Tuesday, November 17, 2009

10 Years Ago: Remembering Michael Kirwan

It seems impossible to believe that it has already been 10 years since my friend Michael Kirwan, a Catholic Worker in Washington, DC, died on November 12, 1999 of cancer. I still remember his funeral Mass. Michael's generosity towards the poor and homeless was legendary and I can't think of a funeral for a lay person where I have seen quite so many concelebrants. Or such a mix of mourners -- well-to-do donors sitting side by side with Catholic Workers and other homeless activists and the homeless themselves, who came into St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church from their street corners and grates to pay a final farewell to the man who had shown them so much love during his life.

In honor of this 10th anniversary, I want to share Colman McCarthy's obituary on Mike, as well as Mike's own last letter to his friends as he faced death from cancer. Those who want more information about Mike Kirwan's life can read his biography.

After his death and the death of his assistant Connie Ridge, the houses in DC were turned over to SOME and A Simple House. If you want to honor Mike's memory, you can make a donation to either of those programs or to your local Catholic Worker house.

Michael Kirwan Dies

Obituary by Colman McCarthy. Reprinted from The Washington Post, Saturday, November 13, 1999; Page B07 by permission of the author.

Michael Kirwan, 54, who as a member of the Catholic Worker community in Washington for more than two decades was known for his feeding, housing and living with the poorest of the poor, died of cancer Nov. 12 at his mother's home in Washington.

In a farewell letter sent to friends and benefactors on Sept. 8, Mr. Kirwan reflected on his faith-based service to the city's destitute: "We cannot by ourselves lift the burden of racism, economic and social disparity, suspicion and mistrust. But we can begin to lighten it."

The hungry and homeless came daily to Mr. Kirwan's residence at 1305 T St. NW, the Llewellyn Scott Catholic Worker House of Hospitality. Over the years, tens of thousands of meals were served. Tons of clothing and other supplies were dispensed. Countless hours were given listening to and comforting the city's lost and lonely.

Mr. Kirwan's residence was seen by some in the increasingly gentrified neighborhood as a homeless shelter. At times, as many as 30 men and women were given space--some staying for a night or two, others for long stretches--while Mr. Kirwan lived in a third-floor cubicle.

Not much larger than a monk's cell, the book-lined room was Mr. Kirwan's only haven of quiet from the demands of people whose problems were as complex as schizophrenia or as simple as needing a shower.

Mr. Kirwan, a native of Washington and one of 10 children in a home often visited by Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the early 1930s, was the grandson of Rep. Michael "Honest Mike" Kirwan (D-Ohio). He often played in the congressman's office as a boy.

Rep. Kirwan, who served in the House from 1935 to 1970, had been a nearly broke day laborer during the Depression when he won election to Congress by telling voters in Youngstown and other labor towns that he wanted to go to Washington because he needed a job.

Such total honesty overwhelmed the voters, who gratefully gave him his first of many landslide victories. Mr. Kirwan often joked that his grandfather would have been one of the poor and homeless if he had not been elected to Congress.

In the winter of 1978, Mr. Kirwan was a graduate student in sociology at George Washington University preparing for a conventional career in business or government. One freezing night, he passed a homeless man keeping warm on a heat grate near the State Department. The man asked for food. Mr. Kirwan ignored him and kept walking to his campus dorm room. There, unsettled, he had second thoughts and took back a bowl of hot soup to the man.

So began a life's mission. Mr. Kirwan continued bringing food to homeless people at 21st Street and Virginia Avenue NW.

"One night, as I brought down a large gallon jug of hot split pea soup and set it down on the cement block near the heating vent where they gathered, a rather rough-looking fellow picked up the jar of soup and, in one motion, broke the jar over my head," Mr. Kirwan recalled.

"Instead of running away, I asked the man why he had done that. These were probably the first words I had ever spoken to any of them. He told me that I was doing nothing more than bringing food to the dogs. I was bringing food, setting it down like I was feeding them out of a pet dish and then just walking away. He said, 'Talk to us. Visit with us. We don't bite.' "

Mr. Kirwan did begin visiting. "What happened that night," he said, "was that a first barrier had been broken in my perceptions of who homeless people are. I realized that these men and women on the streets had feelings, just like me. They wanted to be loved and respected and listened to. They cared that someone cared about them, but just giving food and a blanket was not enough."

Soon after, Mr. Kirwan opened his George Washington University dorm room to his new friends. One homeless man stayed a month.

After giving a talk at a Catholic parish in the early 1980s, Mr. Kirwan received a five-figure donation from a woman in the audience, a sum large enough to open a house of hospitality at Fourth Street and Florida Avenue NW. In 1986, with funds donated by a McLean physician, Mr. Kirwan moved to 1305 T St. NW, a dwelling between two boarded-up buildings and near an alley where crack cocaine was sold.

After an article about his work appeared in The Washington Post, he received a donation that allowed him to buy a residence at 939 T St., NW, which was named Mary Harris Catholic Worker House of Hospitality and overseen by Connie Ridge, a longtime ally of Mr. Kirwan.

