The Priest in the Valley of Lazaruses

For two years a single American priest has worked seventeen-hour days to spiritually and mentally prepare teenage girls for what might await them in some of the most dangerous towns in the world.

In Chalco, Mexico, on the other side of the high walls that guard this valley of Lazaruses, mangy dogs wander in small packs like bothered demons. Their howls and barks merge with the thrumming of passing cars whose radios push upbeat merengue and salsa into the air. A loudspeaker beyond the west wall drones the monotone voice of a female vendor hawking late-night tamales to men leaving small bars in slums. In the direction of the twin volcanoes is the pop-pop-pop of gunfire, as common as the drugs and gangs which have settled like unmovable poisonous gases in this town in the shadow of Mexico City. 

In the dead of night here at the Girlstown community of Villa de Las Niñas, when the unloved dogs collapse in a heap and the summery chirps of crickets take hold, 55 religious sisters and 3,300 teenage girls sleep.

Many nights, in the midst of these eighty-six acres of an old carrot field that has become a humble kingdom of resurrection for soul-bruised teenage girls, a single lamp lights a tiny office. A priest is at his desk outside of the chapel, his twin bed pushed up against a plain white wall a few steps away. Two large statues—one of Our Lady the Virgin of the Poor, the other of St. John Vianney—cast seemingly human shadows across the quiet room. The skinny priest with three-days-old stubble is writing thank you cards to a handful of Americans who’ve mailed in donations. 

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Dear Jim, 

God bless you. We are trying our best here. The girls are coming along, but they are leaving for summer break soon. At retreat this week, we’ve been stepping into the wounds of their past; asking them to reject their anger and fear. It’s the deep wounds that keep them in their tombs. It is Satan. But they are learning to surrender completely to God; they are learning to trust and step out. There is great hope.

Last week, more than ninety buses rumbled past the heavy iron gates of Girlstown and belched exhaust and fumes to await the gathering. Drivers had been summoned by the Sisters of Mary to transport their more than three thousand teenage female students back to their homes for a short summer break, where the teens would reunite with family in small villages in Guerrero, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, Durango, and numberless other hardscrabble towns—many of which are bathed with seeming monsters. Like Mexico’s ruthless summer heat, human traffickers, murderers, gangsters, village pimps, and drug runners are baked into many of these impoverished towns. Too often, these human wolves seek these students out. Because of the danger, some girls remain with the Sisters throughout the summer break.

Unbeknownst to the wolves, each one of these teenagers has been prepared for the moment they step off the bus. Their shoulders are swung back, their posture is ramrod straight. Many now know tae kwon do. Where once their ringed eyes were cast down and dulled by the violence of poverty in these towns, their eyes now blaze. They know that each step they take walking down potholed streets and mountain paths in their old villages comes beneath the mantle of Mary. 

A single American priest, Fr. Dan Leary, has worked seventeen-hour days the past several weeks to spiritually and mentally prepare the teenage girls for what might await them in some of the most dangerous towns in the world. Long hours are not uncommon to Fr. Leary; he has no days off. Seventeen- and eighteen-hour days are standard. 

“The girls have learned how to protect themselves against the evil ones; they’ve been sent out as warriors who understand the spiritual battle,” Fr. Leary said. “They have exorcised water and salt. They will be praying their rosaries on break; they’ll be walking to daily Mass in their villages, they will be in prayer. They know God is with them to protect them, moment by moment. 

“These girls have a new light in their eyes—and the monsters see it—and when they see it, they often stop touching [abusing] them. The monsters see the change and they begin to drift away.” 

When Fr. Leary arrived in Mexico in 2020 as a new chaplain to the Sisters of Mary—who run boarding schools throughout the world for poor, neglected, and often humiliated children—several teenagers had trouble sleeping. Many awakened in terror and pulled open windows, where they sucked in the night air in gulps as if it was an elixir that could erase memories. These nightmares were of the worst variety because they stemmed from real evil inflicted upon them; countless teenage girls here have been harmed by men in unspeakable ways.

“We think of Christ on the cross here, the Christ who suffered torment, but also the Christ who rose,” Fr. Leary said. “Because of the heavy trauma, many of these girls have spiritually and emotionally died. It is work to enter into the wound of abuse, to allow a man—even a priest—who desires to spiritually help them to enter into that dark place. But these girls are also smart; they know they have to live. 

“When they fully open themselves to healing, this dark place of theirs becomes a place of the empty tomb; where death and evil lose, where the girls begin to crawl out of their caves.”

Each year, a few thousand teenage boys and girls graduate from these Boystown and Girlstown communities to attend universities, where they begin to catechize a generation of young adults who’ve abandoned or never been exposed to the Catholic Faith. Here in these Boystown and Girlstown communities, teenagers do not have cell phones or earbuds. They do not play video games or browse social media; they are taught to spend their time honing their God-given skills. Accordingly, their sports teams routinely win high school national championships; classical musicians join orchestras where they play before thousands. They are formed, joy-filled Catholics, many of whom become religious sisters and priests.

Still, until Fr. Leary arrived, the work of the Sisters of Mary in Mexico and World Villages for Children was without a spiritual father since its founder Venerable Aloysius Schwartz’s life was cut short in 1992. “Fr. Al,” as he is known in these parts, died at the age of 62 from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Prior to his death, the Washington, D.C., native fashioned one of the most remarkable non-governmentally-funded services to the poor in the history of the world, having begged for tens of millions of dollars to build hospitals, dormitories, tubercular wards, orphanages, gymnasiums, schools, and churches. His schematic, founded in Korea in 1964, would eventually pull nearly 170,000 children from abject poverty, many of whom lived in trash dumps with names like Smokey Mountain and Ragpickers Camp in Korea and the Philippines.

