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Wednesday 18 October 2017

How City's 'Living Saint' was close to missing the call

FAITH: Corkman who helps Dublin's poor, tells Joyce Fegan he had cold feet about religious life, but hasn't looked back

Lord Mayor of Dublin Christy Burke presented Brother Kevin Crowley and John Giles with Dublin City Council's highest civic honour, the Freedom of the City
Lord Mayor of Dublin Christy Burke presented Brother Kevin Crowley and John Giles with Dublin City Council's highest civic honour, the Freedom of the City
Brother Kevin Crowley receiving the freedom of the city award at the Mansion House

In the North Inner City Br Kevin Crowley has been nicknamed the 'living saint', but as he turns 80 and becomes the 80th person to accept the Freedom of the City of Dublin, this Cork man says he used to live a very different life.

As a young man in his early twenties he was just like anyone else in his hometown of Enniskeane, in west Cork.

William (his birth name), played cards, had a good job with CIE and lots of friends. All was well in his world, except for this itch, telling him that life wanted more from him.

"I felt the calling to give my life to God. Even though I loved my job and I loved my friends, I wasn't really happy because I had this calling and I felt I wasn't answering it," explains the brother, who has fed the homeless for the last 46 years from Dublin's Capuchin Day Centre.

It was for this dedication that he received the capital's highest honour, the Freedom of the City on Saturday night in the Mansion House along with footballing legend John Giles.

DISBELIEF

But it may never have happened at all as he kept getting cold feet on his path to joining a religious order.

"I made several attempts and each time I decided to apply I tore up the letter," he revealed.

It was when a religious mission visited Fermoy where he was working in 1958 that he decided to take the plunge.

"I decided there and then that I was going to join the religious life. Then I happened to see an ad on the Southern Star (to join the Capuchin order), and I applied and here I am today at the age of 80," says Br Kevin.

As the youngest of five children, his decision shocked both his parents and his siblings. Such was his friends' level of disbelief, that even a bet was made about how long he'd stay in the order.

"Several people thought that I wouldn't last the month. I remember one woman in Clonakility, I had been living there at one point and I used to play cards in a certain house and the woman in the house bet me five shillings that I wouldn't last the month.

"After six years I went back and I knocked on the door and I said: 'Come on give me my five shillings,'" jokes the Capuchin brother.

It was on April 7, 1958, an Easter Monday, that William Crowley, then 23, left his lay life behind him, but not before placing a bet on a horse in the Grand National.

"I never saw whether the horse won or not because it was five years before I saw a paper again," he laughed.

While the early mornings and the disciplined regime were all new to him, never once did he regret his decision.

He transferred to Dublin and in 1969, from a tiny room on Bow Street, he began feeding the city's homeless.

"I saw that a number of people were leaving a hostel near here in the morning time and they were walking the streets and they had nowhere to go during the day.

"I felt that it wasn't at all appropriate, to think so many people were walking the streets, not at all dignified and probably going hungry during the day.

"It was then I approached the superiors to see if I could do something for these people, to start a centre.

FEAR

"There was a lot of fear at the time, fear of the unknown. What would this develop to and in what way would the order be responsible for the running of it? But anyhow, we overcame all those problems," explains Br Kevin.

One problem he overcame was cash-flow, thanks to a very frank prayer.

"I remember, one day in 1969, I was short £1,000 for a builder who had done something for us and I owed him the money. I kept saying: 'where is this going to come from?'

"I remember going down to the oratory and kneeling in front of the blessed sacrament and saying: 'look Lord these are your people, you better get me the money'.

So I never looked back and since then we've never gone short, of food or money and that's due to the generosity of the benefactors and all the people," he explains.

So how exactly did the builder get paid? Tim Pat Coogan was the editor of the Irish Press at the time and he caught wind of the shortfall.

Mr Coogan put Br Kevin in touch with potential donors and "things steamrolled from there."

Now, 46 years later, around 300 people come to the centre for breakfast each morning, just under 600 come for dinner every afternoon and each Wednesday 1,800 food parcels are given out.

Dentists, optometrists, doctors and counsellors all volunteer their time there too.

But Br Kevin says his work is nowhere near complete.

"What frightens me is the number of children going into hotel rooms at night, that is not at all appropriate and I appeal to the Government to get proper housing for those kids and for their parents.

And his advice for anyone struggling, homeless, unemployed or otherwise comes in just two words: "have faith."

hnews@herald.ie

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