father.”

After graduating from the school in Manila, Sister Winnie went on to work as an accountant for a German company, where she made enough money to take care of her family.

“The child is taught to be a disciple to their family, spiritually and financially,” Tom Sullivan said. As a result, Msgr. Schwartz’s programs have not only helped 130,000 children, but all of their families as well.

Once her family was taken care of, Sister Winnie wished to repay the Sisters of Life for what they had given her, so she went to work for them as an accountant. After several years, Sister Winnie discerned her vocation and entered the Sisters of Mary in 2004. Now, she is assigned to the Girlstown in Chalco, Mexico.

“We have problems, we have difficulties, but with God’s help, nothing is impossible,” she said.

When the children first enter the programs, they often need to be taught life skills such as what a bathroom is, what a toothbrush is and how to use silverware, said Tom Sullivan. Many of them have never eaten three meals per day.

Alumni of the programs have gone on to do a variety of things, including working at the National Institutes of Health, teaching in the Anne Arundel Public School System, and studying at the New England Conservatory of Music.

At the birthday reception on Sept. 18, two alumni played Msgr. Schwartz’s favorite songs, “Oh! My PaPa” and “When The Saints Go Marching In,” on the violin and the guitar. Then, they played “Happy Birthday,” and everyone joined in to sing.

Delia Miral is an alumni of the Girlstown in Cebu, Philippines, and she found out about the birthday Mass for Msgr. Schwartz on Facebook. She is now a Merchant Marine and is currently studying in Piney Point, Maryland, so she was excited that the Mass was close enough that she could ask a classmate to drive her.

When she was younger, Miral wanted to be a nun, but was unable to, because she is one of 13 children and needed to make money to help her family. So, after graduating high school, she went on to work at a factory. But she still felt called to help the sisters, so she would take days off of work to go into the poorest parts of the village and gather children together. Because the Sisters of Mary were only able to travel to one place to bring children to the school, Miral brought the children to that place. Now, whenever she returns to the Philippines to visit, people will say, “You’re the one who helped me!” and will bring her food as a way of saying thank you.

“I want Father Al to be a saint, and it would be nice if he could use me to be an instrument to be a saint,” she said.

Sister Margie Cheong, who traveled from South Korea, said it was an honor to be able to participate in the celebration of Msgr. Schwartz’s birthday in his home parish.

“Like a father, he left us every foundation,” said Sister Margie. “…The more that we are involved with the work of the Sisters of Mary, the work of serving the poor, we can understand more of who he was. He is teaching us and guiding us every day.”