Father Joe, Bangkok priest, celebrates 50 years of service

'This other priest is always drunk, so you go take his place.'

Catholic priest Joseph H Maier – Father Joe – from the United States has been a Bangkok priest since the 1970s. This year is his 50th of celebrating mass in Bangkok’s slums.

During his sojourn in the kingdom’s capital, he nursed HIV patients, saved children from the streets and provided an education to the very poorest. The slum celebrity has been adorned with accolades and honours in Thailand. Remaining duly humble throughout, the octogenarian credits all his accomplishments to others.

Father Joe says…

“I’ve never had an idea on my own.”

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Maier, known to all as Father Joe, the Bangkok priest, says the Vatican shipped him to Thailand in 1967 because they considered him a nuisance. He was a drunk and talked too much. After a stint in Laos before the civil war, he returned to serve the minority Catholic population in Bangkok in 1972 where he was told…

“This other priest is always drunk, so you go take his place.”

Today’s Guardian tells Father Joe’s remarkable story.

Welcome to the pigsty

Rather than opt to live in the areas popular with the expats of the time, the new parish priest settled in a slaughterhouse in the district of Khlong Toei. At that time Catholics dominated the city’s pork production.

“They lived in the slaughterhouse and they needed a priest … no decent priest wanted to deal with them but I said I’m a smelly old foreigner, low class, dirt farmer-poor Irish so I will be the priest.”

Half a century later, he’s a neighbourhood staple and says the dogs no longer bark at him and the nights are long gone of rats “licking the salt from his hair” as he tries to sleep.

Today, the area, which runs alongside the Chao Phraya river, is interspersed with towering condos and high-end hotels, but also remains home to one of the city’s biggest slums with approximately 100,000 residents.

In a bid to help the community, Father Joe opened “a slum shack school” in 1972, for children whose parents worked at the slaughterhouse. It has since evolved into a far-reaching foundation helping thousands of local people.

The Human Development Foundation, otherwise known as the Mercy Centre, was co-founded by Father Joe with Sister Maria Chantavarodom, a Thai Catholic nun, now 92 years old, to whom he credits with most of its success.

It was Sister Maria, he says, who came up with the idea of a community school, utilising a vacant pigsty that had a trough to act as a toilet. The Mercy Centre now operates 15 schools.

Taxi for the hospice

Sitting on a bench outside Mercy’s offices, Father Joe explains that he never had a sense it would grow this big. It was simply that 10 years after the schools’ inception, someone suggested it be legalised in some way.

By that time, the team had gone beyond simply running a school to running outreach programs and shelters for street children, including those at risk of sexual abuse or child trafficking, offering a free health clinic and rebuilding slum houses.

When the HIV/ AIDS epidemic arrived, they inadvertently quickly morphed into the city’s first AIDS hospice before launching a program of home care that has since been replicated in other south-east Asian countries.

“With AIDS … a taxi came up with a person almost dead and kicked him out … It’s all been helter-skelter since, a kind of stumble.”

Lifetime of service

Today, they are responsible for having created 15 schools, and five orphanages and helping educate more than 30,000 children. While the foundation’s initial focus was education, today it has a far wider remit. Between housing and loans, schools and shelters, disability rights and disaster relief, there are few development areas it hasn’t touched.

The achievements have seen Father Joe – who is greeted by every passerby with a deep bow – receive a lifetime achievement award from Queen Sirikit of Thailand, and visits from the likes of Mother Teresa and actor Richard Gere.

Sacred duty

But the priest, who has a Masters degree in human settlements, is quick to declare that he’s no hero and credits the community of Khlong Toei with saving his life rather than the other way around.

“I was a drunk for 20 years … I stumbled along and the people would take care of me, kept me out of jail.”

At an event to honour his half a century of service, Father Joe, Bangkok priest, thanked the community for keeping him alive calling the slums a sacred place. And when asked what’s next, he simply says:…

“The people want us to stay, so we will.”

Bangkok NewsThailand News

Jon Whitman

Jon Whitman is a seasoned journalist and author who has been living and working in Asia for more than two decades. Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Jon has been at the forefront of some of the most important stories coming out of China in the past decade. After a long and successful career in East sia, Jon is now semi-retired and living in the Outer Hebrides. He continues to write and is an avid traveller and photographer, documenting his experiences across the world.

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