Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Turning 90, priest gives away thousands to LA poor

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Father Maurice Chase celebrated his 90th birthday on St. Patrick's Day by giving away green — and plenty of it.

The Catholic priest took $15,000 in cash to Skid Row and doled it out to hundreds of the city's most down-and-out residents outside the Fred Jordan Missions. Twenty wheelchair-bound people received crisp $100 bills, while the rest received $1 to $3 each.

"This is the Lord's work," Chase said as he shuffled along the motley assemblage watched over by police officers. "I come out here to tell them that God loves them and I love them, that someone is concerned about them."

Chase is an institution in Skid Row, where he has given away cash, plastic rosaries and blessings every Sunday on the same corner for 24 years. A throng of several hundred people waits for him every week, lined up in the order that he sees as putting the most vulnerable first: handicapped, women and children, couples and single men.

He makes a point of coming on Thanksgiving and Christmas, too, but this is the first year he's spent his birthday in the downtown neighborhood where people live mainly in shelters and on urine-stained sidewalks.

"It's the place that makes me the happiest. I just love it," said Chase, who wore a Notre Dame baseball cap and a patched, fraying cardigan over his clergy shirt. "I look forward to coming here."

The money comes from donations he receives from rich and famous people he met during his long tenure as assistant to the president of Loyola Marymount University. They include philanthropist Eli Broad; Dolores Hope, Bob Hope's widow; Barbara Sinatra, Frank Sinatra's widow; and Bob and Ginnie Newhart, he said.

The California native retired from Loyola about a decade ago.

The crowd broke into choruses of "Happy Birthday" several times. A few regulars presented him birthday cards, to his delight.

Travis Kemp, a 51-year-old double amputee with long wavy black hair, was one of the lucky 20 to receive $100. He said he had no special plans for spending the cash. "He has a lot of respect from me," Kemp said. "I know I couldn't do it."

Others noted that outsiders usually come to donate food on Skid Row. "They never give money," said Lawrence Landry, who's lived on Skid Row for the past year after losing his job. "This is unusual."

Annette Matthys, who's trying to wean herself from a crack cocaine habit, said she queues up every week and usually receives a dollar or two from Chase. She uses the money to buy cigarettes or do her laundry.

"He's got a heart," said the 56-year-old woman who sleeps on the sidewalk when she can't find a shelter bed. "I never saw anyone like him. Some people are generous, but this guy ... I can't even describe it."