U.S. priest finds his niche working in Bangkok with poorest of the poor

U.S. Redemptorist Father Joe Maier blesses a woman during Thai New Year festivities in 2018 at his Mercy Centre in Bangkok. The 80-year-old priest has been working in the slums of Bangkok for more than 40 years. (CNS photo/courtesy Tibor Krausz) U.S. Redemptorist Father Joe Maier blesses a woman during Thai New Year festivities in 2018 at his Mercy Centre in Bangkok. The 80-year-old priest has been working in the slums of Bangkok for more than 40 years. (CNS photo/courtesy Tibor Krausz) 

BANGKOK (CNS) -- Redemptorist Father Joe Maier, 80, opened his first school in Bangkok's market-side slum district of Klong Toey in a swine slaughterhouse more than 40 years ago.

So it is not surprising when he explains that he comes from the "wrong side of the tracks" in his native Seattle. For that is largely where he has stayed for the bulk of the past 49 years since he settled in Bangkok after being sent by the Redemptorists to Asia on mission business.

Advertisement

He has built a large network of schools that tend to the poor in the heaving capital whose population, including surrounding towns, is now approaching 15 million. He also has set up shelters for abused girls and a hospice for people living with HIV/AIDS, all under the umbrella of the Mercy Centre, which he set up in 1973 with Sister Maria Chantavarodom of The Daughters of the Queenship of Mary Immaculate.

Father Maier told Catholic News Service he joined the Redemptorists as a young man, disaffected with life after a tough upbringing.

The Redemptorists have long had a major presence across Southeast Asia, focusing on Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. When he got to Thailand in 1967, Father Maier continued to question his superiors.

"I didn't really fit, whatever it was, maybe they said, 'Joe you drink too much,' so they sent me to northeast Thailand and then to Laos, and when I came back to Bangkok (in 1972), they sent me out to the slums."

It was in the slums of Bangkok that Father Maier found his calling, and it is where he remains today, working with the poorest of the poor.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

"In those days, there was no refrigeration in the markets in Bangkok, so they set up slaughterhouses right in town near the markets so they could kill the pigs at night and take them straight to the market in the early morning."

The slaughterhouse where Father Maier set up his first school was in Khlong Toey, home to the city's most famous sprawling wet market where one can buy pork, chicken and an abundance of seafood along with acres of fruit vegetables.

Many of the Mercy Centre's schools are makeshift and outdoors, on building sites that cater to the children of the vast army of migrant workers who hail largely from Thailand's poorer, border neighbors: Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Estimates of total workers and their families run as high as 4 million people. They come to Bangkok and other Thai cities and seaside islands to work for 12 or more hours each day, seven days a week, so they can send money home to their families.

"We contact the companies who run the sites, many of them we have known for a long time, and simply set up with an umbrella and some chairs in a corner of the site," Father Maier said.

Over the decades, the Mercy Centre's work has extended beyond schools to refuges for women, facilities for people living with HIV/AIDS and a hospice. The tireless work and positive energy that the octogenarian exudes has captured the attention of some substantial donors, and in 2000 a single donation enabled modern and permanent facilities to be built in the heart of the Khlong Toey slums.

Despite his disagreements with authorities, inside and outside the church, Father Maier has always found a way.

"I have had to have a great working relationship over the years with the police, especially, and local authorities," he said. "We are at our best when we work with the poorest of the poor; when we lose sight of that, we fail."

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Prelates lead a protest in Abuja, Nigeria, over unending killings of Nigerians March 1, 2020. Nigerian bishops called on the international community to help the West African country in its fight against ethnic insecurity and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. (CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)
Increasingly brutal attacks on Christian villages have been explained as the result of conflict over diminishing resources.
Kevin ClarkeJuly 02, 2020
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo has appealed to Christians and all people of faith “to pray for Hong Kong” following the imposition by China of a new national security law.
Gerard O’ConnellJuly 02, 2020
A cartoon series from a decade ago proves to have profound lessons for today.
(CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters; CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)
Broken down between white and Hispanic Catholics, the numbers show a stark divide.