Booker T. Ashe was a man to be reckoned with. You will not find his name in Who’s Who in America or in any other place where the self- important bask in one another’s reflected glory. But in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, if you listen carefully, you can still hear his laughter. His memory lives in the hearts and prayers of those to whom hope was only a rumor until he came along.
In the 1960s, armed with a capacious heart and a passion for justice, Br. Booker founded the House of Peace, a storefront dispense-it-all for those in need. It flourishes today, testimony to what one man can do when he refuses to take no for an answer. No one bothers to count the souls who pass through those portals and walk out renewed, but they number in the thousands, young and old alike. They will remember forever the man who washed their wounds and lifted their spirits.
Born in South Carolina and raised in Chicago, Br. Booker entered the Capuchin Franciscan novitiate in the Province of St. Joseph and took his final vows as a brother in 1956. A few years later, he was assigned to St. Francis parish in a broken Milwaukee neighborhood. Within a matter of months, he declared his own war on poverty with his House of Peace. The Capuchins, who managed to learn a thing or two over the centuries about healing souls as well as bodies, soon discovered what a special fellow they had in their midst. In 1970, Br. Booker’s remarkable charism produced an equally remarkable event: He was elected to the provincial council of the order, the first lay friar to be chosen since 1603.
Br. Booker’s philosophy combined commonsense realism that measured our fallen nature with selfless compassion that brought Christ into hardened and broken hearts. Though a gentler soul never kissed the world good night, Br. Booker had no time for syrupy sentimentality. There was too much work to be done—that abandoned child here, that feverish old man there, that battered woman down the street.
Somehow, he found time for larger projects as well. Among his more notable achievements was the reopening of Messmer High School, which had been abandoned by the archdiocese because of rising costs and declining enrollment. Br. Booker went into action, and before long, the pessimism of the balance sheet had given way to the enthusiasm of rising expectations. Shamed, the powers relented, and today Messmer is a magnificent jewel in an otherwise grimy and often forsaken neighborhood. Most of its students exemplify the demography that so many urban schools say they can do nothing about, yet 98 percent graduate, and 80 percent go to college. Though Br. Booker’s smile could melt a rock at 20 paces, it wasn’t his smile that raised Messmer from the ashes.
Just ask his nephew, the formidably talented and equally joyful Br. Bob Smith, whom Br. Booker lured into the Capuchins by the irresistible spell of his own example. Br. Bob not only runs Messmer High School but a thriving grade school as well. To walk those shining halls, which are filled with enthusiastic youngsters, is to discover at once that the real enemy is not physical poverty but poverty of the spirit. Br. Bob and his colleagues know that well, and they battle the enemy every day with a resourcefulness and ingenuity that lead-footed public bureaucracies, with their charts and graphs and endless self-serving novelties, have yet to imagine. Government computers have no algorithm for human souls, whose motions Br. Bob reads with precision in the first five minutes of a busy Monday morning.
God called Br. Booker home on Christmas Eve, and on December 30 he was laid to rest among his beloved brothers in the cemetery of St. Lawrence Friary near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The funeral Mass sent him on his way with the same joyful enthusiasm that marked his daily labors. He would have loved every minute of it. You might say that he had been scripting the event all his life. He magnified the souls of everyone he touched, and on December 30 they returned the favor ad maiorem Dei gloriam.