Ven. Aloysius Schwartz: A Magnanimous Soul Whose Eucharistic Love Transformed Lives

Ven. Aloysius Schwartz: A Magnanimous Soul Whose Eucharistic Love Transformed Lives

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Colossians 3:2, 4

I was recently introduced to Father Aloysius “Al” Schwartz. Not personally, as he died in the Philippines in 1992, but through his amazing work that is carried on by the Sisters of Mary at Girlstown, a boarding school for impoverished girls in Chalco, Mexico. Visiting Chalco with my family was a miraculous experience.

Our Visit to Girlstown

My husband and our four youngest children headed to Chalco after spending a few days in a convent just two blocks from the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe (where we were working on a future Good Catholic project!). The trip to Chalco from Mexico City was somewhat harrowing, as many Mexican drivers—whether in cars, on mopeds, or on motorcycles—seem to view highway lanes and traffic signals only as “suggestions.” Traffic was heavy and thick. Every now and then a sign would pop up ahead of us and it would be a vendor selling churros—in the middle of the traffic mayhem! But our driver seemed unfazed.

Finally arriving at Girlstown—slightly carsick and a bit shellshocked—we were greeted by two smiling nuns in their grey habits, Sister Marilyn and Sister Martha. They began to show us around.

Girlstown is a sprawling facility set beneath two small volcanoes. It is an oasis in Chalco, a city southwest of Mexico City, officially known as Chalco de Díaz Covarrubias. The serenity and peace of the school are juxtaposed with the poverty of the surrounding streets, which are full of stray dogs that welcome you into the city. The same serenity and peace are reflected in the Sisters of Mary, 48 of whom live there in Chalco with the girls.

Chalco, Mexico near Girlstown

After a short tour of the retreat center where we would stay for the next three days, we were shown to our rooms. Sister Martha told us that a late lunch would be served soon and that the girls finished their classes in an hour or so and we could meet them (not all of them, as 3,500 girls live there!).

In preparing for our trip, I had read about Girlstown. Kevin Wells, author of Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, tells the stories of some of the girls and about their lives before they arrived at Girlstown. He wrote about one girl named Tayra, who described being chased up a mountainside by a human trafficker. She lived with her grandfather, who was drunk most nights:

“I would kneel in front of a statue of Mary and pray the fights and drinking would stop.”

Tayra, as quoted by Kevin Wells in Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz

Another girl, Antonina, told him that her father had been shot dead in the streets and she thinks her mother was burned to death.

The following is another testimony from one of the girls at Girlstown:

Hello! I am Yaritza; I was born on April 27, 2009. I have 4 Sisters and 4 Brothers. My father work is a farmer and my mother is a housekeeper and also in-charge of taking care of the animals, and so I was always left at home taking care of my siblings. Sometimes my mother sells fruit on the street. And in order for me to be of help, I often took the initiative to gather some recycled materials such as empty bottles or cartoons and sell them. Most of the time we experienced lack of food in our home and badly, my father has a vice on alcohol. We lack many things at home and yet my father uses some of the money in buying alcohol. Often times when my father got drunk, he often hurt my mother physically, and I can remember how I and my other siblings cried every time we witnessed this.

Yaritza, Chalco, Mexico (

The Lord’s Work in Mexico

After a delicious meal of homemade tortillas, rice, and beans served with coffee, a few of us decided to explore the grounds and so ventured in the direction of the large dormitories and classroom buildings. As we did, the sound of voices and laughter rushed upon us like a wave, and within minutes we saw so many girls pouring out of the buildings, it is hard to describe the scene!

Drawing closer, we could see many of the girls forming into groups depending on their sport or activity.

Hundreds began running on a track in a coordinated fashion, smiling and chatting as they ran, and waving as if they knew us as we walked by. Another large group of girls was playing basketball, spread out over several courts, dribbling up and down and shooting into hoops that had no nets.

What appeared to be a team of football (American soccer) players, all dressed in matching uniforms, were loading onto a bus heading to a competition nearby, waving out the windows as we approached. We discovered later that the girls sew all their own clothes: school and team uniforms, church clothes, and other items.

By this point, my children and I had stopped walking and were now staring. We weren’t trying to be rude; we were simply amazed at the sheer number of cheerful girls around us. As we watched in awe, three girls approached with a basketball and asked if we would join their game. My children agreed, and over the hour or so that they played, the language barrier disappeared and communication seemed almost natural.

Our daughter, Grace, with some of the girls in Chalco, Mexico

By this time, my husband and our other daughter had joined us, and as the girls left the courts for their “showers and dinner” they asked if we would join them for Adoration first. Following them into a nearby building, we saw dozens of shoes outside a large door. We removed our shoes and entered a room full of girls—all between the ages of 12-15—on their knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament. A few of the Sisters were also in Adoration. We found spots on the floor among the many reverent girls, who were quiet and calm, their eyes fixed on the monstrance in the middle of the room.