“Every day I wake up, Fr. Al kicks me in the teeth; saints do that,” Fr. Leary said with a laugh. “Dryness was the daily bread of his life. He was a priest who served as a victim; like Christ, he preferred the poor and gave his life fully to them. 

“So all I can do is wake up each morning and do my best. It sounds silly, but Fr. Al used to ask the Sisters to just ‘try their best’—so that’s what I try to do.”

After serving as a parish priest for 23 years in the Archdiocese of Washington, Fr. Leary was granted his release from his ordinary to oblige what began to grow in his heart when he was ordained a priest in 1998; he wanted to serve the poorest of the poor. He celebrated the 25th anniversary of his priesthood last month by hearing seven hours of confessions. 

Fr. Leary is now an itinerant missionary serving over 21,000 children cared for by 400 Sisters of Mary. His day begins at 4:30 a.m. when he rises for his Holy Hour. Thereafter, he celebrates Mass for the Sisters in whatever country he finds himself. (In the past six months, he has served in Brazil, Tanzania, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico). After the early-morning Mass, his days are filled with six-plus hours of confessions, a few Masses for students, ongoing retreats, spiritual direction, and evenings of healing in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Other than a few hours of private prayer, he is never alone. Throughout the day, students, sisters, employees, teachers, and graduates move toward him like endless lines of ants approaching unguarded picnic baskets.

“He is like my Daddy who cares for me. He told me to bring the bad stuff on the inside out into the open so I could understand my identity as God understands it,” said Ana, a fifth-year student. “Before, I didn’t understand who I was because of the pain that happened to me. Now I find grace in everything. Fr. Dan was very much like Jesus for me.… There is a hole when he is not here.” 

“Every single second of the day is important for him,” said Sr. Marilyn. “He won’t take bottled water into the confessional because he’d need to go to the bathroom. He’d miss hearing a confession. He doesn’t eat throughout much of the day because he knows food makes him tired. He has awakened me—he has awakened all the Sisters—to the sacrificial love of a father.”

A dozen or so priests, a bishop, and seminarians have visited Fr. Leary over the past few years to assist with the mountain of his spiritual work. “I was wiped out after a few days,” said a priest from Washington, D.C. “Fr. Dan’s work is non-stop; simply, it is a supernatural grace that sustains him. The devil is relentless, and Fr. Dan’s work in these villas is proof that with God’s supernatural grace, a single priest can be an instrument that brings large and relentless measures of love and healing.

“All day long he works with kids who’ve been beaten up, and individually, he listens to them all. But here’s the thing; these kids are healing. He’s equipping them with the spiritual tools to live again and be productive members of their villages, colleges, and communities. In some measure, he is helping to rebuild the Catholic Church in Mexico through these children.” 

Every year, the Sisters of Mary scatter two-by-two throughout the world to search out the most vulnerable children in the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, and Tanzania, where they bring them into their communities. For five years they nourish, counsel, catechize, jog with, play sports with, and pray with them. The slow, tender eloquence of their maternal love helps to pull away layer after layer of their wounds and allows them to mend. The teenagers address each of the Sisters as madre, not hermana

For the first time in thirty years, the children say Padre each day. 

Sr. Margie Cheong, the woman who heads all the Sisters of Mary communities throughout Central and South America, said Fr. Leary’s fatherly presence—especially as it relates to his emphasis on healing in front of the Eucharist—has transformed the entire community. In 1990, Sr. Margie was chosen to assist Father Al as his body collapsed under the weight of ALS.

“Even if I asked [Fr. Leary] to slow down, I couldn’t do anything to stop him. It is very strange; his work ethic to help the children and the sisters seems a supernatural grace,” Sr. Margie said. “All of us need an hour or two to ourselves to break away, but not him. He keeps going.

“Many Sisters have told me that his priesthood and his spiritual direction have changed their lives. They tell me they are awakening. There is now a closeness to God—and to the children they care for—they didn’t know. Like the children, a wounded part of them has been healed.… Fr. Dan is like Fr. Al to us. Both of them push us, and drive us to be the best we can be for God and for the children.”

After the girls boarded the homebound buses last week, Fr. Leary took off for Guatemala, where he worked to reorient himself with the teenagers in Boystown.

“This is the most spiritually intense time of my priesthood,” he said. “But it is also the most immensely rewarding. The reason is very simple: daily, I get to witness the resurrection of children from their afflictions. These are the little Lazaruses.… There is a stunning vulnerability in how they open up to me the stories of their pain to begin their long healing process.

“Their courage often leaves me wordless.… It is remarkable the number of times I’ve heard the same question asked in the process of their healing: ‘Father, how can I be holy now?’” 

Note: World Villages for Children (WVC) is a non-profit organization that financially supports the Sisters of Mary as they help children break free from a life of poverty and lead them to Christ. WVC provides food, shelter, clothing, medical expenses, Catholic education, and vocational training to more than 21,000 children in Boystowns and Girlstowns in six different countries around the world. To donate to World Villages for Children, please go to www.worldvillages.org/donate.

[Photo: Fr. Dan Leary and Girlstown (supplied by author)]

  • Kevin Wells

    Kevin Wells is a former Major League Baseball writer, Catholic speaker, and author of Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (Ignatius Press). His best-selling book The Priests We Need to Save the Church was published by Sophia Institute Press in 2019.

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