Hundreds of people gathered at St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring on Sept. 16 for a Mass celebrating Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, a priest from Washington who is on the road to sainthood. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the principal celebrant of the Mass, called the priest a manifestation of God’s love and mercy.

“The connection between the Gospel call to proclaim God’s mercy, our obligation to be witnesses to that mercy, and the extraordinary life of Msgr. Schwartz all come together when we recognize that to truly be witnesses to Jesus Christ we must bear testimony to His mercy and that has to take the form, not just of words but also of our deeds, our actions,” said the cardinal.

Venerable Schwartz, affectionately known as “Father Al,” grew up attending Holy Name Parish in Washington, and after being ordained to the priesthood in 1957 at St. Martin of Tours Church in Washington, he dedicated his life to serving the poor. Beginning in South Korea, Father Al founded a network of villages for the poorest of the poor, where children could live and receive academic instruction, vocational training, faith formation, and the opportunity to play sports or learn instruments.

Quoting a book written by Father Al, Cardinal Wuerl read, “Christ not only gives the poor priority. He identifies with the poor and becomes one of them. Henceforth, whatever you do to the poor, you do to Christ. Whatever you give to the poor, you give to Christ.”

In order to sustain the Girlstown and Boystown villages, Father Al founded the Sisters of Mary, who today continue his work of serving the children. He also founded World Villages for Children, a non-profit that provides financial support to the programs. Since their founding, these villages have helped more than 150,000 children and their families break free from the cycle of poverty. Today, they operate in 14 different locations in the Philippines, South Korea, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and Honduras.

Graduates from all over the world gathered at the Sept. 16 Mass, along with Sisters of Mary, current students, and guests to commemorate Father Al’s 87th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his death. The Chalco Girls Choir, made up of students from the Girlstown in Mexico, sang at the Mass and also performed a concert that night.

Cardinal Wuerl said Father Al “bore his own cross,” as he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1989, and continued his ministry until his death at the age of 61 in 1992.

Joe and Melanie Gregory find inspiration in this element of Father Al’s life, as Joe has been diagnosed with ALS. Through a string of friends and acquaintances, he and his family have learned about Father Al and were invited to this Mass, where they were able to meet Father Al’s sister, Dolores. They attended the Mass with several family members, including their son, Jack. The couple also has three younger children who stayed home.

As he sat with his newly acquired copy of Killing Me Softly, Father Al’s autobiographical book, Gregory said he is struck by the life of Father Al because of “the things he was able to do with his faith and with his suffering” and “how he was able to work while having [ALS].”

“We’ve been saying prayers to Father Al for a miracle,” said Joe Angsten, Gregory’s brother-in-law.

In 2015, Msgr. Schwartz became the first Washington native to be declared “Venerable” when Pope Francis signed a decree stating that he lived a life of “heroic virtue.” The next step on the road to sainthood is to be declared “Blessed,” which requires one miracle achieved by his intercession, and a second recognized miracle is required for canonization. At the Mass, graduates of the villages each wore T-shirts that said, “We are the miracles of Father Al.”

Following the Mass, the graduates and guests gathered for dinner. The graduates of the Korean villages sponsored the food for the event, because “when they were hungry, they were being fed by Father Al and the people in the United States,” who were donating to the cause, said Sister of Mary Elena Belarmino. She added that she was inspired by seeing the graduates come together, because “they are the fruits of the life and sacrifice of Father Al.”

“Each [graduate] is living an amazing life full of the spirit of love and Father Al,” said Glory Sullivan, who with her husband Tom has played a large role in supporting Father Al’s cause for canonization. The postulator for his cause for canonization, Order of Augustinian Recollects priest Father Samson Silloriquez, was a concelebrant of the Mass.

Eva Daligcon, a graduate of a Girlstown in the Philippines, remembers Father Al and recalled how she and other children would go jogging and swimming with him. She described the priest as “soft spoken,” but said she could see his heart for children, passion for serving the poor, and how he was “being used as an instrument for the work of the Lord.”

“I believe it doesn’t matter how far you reach, how rich you become…the most important thing I learned is the values they teach us,” said Daligcon, who now lives and works in Canada.

Gabriel Em, a graduate of a Korean Boystown, owes his entire life to Father Al and the Sisters of Mary.

“In Korea, Father Al started to save the life of those in the womb about to be aborted,” said Em. “I was one of those babies in my mother’s womb.”

The Sisters of Mary would go to hospitals to take orphaned babies and raise them, clothe them, feed them, and teach them. Em and the other orphans call each of them “Mom.”

“I never met my mom, but I didn’t miss it because I have hundreds of moms who are there for me,” he said.

Em is getting married in November, and invited “one of my moms” to attend, which she accepted. He now lives in Vancouver, Canada, where he works as a special education teacher, and said he is excited to have a family of his own.

“When I was raised by the sisters, they told us, ‘You need to love someone as we did to you.’ Jesus loves us unconditionally. I was wondering, ‘How can I share my love?’” he said. To answer this question, he decided to teach children with special needs.

Jessica Camargo Romero, a graduate of the Girlstown in Mexico, said studying with the Sisters of Mary was “my only opportunity for an education and to have a life.”

Romero grew up in a small village, where she said she lived in poverty but didn’t realize it, because “we were all poor.” Once she arrived at the Girlstown, she said she “had a mental change that I could achieve anything in life,” and recalled how the sisters had them write down their goals and make a plan to achieve them.

Her main goal, she said, was to travel the world. After graduating university with a degree in international business, Romero began working as an insurance broker in Mexico City, and now has the opportunity to travel many different places.

“I love my life,” she said. “And thanks to God and Father Al and the Sisters of Mary who made that possible.”