The World of the Desperate and of the Saint

Author: Daniel Stollenwerk '80

Sunday, March 21, 2004.

Father Robert Schwenker OMI, a 1958 Notre Dame graduate, died last Tuesday. He had been jogging in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Bogotá, where he lived. A hit-and-run.

Father Bob was more than a friend. A mentor perhaps is the right word. I’ve never known a more authentic Christian. He truly wanted to live the Gospel—which led him to poverty and prayer.

Father Bob was the one who got me to the South Bronx. He had heard that a chapter of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (M.C.) were there. So in his travels as Vocation Director of the eastern province of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate — he simply followed a map into the heart of the Bronx and looked up the Sisters.

They were moving out of their borrowed home on East 142nd Street within a week. Did he want it? Well, yes, he did. A vacated house in the South Bronx in the early 1980s would last perhaps three days before being stripped, not just of light fixtures, sinks and toilets, but of copper pipe, electric wire and fuse boxes as well. Father Bob found someone to take over the house immediately and returned a few months later with a number of volunteers to help with the Missionaries of Charity’s summer youth camp, myself among them. I had met Father Bob earlier in our common hometown of Columbus, Ohio. When he invited me to volunteer that summer I accepted.

The camp went fine. The novelty of New York is what I remember most though, and the freedom of knowing that for the first time since I was 6 years old I wouldn’t have to return to study in the fall. I recall an early evening at the end of that summer, however, sitting on the front porch stoop with another volunteer. The beat of boom boxes measuring the pulse of Willis Avenue at the end of the block and the clicking of dominoes on makeshift tables straddling the sidewalk across the street set the mood for the long, lazy, after-dinner hours. It struck me in the cool of that evening that in less than two weeks the summer project would end, and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I had just finished a bachelor’s degree at Notre Dame and had no inkling whatsoever of getting a real job, especially after seeing a few of the realities of another world like the Bronx.

I wanted to travel. I had thought of working just enough to get a car to drive to Santa Fe or Tucson perhaps. It was an intoxicating idea. And I suppose I would have gone through with it, had Father Bob not asked me a few days later to stay on through the winter, “hold the fort” as he had said. Just not let the house appear to sit vacant. He’d be back in the spring when his commitment as vocation director was up. He wanted to return to the Bronx as a missionary.

I said I would, of course. The Southwest could wait.

Finding Mother Teresa

Another episode happened about the same time that, I suppose, pointed in the same direction. Mother Teresa was in New York. She’d often slip in and out of the Missionaries of Charity’s house on 145th Street. This time, however, people discovered she was about. And I was one of those people.

I knocked at the sisters’ unpretentious front door just off 3rd Avenue and asked the superior, Sister Priscilla, if I could see Mother Teresa. She told me Mother Teresa was visiting with her sisters and, with that morally superior tone that salespersons often affect when soliciting the one and only acceptable answer from a customer, asked if I didn’t think that it was only right that she do so. I told her quite honestly that I didn’t care if Mother saw her sisters or not. I simply wanted to talk to her. I added that I would like to stay on her front porch stoop, if that was okay, until Mother could see me. I was bluffing of course (it was nearly lunchtime), but my bluff paid off. Mother Teresa came out to see me. I told her I wasn’t sure of my future. She said I’d be in the Bronx next year when she returned. (I was, but to this day I refuse to call her utterance inspired. It was more common sense than anything else.)

At any rate, she invited me to adoration with her sisters at 5 p.m. And so it came to pass that it was I who brought Father Bob to meet Mother Teresa. He was hesitant to go. (“Are you sure they won’t mind? It was you she invited, no?”) But when he spoke to her after prayer, mentioning his own disquietude about the future, Mother Teresa told Father Bob to obey his superiors. (Again, hardly prophetic, but it turned out to be what indeed happened.)