Trying to focus on Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament but overwhelmed by what I was witnessing in the room, I caught my husband’s eye. Without words, I could plainly see how touched he was as well.

Soft music played in the background. Unexpected tears rolled down my cheeks.

Adoration at Girlstown in Chalco, Mexico in 2022 (photo courtesy of Fr. Dan Leary)

That evening we joined them again for their Rosary, which they pray each night before bed. Our family split up between rooms since individual girls had invited our various children to be with their “families” (each room becomes a family in a dormitory which takes on the name of a saint). There were rooms all along the 2nd floor where my husband and I were, but our children went up with others to the 3rd and 4th floors. As we followed the young girls, we saw about 12 bunk beds in each room—stacked three high in a tidy fashion. Here is where they eat, pray, and sleep.

We were once again impressed as the girls knelt to pray—all looking up sincerely at the crucifix which hung in the center of each room. The girls had given us booklets so that we could follow along in Spanish, and occasionally one of them would kindly reach over and point out where we were in the book.

Nothing Less Than Miraculous

Over the few days that we were in Chalco, my family and I were continually struck by the way that 3,500 girls happily interacted with one another and how their days were structured around and integrated with prayer (there are 13 chapels at Girlstown). Although the ratio of Sisters to girls was about 10 to 500, the Sisters appeared calm whenever we saw them (there are approximately 95 other staff members as well, from teachers and coaches to cooks and medical professionals).

Holy Mass at Girlstown in Chalco, Mexico

Truly, it was nothing less than miraculous.

Yet perhaps even more miraculous is that the same thing occurs in Guadalajara, Mexico at Boystown, where over 3,000 boys live. And in the Philippines at the two Girlstowns and two Boystowns there. Also in South Korea, Guatemala, Tanzania, Brazil, and Honduras. Each place is its own miracle. There are 400 Sisters of Mary caring for over 21,000 children in Boystown and Girlstown villages around the world with the mission of helping them break free from a life of poverty and trauma.

170,000 graduates have not only benefitted from a first-class education but have also been assisted in job placement with businesses eager to employ them.

They are successful in all walks of life; as teachers, nurses, accountants, doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects, technology specialists…the list goes on and on. And most importantly, they have succeeded in elevating their families out of poverty – living proof of HOPE!

Sisters of Mary: World Villages for Children brochure

For more on the Sisters of Mary, the Brothers of Christ, and World Villages for Children or to donate, please visit their website here.

The Miracle of One Man’s Faith

I believe that underlying each of these miracles is yet another miracle. This is the miracle of one man, his mission, and his faith in God. Fr. Al Schwartz might not yet be well known, but those who do know of him, especially those who knew him when he lived, can see a reflection of him in the Girlstowns and Boystowns of the world.

Father Al with the early sisters (photo courtesy of World Villages for Children)

The virtue of magnanimity comes to mind when I think of Fr. Al. Often described as “greatness of soul,” magnanimity is a willingness to undertake noble and difficult tasks for the glory of God and the good of others. The magnanimous soul is set on the highest goods—it seeks heroic virtue, unyielding integrity, and holy accomplishments. To be magnanimous means to be bold in choosing the greatest good in a situation, no matter the difficulty or the cost to ourselves. 

This boldness aptly describes Venerable Father Aloysius Schwartz.

Father Al in Korea (photo courtesy of World Villages For Children)

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1930, Al (as he was always known) grew up in a devout Catholic family during the Great Depression. Although his family faced financial hardships, Al showed a sense of compassion and responsibility even at a young age. Ordained a priest in 1957, “Father Al” soon dedicated his life to missionary work and went to Korea during that same year. His work in Korea marked the beginning of his lifelong mission to serve the “poorest and most marginalized,” particularly focusing on providing education and care for orphans and abandoned children.

Father Al in Korea (World Villages for Children)

Father Al established his first mission in Busan, Korea in 1961, calling it Boystown. Boystown provided shelter, education, and care for orphaned and abandoned boys. Following its success, Father Al established Girlstown in 1964 to extend similar support to girls in need. He had witnessed extreme poverty and its effects in many villages in South Korea and saw a need to actuate real and lasting change. He founded the Sisters of Mary, also in 1964, for this purpose. Consecrated to Our Lady of Banneux, “The Virgin of the Poor,” this religious congregation provided education, healthcare, and other forms of social assistance to those in need.

What began in faith as one mission in Busan led to another in Seoul. From there Father Al expanded to the Philippines, and from there we know the rest of the story.

In 1981, Father Al founded the Brothers of Christ. This religious congregation, established to complement the work of the Sisters of Mary, focuses on serving the poor through various charitable activities, including education, healthcare, and vocational training. The Brothers of Christ, like the Sisters of Mary, are dedicated to carrying forward Father Al’s mission of uplifting the lives of the poorest and most marginalized individuals.

