Health case study: Heart to heart with Brother Kevin
Brother Kevin Crowley is a Capuchin who has run a day shelter in Dublin for people in need since 1974. He has had two heart bypasses, but he insists his cardiac problems are not going to slow him down one bit
It would be easy to eulogise Brother Kevin Crowley (79). However, the problem then arises that this humble, self-effacing friar would only be embarrassed and refute the claims. So, let's allow the facts to speak for themselves.
Kevin grew up in west Cork and he knew from an early age that he wanted to "give his life to the Lord". However, the attractions of the secular world distracted him for a while following his schooling, when he worked for CIE.
But the day came when a notice from the Capuchins caught his attention. It was asking young people with vocations to come forward, and that's when Kevin decided to face his future square-on.
The Capuchins are a branch of the Franciscans, founded in the 16th Century by those intent on "living the Gospel".
"I hadn't a clue what a Capuchin looked like, but I did love St Francis because he cared for the poor," says Kevin. It took him six years to become a fully-fledged brother. He says the main difference between brothers such as himself and conventional priests is that the brothers don't say Mass.
In 1974, Kevin started a day shelter for people in need in central Dublin. Since then, thousands of people have been nourished, doctored to and cared for by the dedicated staff and volunteers.
And while the physical needs of the city's poor are met, it happens in an atmosphere of utmost dignity and respect; no one who walks through the doors of the centre is judged, no matter what their circumstances.
Six days a week, chef Ann Kearns and her team feed about 600 people twice a day. Once a week, they get a full-Irish for breakfast, while a typical lunch would offer shepherd's pie, vegetables, fruit and freshly brewed Bewley's coffee.
It hasn't always been easy for Kevin and his crew, especially during the recent recessionary times. Though they get €450,000 from the Government, the actual running costs are €2.3m annually, so they rely on donations. Kevin does not employ professional fund-raisers, because he believes every cent raised should go to the poor. Nonetheless, the constant strain of making ends meet must take its toll, and perhaps that stress has contributed to his continuing heart problems.
His health first became an issue in 1976, when he had a bypass. Some 38 years later, he can hardly remember the event; but, typically, he has no problem recalling the man who performed the operation - one Maurice Neligan.
"What a fabulous man he was," recalls Kevin. "I wasn't worried about myself when I was in his capable hands."
In 1986, Kevin had a second bypass and, yet again, paid no heed to the detail. "The arteries were getting blocked. I didn't ask why, as long as the problem was rectified," he says.
Cardiac problems run in his family. "My father had a bad heart, and my brother died of heart problems," he says.
Two years ago, Kevin also ran into serious trouble. "I woke up during the night in some discomfort. When I came here the next day [to the shelter from the adjoining Friary], the doctor in our clinic sent me to the Mater Hospital. They discovered I had had a heart attack," he says.
Typically, he was nonchalant about the whole event. "I wasn't upset," he says. "I left it in the hands of the good Lord and the medical team. Whatever happened would happen."
Kevin says he believes in living life to the full. "Let the last day be the hardest," he says, challengingly. "I do not plan to be over-anxious about my health; it's a waste of valuable energy. And I've no intention of slowing down or of throwing in the towel."
However, he does concede that he goes for regular check-ups and that he does not over-indulge in either food or drink. As for exercise, it is unlikely that he will ever put on weight, given that he takes a hands-on approach at the day shelter.
On any given day, except Sunday, the place is buzzing with people having breakfast or lunch, socialising, or having their physical or emotional needs met. On Wednesdays, food parcels are handed out - no questions asked. On a recent summer's morning, men and women collected blue plastic bags containing tea, milk, bread, butter, cheese slices, tins of beans and desserts called 'Pots of Joy'.
It was very much a case of "there, but for the grace of God, go I", with almost no sign of the stereotypical hobo in tattered rags. Instead, there were men and women of all ages, nationalities and religions, some well-dressed and nicely spoken. Many were keeping their head down - wanting to remain in their own private world for whatever reason. It can't be easy being homeless, hungry or unemployed.
Kevin says they come here from all walks of life. "We have ex-doctors, ex-solicitors, ex-accountants," he says.
The biggest problem now is the number of people left stranded by the recession.
"These are the 'new poor'," says Kevin. "They have already lost their jobs and are on the verge of losing their homes. Four years ago, we gave out 400 food parcels a week - now it's about 1,700. The recession has caused all these problems, and what is heartbreaking is seeing so many young families queuing for food parcels. Some of these families are being put up in hotel rooms, where they cannot afford the food and where there is no chance of living a normal family life.
"My biggest concern in 2014 is that we still have so many people living on the streets. We just do not have enough accommodation for the homeless and the poor. It's so sad to see so many people walking the streets at night and so many of them dying."
He tells the story of a homeless man whose beard froze while sleeping rough one night, during the bad winter a few years ago.
"That man was found dead on the streets about a month ago, with a needle in his arm," he says. "These people should be hospitalised. The Government needs to do something positive and provide sufficient help for people in crisis."
With that, he heads off to attend to the needs of a smartly-dressed young man called Robert, who lost his job and became homeless following a serious injury at work.
"Brother Kevin is a very kind-hearted man," Robert says. "If it wasn't for him, I'd go hungry and be walking the streets until 10 at night, waiting for the shelters to open. He is definitely my role model."
The last word goes to Kevin. "I trust the goodness of the people and the good Lord, who directs such generous people to us."
Capuchin Day Centre, Bow St, D7, tel: (01) 872-0770