One day, around the mid-1970s, Tom Sullivan came home and picked up the Washington Star, and was captivated by a photo of nuns playing soccer with boys in South Korea, and then he was even more captivated by the newspaper’s article that told the story of a Washington-born priest, Father Aloysius Schwartz, who founded a religious order, the Sisters of Mary, to help him serve orphans and street children in the slums of Busan, Korea’s second largest city. The priest and sisters established Boystown and Girlstown schools, providing an education and hope for the future to thousands of poor children.
That evening, Sullivan told his wife, Glory, after she finished putting their three children to bed, “I really want you to read this article.”
After reading that article, Tom and Glory Sullivan’s lives would never be the same. Soon, the Catholic couple met with the article’s author, William Willoughby – the Star’s longtime religion columnist. “He said the program really touched my heart, and I’m thrilled my writing has touched your heart,” Tom Sullivan remembered.
Eventually, the Sullivans were able to contact the priest, and invited him to join them for dinner during one of his trips home to Washington. “Father Al,” as they came to know him, insisted that they dine at the Sullivans’ kitchen table. Glory Sullivan, after reading of the priest’s accomplishments serving the poor, expected to see a giant in their doorway.
“There he was, standing before us," a thin man about 5-foot, 8-inches tall, she said. The Sullivans, along with their three children – Colleen, Kathy and Tommy, who were then in elementary school – were captivated by the priest’s stories of his work of bringing Christ’s love to the poor in a far-off country.
As he said goodbye to the couple, the priest said, “I have to get back to my children.” Glory Sullivan remembers what happened next: “We closed the door, and simultaneously said, ‘We just met a saint!’”
The couple’s reaction to the priest may prove to be prophetic. On Jan. 22, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing that the Servant of God Aloysius Schwartz lived a life of heroic virtue, meaning that the priest now is regarded as “Venerable” by the Catholic Church, and he is the first Washingtonian to achieve that title. His cause for canonization is being promoted by the Archdiocese of Manila in the Philippines, where Msgr. Schwartz died in 1992 and is buried.
After learning of the priest’s ministry and meeting him, the Sullivans became friends and supporters of Msgr. Schwartz and the Sisters of Mary, and traveled to their schools in South Korea, the Philippines and Mexico to witness their work first-hand, and to meet the children whose lives were being changed by the faith and love of the priest and the sisters.
“He was just such a holy man. What he talked about was imitating Christ,” said Tom Sullivan.
Glory Sullivan noted, “The motto of the Sisters of Mary is to ‘Serve the Lord with Joy,’ and every place is joyful and the children are happy.”
Years earlier, Tom and Glory Sullivan had founded Government Institutes, Inc., an environmental publishing and continuing education company. The Sullivans in their retirement have devoted their time to a foundation they established that supports Catholic charitable and educational works and evangelization efforts around the world.
Over the years, Tom and Glory Sullivan have taken family members and friends with them to visit Msgr. Schwartz’s Boystown and Girlstown programs, including a trip to Korea with their three children, and a trip to the Philippines with Msgr. Vincent Gatto, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who is now retired and serves at the Sullivans’ parish, St. Raphael in Rockville.
For Msgr. Gatto, coming to Manila was something of a homecoming, because in 1945, the Troy, N.Y., native, then in the U.S. Army, had been stationed there in the Philippines, and stopped in a Catholic USO hall, where he picked up a vocations pamphlet that inspired him to seek the priesthood.
On his return visit to Manila, Msgr. Gatto remembers driving through a slum area, and then suddenly seeing new buildings – the schools that Msgr. Schwartz and the Sisters of Mary had established to teach the street children there. When he saw the priest’s simple room, furnished just with a bed, chair and desk, Msgr. Gatto’s reaction was like that of the Sullivans years earlier: This man “had to be a saint,” he said in a recent interview.
“I don’t think he was trying to be a saint,” said Msgr. Gatto. “He had a job to do, and did it.”
Msgr. Schwartz lived in poverty as he served the poor, and he was known for subsisting on cheese sandwiches, and for wearing worn clothing and shoes. After being ordained to the priesthood in 1957 in Washington, he became a diocesan priest serving in Korea, and serving poor children became his life’s work.
While visiting the Boystown and Girlstown programs in Manila, Msgr. Gatto celebrated Mass for the thousands of children there, who with the sisters, prayed together and sang joyfully. “Everywhere you went, there was perfect order,” he said.
Glory Sullivan said her children experienced that same spirit of joy when they visited Msgr. Schwartz’s schools in South Korea. She said they had expected to see sad orphans, but instead encountered exuberant youth.
“Father Al” was a tenacious man, who sometimes didn’t let formalities like building permits or government red tape delay the construction of his schools, because the children he served needed a place to live and learn. The Sullivans said he pushed his friends to be better people, to rely on prayer and to live out their faith, especially by serving the poor.
Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz, “was a very complicated person to know. He never left you feeling comfortable,” Glory Sullivan said.
In 1989, Msgr. Schwartz came home to the Washington area and visited with doctors there, and told them he was having trouble with his shoulder. “He couldn’t raise the host at Mass, and that troubled him greatly,” Glory Sullivan said.
The priest was soon diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis –Lou Gehrig’s disease. Eventually, the disease left the priest paralyzed, and he had to be strapped into a wheelchair.
“He kept going,” said Tom Sullivan. Msgr. Schwartz oversaw the planning of a new school for girls being built in Chalco, Mexico.
The priest dictated books about spirituality for the Sisters of Mary, including To Live is Christ, which the Sullivans published. In the introduction to that book, Tom and Glory Sullivan wrote, “In our opinion, Father Schwartz and the Sisters of Mary are the most outstanding Catholic charity in the world. They are transforming impoverished youngsters into future Catholic leaders… and they do it with a smile.”
Father Schwartz died of ALS on March 16, 1992 in Girlstown in Manila, and thousands of people attended his Funeral Mass. At his burial place in the Philippines, a replica of the chapel of Our Lady of the Poor in Banneux, Belgium, has been built, in homage to the place where he often prayed as a seminarian, and where he dedicated his life and work to Our Lady of the Poor. Venerable Aloysius Schwartz is buried under the replica chapel’s altar.
Today the Sisters of Mary continue “Father Al’s” work, educating more than 20,000 children in schools in South Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and Honduras. More than 100,000 youth have graduated from the schools.
“It (Msgr. Schwartz’s life) is an example of what one person can accomplish for Christ,” Tom Sullivan said.
For Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, the further steps on the road to sainthood – beatification and canonization – will require verified miracles of physical healing. The Sullivans, for their part, say they have already witnessed miracles resulting from Father Al’s life and work.
“It’s a miracle. His work is a miracle that continues to this day,” said Glory Sullivan.