The Legacy of Father Dollar Bill

The Legacy of Father Dollar Bill May 9, 2013

The following column was written by Jerry Costello:

“You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems,” the priest told his parishioners. “But don’t ignore them, either. Do what you can to improve things, even a little bit. That’s what Jesus wants us to do.”

That’s good, sound advice. And each time I hear something like it I think back to Father Dollar Bill, a priest I remember from Los Angeles. That wasn’t his real name, of course; it was Father Maurice Chase. But everybody knew him as Father Dollar Bill. Especially the people in the city’s most desperate neighborhoods, along Skid Row, where he’d give out those bills to all takers, as long as the money would last.

When he died a couple of years ago, in his nineties, the obituaries would criticize his brand of charity, complaining that it had no “long-term impact” on its beneficiaries. Father Dollar Bill would just smile and keep handing out the money when he heard that kind of complaint. One obit, by Ian Lovett in The New York Times, explained why that was so, quoting Father Chase himself.

Knowing full well that a dollar bill wouldn’t get someone off the street, Father Chase–or Father Dollar Bill, if you prefer–explained, “I’m trying to give them hope. To give them a sense of dignity.”

Even his critics, acknowledging that many people spent the money in an unhealthy way, could see the sense of that approach. “I think his desire to bring people love was true, and can certainly be modeled by the rest of us,” said the Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission.

Father Chase, ordained in 1953 by then-Msgr. Fulton Sheen–later an archbishop and even then a world-famous preacher–was a veteran of fund-raising efforts in Southern California, for a time assisting the president of Loyola Marymount University. He began giving away cash to poor people in the 1980s, using money he had raised himself. At one point he would raise and give away about $100,000 a year, relying for help on the celebrities he knew–people like Bob and Dolores Hope, and Bob Newhart.

“He was just a glorious man,” said one woman who had spent two decades on Skid Row. “He was always there.”

Father Chase acquired his nickname because he usually gave away singles. But that wasn’t always the case, especially around major holidays, when fives and even hundreds would find their way into the hands of eager recipients.

He continued making his weekly trips to Skid Row almost until he died. “I love it,” he said. “God has given me the happiest part of my life at the end.”

It was on the street that word of his death spread quickly. “Dollar Man is dead,” one man said. Another mourned, “He will be missed, not because of the dollar. Because of what he offered me spiritually.”

The man known as Father Dollar Bill cheerfully acknowledged that his was an imperfect charity. But he met the test of the priest mentioned above, the one who advised his parishioners to improve things even a little bit. That’s what Father Maurice Chase did, and he did it with a style and a love for the poor that won’t be easily forgotten

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