March 28, 2005
In Two Friars, Family Finds Spiritual Support and More
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
James Estrin/The New York TimesBrothers Paul O'Donnel, left, and Hilary McGee,
of Franciscan Brothers of Peace in St. Paul,
mingle with the many protesters who gather
daily in front of Woodside Hospice.
PINELLAS PARK, Fla., March 27 -
Brother Paul O'Donnell is slim and serious, though not above playing video games
on his cellphone. Brother Hilary McGee is stout and funny, with a Mickey Mouse watch
and sunglasses planted on his bushy head. In their long dark robes and Birkenstock
sandals, they have become fixtures at Terri Schiavo's hospice here, serving as
spokesmen, counselors and bodyguards for her parents.
They are from Minnesota, where they are friars of Franciscan Brothers of Peace
in St. Paul. They work with the poor, the homeless and victims of torture, to whom
they provide temporary shelter.
As close as the brothers seem with Ms. Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler,
their lives intersected only recently.
They were attending a convention of the National Right to Life Committee last
summer in Arlington, Va., Brother Hilary said, when they heard the Schindlers' son,
Bobby, give a speech and were moved to introduce themselves. They befriended him,
and soon the Schindlers were inviting Brother Paul and Brother Hilary to visit Florida.
"We were so shocked to hear of the lack of spiritual support they had here,"
Brother Hilary, 51, said one day, sitting amid the television trucks across from
Woodside Hospice, where Ms. Schiavo has been without nutrition and hydration
for nine days. "We asked them, 'What can we do?' And we will continue to do
whatever it takes to help them."
The Schindlers, who are Roman Catholics, have long accused the Diocese of
St. Petersburg of abandoning them by declining to join the battle for their daughter's
life. They asked the diocese to step in after Ms. Schiavo's husband, Michael, first
won court permission to remove her feeding tube in 2001. But Bishop Robert Lynch
declined, saying in a statement that the church "must and will refrain from
characterizing the actions of anyone in this tragic moment."
Though the Schindlers have continued to attend Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic
Church in Gulfport, they say they get most of their spiritual comfort from Brothers Paul
and Hilary and Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, a retired priest whom Mr. Schiavo has
allowed to accompany the Schindlers on visits to their daughter's hospice room.
Brothers Paul and Hilary were once allowed to enter the hospice with the Schindlers -
they had to wait outside Ms. Schiavo's room - but no longer. Instead, they mingle with
the many protesters who gather daily in front of the building, admiring their signs and
songs, urging them to remain peaceful and providing updates to the news media.
For Brother Paul, Ms. Schiavo's story has particular resonance. Brother Michael Gaworski,
who founded the Brothers of the Peace in 1982, suffered severe brain damage after
contracting bacterial pneumonia. Brother Paul cared for him for more than a decade
until his death two years ago and said the parallels compelled him to become involved.
"I looked at her on the videos, and I saw Michael," Brother Paul, 45, said of Ms. Schiavo.
"I could relate to loving someone in that condition and wanting nothing more than just to
care for him."
The protesters love to talk to the brothers. One told Brother Hilary of how she once kept
a sick man alive by feeding him with a turkey baster. Another asked him to lead a group
of picketers in the hymn "How Great Thou Art," but he politely declined. He brings some
levity now and then, as on an exceptionally humid day last week when, sweating, he
pointed to his wool robe and said, "The habit index is pretty high today."
Brother Hilary said that he and Brother Paul have flown from Minnesota to visit the
Schindlers about once a month for the last year. Donations to their order pay for their
travel and lodging. They help the couple out with errands, cooking and phone calls,
accompany them to Sunday Mass and sometimes drive them to the hospice.
"I have been a dishwasher and a sandwich maker, because they need to be reminded
that they need to eat and rest," Brother Hilary said.
Brother Hilary, originally from Brooklyn, describes himself as the talkative one - so
much that the others in his order appointed him the "begging brother."
"I go out and beg for food and money all over the Twin Cities," he said. "I have the
In addition to serving the poor, the Brothers of the Peace - who are different from
monks because they are not cloistered - pray at abortion clinics and visit prisoners.
Brother Paul, who oversees the order's ministries, said that preaching about the
sanctity of life would be a priority from now on.
"Life doesn't go back to normal after this," he said. "There is a battle going on between
the culture of life and the culture of death, and God has called on our community to
represent the culture of life."
He said the Schindlers would remain their close friends. Brother Paul said he hoped to
help them process their feelings after their daughter's death, and perhaps even to help
them forgive Mr. Schiavo some day.
"I think there is a time when they will be able to do it," he said. "In the end, they are
good, loving people."
Labels: Brain Damage, Euthanasia, Terri Schiavo