Father Al and Korean boys (World Villages for Children)

His magnanimous spirit propelled Father Al to recognize that he could go far beyond helping a small group of children. His optimistic, hopeful, and grand vision for Girlstowns and Boystowns was truly entrepreneurial in scope. Aiming to create a sustainable model that could be scaled to bring about real, systemic change in the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, Father Al set about to change society for the better. The idea behind this model is to educate one child but change a family, and then a community. By educating the child academically, physically, vocationally, and spiritually, the goal is for that child to go back and help their families and their communities truly end the cycle of poverty.

Father Al’s Love for the Holy Eucharist

As I talked with my children about the founder of the Sisters of Mary, I explained that we can often make the mistake of thinking about a saint (or someone on their way to sainthood) as “just being holy,” as if they were simply born that way (unlike the rest of us poor souls!). Yet this is a mistake we shouldn’t make. While some saints are truly holy from a young age, each saint has a history—often it is filled with struggle, sacrifice, pain, sorrow, and joy. Father Al was like most of us in many ways. He had his frustrations—he described himself as “a bit of a loner.” He had his passions—he loved running and ran almost every day of his adult life (until he got sick), including running three marathons. He had his spiritual struggles—he often questioned his strength and even his faith amid his suffering.

In other words, he was human like the rest of us.

Human as he was, Father Al relied on the Holy Eucharist for supernatural strength. Believing that the grace derived from the Holy Eucharist empowered him to carry out his demanding work, he placed profound importance on the Eucharist for spiritual sustenance. His deep devotion to the Eucharist was central to his spiritual life.

As a priest, he celebrated Mass daily and spent time in Eucharistic Adoration, claiming that it was this routine that allowed him to stay spiritually grounded and focused on his earthly mission.

The Holy Eucharist also played a crucial role in building and maintaining a sense of community among the Sisters of Mary and the Brothers of Christ and those they served. It has been a central element of their spiritual practice and communal life and, as my family experienced in Chalco, remains so. (While we were at Girlstown, the Sisters invited our family to join them for a Holy Hour from 6-7am and when we arrived, we realized they had been polite and let us sleep in. Their daily schedule had started at 5am with Adoration and then the Holy Hour from 6-7am—all before breakfast!)

But mostly the Holy Eucharist was where Father Al met Christ:

The Blessed Sacrament is my life and my love. It is my strength and my joy. In the presence of the Eucharistic Lord, I find the courage to continue my mission and the grace to serve the poorest of the poor.

Venerable Father Aloysius Schwartz

Father Al’s “Unfinished Symphony”

On the airplane back to the United States from Mexico City, I pulled out a book that I had purchased at the gift shop in Girlstown. The book, written by Father Al, is called Killing Me Softly, and it is his account of the last few years of his life. Father Aloysius Schwartz was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1989. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to muscle weakness and atrophy.

Despite his diagnosis, Father Al continued to lead and inspire the Sisters of Mary and the children at Girlstowns and Boystowns in the Philippines, Korea, and Mexico. He didn’t even begin the mission in Chalco, Mexico until after his diagnosis. In his book, he reveals how he struggled to decide whether or not to open a school in Mexico. He describes his frustration at not fully knowing God’s will, calling the idea “the crazy Mexican venture.” But eventually, he called it something different: his “unfinished symphony.” He knew that, while it was he who would begin it, others would have to complete it.

The last years of his life were an incredible testament to Father Al’s courage and faith. He described his disease as “a terminal illness which kills but ever so slowly, ever so cruelly, ever so softly.” He wrote the book almost completely paralyzed, recording his words on a tape recorder so that one of the Sisters could transcribe it. Eventually, the disease attacked his swallowing, speaking, and breathing muscles, making his voice raspy, weak, and finally, non-functional. In the book, Father Al writes about the disease’s humiliating effects and how he had to completely rely on others for almost everything as it took its cruel course.

Yet his suffering also brought him clarity at the end of his life.

In the light of hope I think of the next world, the real world. This life is like the wrong side of a tapestry. Only in the next life can we see what the design and beauty of the tapestry is all about…It is a great thing to have suffered. We have only this brief moment here on earth to experience suffering. Our eternity would be very empty and insipid if we look on this brief moment here on earth and realize we have had an easy, comfortable life. There is a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment and joy from heaven passed through the crucible of suffering and humiliation, the joy of having endured and survived.

Venerable Father Aloysius Schwartz, Killing Me Softly
Father Al being carried by Filipino students towards the end of his life

Father Al Schwartz was declared a Servant of God in 2003, which is the first official stage in the process of canonization. He was then declared Venerable by Pope Francis on January 22nd, 2015, a declaration that acknowledges that he lived a life of heroic virtue and marks an important step in his cause for sainthood.

Father Kevin, a priest with the Brothers of Christ, my family, and Sister Marilyn and Sister Martha with the Sisters of Mary in Chalco, Mexico

For more on the Sisters of Mary, the Brothers of Christ, and World Villages for Children or to donate, please visit their website here.