In 1982, Mr. Kirwan had enough donations to purchase a farm in West Virginia where over the years he brought hundreds of homeless and unemployed people for rest and recovery. In 1988, a Charleston, W.Va., philanthropist heard about the operation and supplied the funds to build a $350,000 16-room house for the residents as well as a barn for animals.

The animals were not raised to be eaten but to be respected.

It wasn't just poor people who came to Mr. Kirwan for help. His T Street house was regularly visited by high school, college and law-school students wanting to learn of his work and his philosophy. His living room seminars were often packed with students, many of them in awe of a man who lived in voluntary poverty.

"It is community and in community that we find love, and in love there is no ending," was his constant message.

Mike Kirwan's Letter:

Last Tuesday, my doctor at Providence Hospital told me the cancer within my lung had spread. It is now in my brain, colon, liver, elbow, foot, hip, and leg. There is not much to be done except to pray. The doctor said it would take a miracle to put me well again. Otherwise, I can expect to live from one to six months-shorter rather than longer-since the cancer has become very aggressive.

I don't pray for a miracle. Rather, I pray that I will do whatever God has in store for me. I pray for the women and men of my family who are deeply grieved, and I am especially praying for the people of our farm and houses on the streets, where there is much fear and anxiety over the ceasing of a long and caring association. I know that it will not cease but rather be changed. As my work ebbs, other work commences.

We cannot by ourselves lift the burden of racism, economic and social disparity, suspicion and mistrust; but we can begin to lighten it. Our responses are always an attempt: a small mustard of faith to grow, to nurture, to plant again that others might sow and reap. Our response to the gospel is different in all of our lives. Whatever leads to God must be counted as valid.

My own journey began with my parents and their attraction to a gospel that called for personalism, the intimacy of faith in action that was exemplified in the lives of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. That continues. Again and again, over these years, men and women who came into my life seeking hospitality stayed on to provide it. Groups of young people who were briefly touched by the experience of living among the poor came back again. So the work moves from one generation to another. We will never know completely where our influence has touched, but God has worked with the few loaves and a couple of fish and done the rest.

I do not fear death. I fear not being a good and faithful friend and of not being filled with gratitude and joy to a good and gracious God who has so favored me with grace in my unworthiness. God has chosen someone weak and strengthened him. I have seen it in my own life countless times, and in the lives of so many who came across my path.

I think and pray now with all of you and ask that you always remember me as someone who tried to do the best he could and, on not-so-good days, tried to do better. I always tried to break down barriers and build friendships and peace; I trusted that God would see things to completion in good time. I still believe that with all my heart and soul. God will provide, especially now.

I might add that I have not thrown in the towel. For the moment, I am able to manage fairly well and rejoice in the normal operation of the houses. Our work goes on as always. One of the men in our house on T Street went out last night to the parks instead of me, with water, clothes, blankets, toilet articles, and meal tickets. Today our soup line opened and people came in to take showers and use the phone. Hospitality continues. Love goes on. I may not be able to write you again, but my family will be ever vigilant and let all of you know what is happening.

To you, our friends and generous benefactors, I want to especially express my heartfelt gratitude for your faithful trust and prayers. Some have told me that I am the "glue" that holds these houses and this work together. But God is the real unifying force and God will see to it that these places and this work continue, perhaps in a somewhat changed form. For now, let us rejoice and be glad. Emmanuel, the Lord is with us! Love, prayers, and gratitude.


  1. Thanks for sharing the story of such an inspiring life lived for God and others.

  2. You know, in my dream-idea world, without knowing about this man, I thought about this.
    A large farm-dormitory for homeless people who can live there learning some skills, a school for kids, etc and talking care of homeless dogs and cats also. So both animal and humans benefits of each other, then some sort of social work trying to integrate into “society” those that want to go back to the work force and to living in the city or suburbs.
    I read that he died at 54. Random are the “designios” (translate please) of the Lord.
    A man that was doing so much good, taken out of this world at 54, my age.
    The will of God, as we say, some times appears to have not too much sense.

  3. A year or so ago the Adult Education group at St. Stephen Martyr, under the leadership of Msgr. Filardi, sponsored a well attended event remembering Michael Kirwan. A video done during Mike's life was shown and some who worked with him gave testimony. Clark Massey, founder of A Simple House also spoke. Clark was given a house in DC by the Kirwan family and A Simple House was inspired by Mike's example. They are a dynamic young adult community with two houses in DC and one in Kansas City. www.asimplehouse.org

  4. Michael Kirwan was a dear friend of mine, too. He inspired me enough to attempt to fill his shoes. After he died, I ran his farm in W.V. for homeless men and women from DC until the doors were about to close. Now I run my own Catholic Worker, and tonight, I'm preparing to do a presentation for high school kids on "the call to peacemaking." Of course, I'm using Mike's story as an example. I only have a few pictures of him, and was looking online to see if anyone out there had any, let alone remembered him. Thank you so much for writing this. I remember that funeral mass vividly. I was in the second to last row between a drunk and a crack addict. The three of us cried and held hands through the whole thing. That's when I got MY call to peacemaking...from Michael.

  5. I grew up next door to him and remember him with awe and respect. He's from an amazing family and the life of our family is better for having known all of them. Jenice Armstrong