Thus the main thing to come of our encounter with Mother Teresa was that we could now attend adoration with the sisters. I maintained the daily prayer routine for as long as I could until two other volunteers and I started an emergency men’s shelter later that winter. The shelter quite logically opened at 5 each evening.

It was only in looking back at that fortuitous summer of 1980 that I came to realize that Father Bob was just then beginning to hear the “call within a call,” as Mother Teresa spoke of her own journey. He was feeling an urge for deeper prayer, which naturally led to poverty. And perhaps it was at this point that our relationship found rare kinship. During the following winter, he continued to travel the eastern seaboard as the OMI Vocations Director, but his heart was with the three of us who had turned our 142nd Street brownstone into a men’s shelter. (See Notre Dame Magazine, October 1981, for a story about our volunteer work on the shelter.)

That period challenged me physically, psychologically and spiritually perhaps more than any other in my life. Father Bob visited often, helping out with food, bringing in other volunteers and, perhaps most important, offering encouragement. I felt as though we were journeying a similar path: desperately searching for God in poverty. The one difference, I suppose, was that throughout the years my faith faltered. His did not.

When the harsh New York winter was over and Father Bob returned in the spring, we had already shut the shelter. New volunteers had come to help with the M.C.‘s summer camp, and our home on 142nd Street was restored as a residence for volunteers. Father Bob’s time as vocation director was coming to an end, and he invited his superiors to the Bronx to see the shelter. His request to them was simple: Let him stay. He had a home. He’d help the Sisters out in whatever they may need — celebrate Mass, hear confessions, accompany them when they visited the homeless in Grand Central. Whatever. Perhaps some of his fellow Oblates would like to join him? There were myriad possibilities for ministry in the Bronx.

His superiors understood the request; they appreciated the possibilities. But they simply didn’t have the personnel. No, it would not be a good idea. Father Bob would have to pull out.

He did. They sent him to Ceiba, Puerto Rico, where the Eastern conference had a mission. It worked for a while, but the spiritual challenge simply was not there. Most of his fellow Oblates did not appear to understand him, he later told me. Ask many a middle-class, first-world Catholic entwined in the life of the Church and they will honestly and sometimes even fervently insist that the real missions are in the first world. That’s where the spiritual poverty is. And they’ll quote no less an authority than Mother Teresa to back their claims.

His deeper need

But such reason does not convince those called to a deeper spirituality (and didn’t convince Mother Teresa either). Father Bob finally asked and was granted permission to join his fellow oblates in the neighboring province of Haiti, a much poorer and more challenging ministry. Ironically, just before he was to leave, he received a call from the OMI Eastern provincial. Mother Teresa had approached him with a request. Could he send one of his priests to the South Bronx, to say Mass for her sisters, to hear their confessions, to perhaps even help out a bit with the sisters’ ministry to the poor? Of course, there was so much to be done in the Bronx, there was great spiritual need. A priest could be overwhelmed with ministry. Perhaps he’d want to send a team of Oblates?

Would Father Bob want to go to the Bronx? the OMI provincial humbly asked. It was too late though. Father Bob was further along the track. The Bronx would have been several steps backward.

As it turned out, in its ministry to the poorer strata of society, the OMI Haitian province moved Father Bob about quite regularly. For the most part, he and I were able to keep in touch. I visited Father Bob in 1983 in Chardonierre, in the southwest corner of Haiti. Later, newly wed, my wife and I traveled to see him in an isolated village of central Oaxaca, Mexico. He was eventually transferred to Malagana, Columbia, and finally to Bogotá, where he died. We corresponded by email when he was able to hook up, and at one point were even able to talk via computer.

It was also via computer that I received the message that Father Bob had died. It was a four-line email. I read it. Reread it. I logged off and walked the five minutes to my house. My wife was leaving as I approached, and we took shelter from the overzealous tropical sun under our house posted some 6 feet off the ground. I told her what I knew. That Father Bob would be buried in Bogotá, but that there would be memorial services for him in the States. I told her I had had a premonition of his death: I had imagined several times that he would die while I was living in this rather isolated section of the northeast coast of Papua, New Guinea. I spoke of the numbers of people who would gather for the services in Buffalo New York; Lowell, Massachusetts; Columbus, Ohio; and Washington D.C.. And that I would not be there. Then I said that not a single one of them would know that Father Bob had written to me once that I was the closest brother he had had.

