By William T. Clew
Father Fred Enman, S.J., is a priest, a Jesuit, a lawyer and a founder and executive director of Matthew 25, an organization that rehabilitates houses for low-income residents and is marking its 25th anniversary this year.
And he is a Worcester guy, born in St. Vincent Hospital in 1952, the son of Frederick and Louise Enman. He grew up on Grafton Hill.
Eight houses which Matthew 25 has rehabilitated are in Worcester, Father Enman’s hometown. One is in the Dorchester section of Boston. A ninth, in Worcester, was built “from scratch.”
Because of the accomplishments of Matthew 25, Father Enman will receive the Madonna Della Strada Award April 21. It will be presented by the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, which provides the opportunity for men and women in midlife to contribute talent, wisdom and professional experience in staff-level positions at non-profit organizations, working with the poor or those advocating for a more just society. Father Enman is one of four who will receive the award, all of them founders of highly acclaimed non-profits that embody the Jesuit tradition of direct service to the poor and of working and educating for a more just society.
Father Enman said he has outlived two St. Vincent hospitals. He was born in the stone hospital that was torn down to make way for the new St. Vincent Hospital, the big white and blue building that was a landmark on Vernon Hill. Most of that, too, was torn down and relocated to the Worcester Medical Center downtown.
Father Enman attended St. Joseph’s Elementary School. That is where he first began to think about becoming a priest, he said. He graduated from St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury and received a bachelor of arts degree from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
He then studied at Boston College Law School and received his law degree there. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1978 and was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus in 1988. He also has master’s degrees in divinity and theology from the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge and a diploma of legal studies from Oxford University in England. He is a member of both the Massachusetts and Louisiana Bar Associations.
He taught from 1990 to 1994 at the College of the Holy Cross. He devoted full time to Matthew 25 from 1994 to 1997. Now he divides his time between Matthew 25 and Boston College Law School, where he is assistant dean of students and chaplain. He said he also helps out at St. Mary’s Parish in the Jefferson section of Holden.
Father Enman said he was inspired to work with the poor by reading “The True Church and the Poor,” by Father Jon Sabrino, S.J., in which the author urged people to make concrete the lessons in Matthew 25 – to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cover the naked and visit the prisoner.
He and a couple of Boston College classmates, Tim Healy and Jim MacGillvray, founded Matthew 25 in 1988. Father Enman was, and still is, executive director. They raised money and gave food to the poor in Boston.
They began fund-raising efforts. Father Enman said he wrote letters to family and friends and raised $2,000. He wrote to classmates at St. John’s and received another $2,000. He was teaching a course in poverty law and social ethics at the College of the Holy Cross. Students there helped him send letters to alumni about Matthew 25. They raised $6,000.
“We kept it up for four years,” he said. “We had $40,000.”
At 50-52 Queen St. there was an abandoned, vacant building in bankruptcy and in need of repair. The owner gave Father Enman a quitclaim on the property. That gave Matthew 25 half the title, he said. A management company held a $50,000 mortgage on the property. Father Enman began negotiations with an official from the company, who said his company really didn’t want the property.
“Are you sure you want this house?” the man asked Father Enman. He said he would let it go to Matthew 25 for $500.
“I said I could manage that, and I wrote him a check,” Father Enman said.
Father Enman then rounded up volunteers among friends, family and students from Holy Cross. They gutted the building, right down to the studs, he said. He asked a friend, Chris Philips, a carpenter married to his cousin, to look it over to see what was needed. Mr. Philips said he had a friend who was teaching at Worcester Vocational Technical School who could help. That friend said the school had been trying for 10 years to get an outside project for students to work on. That May the students built a new porch which replicated the old porch. In the fall they came back and worked on the interior of the building.
They do carpentry, plumbing, heating and electrical work. Father Enman said he was stunned by the quality and efficiency of their work. And vocational students have worked on all the Matthew 25 projects in the city since.
“After 19 years, they’re still with us,” he said.
Matthew 25 continues to benefit from volunteers in the community who work on the projects and pays for professional help when needed.
The Queen Street house is a duplex. When the work was completed there were four apartments in it available to be rented to low-income families. Later, when one of the families moved to California, Matthew 25 moved into the first-floor apartment and uses it as an office.
Matthew 25 owns all the houses and rents the apartments in them to low-income families. The families pay the utility bills and 25 percent of their income for rent. If their income increases, so does their rent.
Families who apply for the apartments are screened by Father Enman and the Matthew 25 directors. If they become renters, they are expected to respect the property, the other tenants and the neighbors, he said. The 17 units in the Matthew 25 homes are 100 percent occupied, Father Enman said. In 19 years, only three families have been asked to leave, all of them because of drug problems.
Along with Father Enman, the other Madonna Della Strada honorees are Sister Nancy Braceland CSJ, co-founder and executive director of Casserly House which offers community-based ESL and after-school programs in Roslindale; and Henry and Carol Shelton, the founders of a number of Rhode Island-based organizations addressing issues of economic justice, women’s health and childhood poverty, most notably the Amos House homeless shelter and soup kitchen and the George Wiley Center.
The award is named after Sancta Maria Della Strada, the first church where Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, and his early Jesuits based their ministry to serve the urban poor in Rome in the 16th century.
The awards event, which is IVC New England’s major fundraiser, begins at 4 p.m. April 21 at Boston College High School with Mass. Jesuit Father Si Smith will be celebrant and Jesuit Father Bill Barry will be homilist. A buffet dinner and awards ceremony follows.