A Priest for all Seasons

By John Scally

He is one of Ireland’s best known humanitarians. But what is less known about him is that he can claim to have helped shape Irish sporting history.

Fr. Peter McVerry is one of the best-known people in Irish life because of his campaigning work for the homeless. Before he began this work though he taught in Belvedere College and was ‘persuaded’ to coach the rugby team which included a teenager who was to become one of Ireland’s greatest rugby players, Ollie Campbell. Ollie said, “We thought he was great and knew everything about rugby.”

Peter was born in 1944 in Newry and grew up with his father John, a GP, and his mother Eleanor, a Welsh nurse and convert who ‘became more Catholic than the Catholics themselves’. Both were the key formative influences on his life, Eleanor’s devout Catholicism and John’s 24-hour commitment to his patients. Peter recalls: “Sometimes, he would be out two to three times a night to patients.

I think that’s where I got my sense of service. I was sent to Clongowes where my father had been and I enjoyed the structured life there. I had been thinking of a career in dentistry but I was 15 when I started thinking about joining the Jesuits. Nowadays they would just tell you to go away. I knew nothing about life and I had no experience of anything.”

In Summerhill, when he moved there in 1974, it turned his life upside down. Up to then he had a privileged and comfortable life. The people of Summerhill changed him completely.

“I went to live there with two other Jesuits in the old tenement buildings. Each house was divided into eight flats. Two things shocked me. First – the conditions in which people lived there were appalling. We had a top floor flat – luckily when we moved in it wasn’t raining.

The place was crawling with rats, and the rats were the size of little kittens and immune from every poison that was ever invented. In our flat, on the top floor, you just listened all night to the rats running on the ceiling, fighting each other, squealing, dragging bits of food. But on the ground floor, or the first floor, parents would tell you of waking up in the morning and finding a rat on the baby’s cot.”

Things were to turn even more bleak for the young priest.

‘But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that there was no sound-proofing between flats, as they were originally only rooms in a large house. We could hear the news on the TV in the flat below us perfectly clearly. Now, each house had at least one family with problems, and the problems were usually drink related. In our house the family with problems lived in the flat below us.

Both parents were alcoholics, spent the evening in the pub and, about three times a week, came home at 1am and had an almighty row. They would be shouting and roaring at each other, cups would fly across the room and smash against the wall, and you would hear their 3-year old child crying in one of the bedrooms. This row would go on for maybe two hours until they fell asleep from drink and exhaustion. But the rest of the house was wide awake – you didn’t sleep through this. “

“At that time, no child had ever gone to school in that area after the age of 12. So they were hanging around the street all day and half the night, most of their parents were unemployed and couldn’t give them any pocket money, so what were they doing? A little bit of robbing. And by the time they were 16 or 17, they were doing a lot of robbing and going to prison. It was as predictable as day follows night.”

In 1979 he opened a hostel for homeless boys aged between 12 and 16, but almost immediately saw the need to extend this to older age groups. In 1983 he founded the Arrupe Society, to provide housing and support to homeless youths. This later became the Peter McVerry Trust, committed to reducing homelessness and the harm caused by drug misuse and social disadvantage. It focuses its efforts on those with particularly complex needs – the most marginal and overlooked in our society.

The Peter McVerry Trust has established eleven homeless hostels, over 100 apartments, a residential drug detox centre and two drug stabilisation services. In one year it supported almost 3,600 vulnerable youths and provided over 2,000 residential placements along with 75,000 meals. The name ‘the boys’ call him is ‘Hedge’ – an allusion to the hedgehog-like character of his hair.

Peter McVerry deals with the human reality of suffering on a daily basis that for many families there is no room in the inn in recent years because of the homelessness crisis.

One of the many people he has helped is Vincent. He grew up in Tipperary and had a ‘normal’ family and was a promising young hurler. Then he got involved in taking drugs when he was a teenager. He quickly became an addict. To fund his habit he turned to crime. He was sent to prison and his family effectively disowned him.

Then he was told he could get temporary release if someone undertook to look after him over the Christmas period. Given the amount of work Peter McVerry does in prison Vincent was aware of who he was so he asked Peter if he could stay in one of his hostels. Peter agreed and it went well. As Vincent prepared to transition from prison to outside life he again turned to Peter and the relationship developed and deepened and Vincent flourished and turned his back on his old ways.

Vincent started to at work in the Peter McVerry Trust where for the last few years he has been employed as a youth worker and given that he lived the life the troubled teens are living today he has great credibility with them and can reach them in a way those who have been trained in the academic way can not. Vincent speaks of his profound debt to Peter and how he is driven to give the young lads under his stewardship the same care that Peter gave him and to turn the wheel the full circle by giving them a second chance at life as Peter did for him.

Fr. McVerry concludes our conversation with a story of what drives him.

He tells the story of a child who is on the beach and picks up a starfish and throws them back into the sea.

A man comes along and asks him: “There are thousands of starfish on the beach. What difference do you think you are making?”

The child answers: “I am making a difference to that starfish.”

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