It was then that I began to cry. And for about an hour, while my wife went to pick up our three children, I continued to cry alone on my bed.

When one is 22, a bit naïve, and with no determined goal, one might assume that one’s journey is typical. Not that any of my friends had opened a men’s shelter in the South Bronx after graduating from Notre Dame, but the only real difference between them and me, at least so it appeared to me at the time, was that they had pulled off a year of law school after college, whereas I had given away all my clothes, emptied my bank account and spent all my energy searching for the proverbial pearl, which I figured had to be found in the poverty of Isaiah 53.

In the end my discoveries appeared much different than my youthful exuberance had envisioned. Still that winter opened up to me a different world, one in which I would try to find accommodation for several years thereafter. It was a world of the desperate and of the saint, of loneliness and consolation, of darkness and of the negative way to God (costing not less than everything). Father Bob introduced me to that world, and he would continue to inhabit it for the rest of his life.

Living the Gospel

It was only later when I entered seminary at the age of 26 (I never finished; marriage beckoned) that I realized that my mentor — whom I did not seek out and who did not seek me out, but that simply happened — was far different from those of other seminarians. Thus my journey rather atypical as well. Because of the world he had chosen to enter, Father Bob was an exception. The external manifestations of his internal journey were evident to any observant eye. He was the most unpolitical Church persons. He really did want to live the Gospel, wherever it took him, or better said, because it took him. What he owned fit in a carry-on; he was ready to move at a moment’s notice. He had sworn off the drink, although he was not alcoholic. He quietly told me one day why: He had simply seen too much alcohol-associated violence in his ministry in the Bronx, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Mexico and Columbia. He thought to himself that there had to be something he could do. So he went dry. It was a sort of prayer, or what older terminology might call spiritual warfare.

He was intelligent; he kept abreast with current events and theological trends. But the pearl he quested drew him ever further into an internal world that few appear to traverse. It was one of poverty, countless hours of meditation, a dietary discipline aimed at combating violence, and the preaching of a single Gospel message of repentance and salvation to the poor.

Father Bob led a lonely life. Few understood his quest. His mother hoped for years that he would not only give up the priesthood, but, more important, the ridiculous conviction of Christianity. He told me with a bit of a smile years later, before she died, that she had given up on the second hope—but not the first. Perhaps it was I that best understood it. We shared the first part in the Bronx. And it is perhaps my greatest sorrow that I could not follow him the whole way into prayer, poverty, solitude, faith.

Father Bob is gone now. At 22 in the first floor kitchen of 432 E. 142nd St. I remember reading him Robert Frost’s image of how “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” I had found the poem in a battered paperback and liked it enough to memorize it. Father Bob must have looked for a copy himself because years later he surprised me by reciting it from memory as well. The poem ends on a melancholic tone. How else? Frost speaks of “ages and ages hence” when he would remember with a sigh how he had taken the road less traveled. There’s no doubt that Father Bob did the same. And yet, for me also, although only midway on my life’s journey, those ages and ages hence appear to be already as well. I sigh, however, not so much in memory of a decision made — for, in fact, I’m not sure how well I’ve stayed the path — but rather for an encounter with him, my mentor, my friend, my brother. For in the end, in my life, it was he who has made all the difference.

Father Robert Schwenker OMI, was 68 when he died. May he, and all the faithfully departed, through God’s mercy, rest in peace.

Daniel J. Stollenwerk, who received a degree in American studies from Notre Dame in 1980, also holds a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of Salamanca, Spain. For the last two years he and his wife have been volunteer lecturers at Divine Word University, Madang, Papua New Guinea. He can be reached at: