‘Peter deserves more than an award’

The homeless hail their champion

"Let me tell you a story about Fr Peter,” says David. “I first met him when I was 13 and the guards brought me to him. They were after giving me a choice to either sleep in a cell or on the streets unless Peter could do something. There was no more room at his place, so Peter slept on the floor and let me have his bed. That’s Peter right there.”

David’s story is just one of a countless number of similar anecdotes offered when it is revealed that The Irish Catholic is seeking perspectives on the Jesuit priest whose efforts over 30 years on behalf of the homeless and vulnerable in Dublin will see him receive the Freedom of the City this March 22.

Like David, attending the Sherard St drop-in centre on the day The Irish Catholic visits, they come from people who are often identified by that bland descriptor, those who have ‘fallen through the net’ but whose varied stories of tragedy, ill-luck, drug dependency, homelessness and, often, prison, have one life-changing commonality: Fr Peter McVerry.

“He deserves more, much more,” is another common theme from the visitors when the issue of Freedom of the City is raised. One, pausing over his efforts to prepare a bowl of cereal amid the jostling forms in the centre’s small kitchen, declares adamantly: “He should be President!”

Though there is much joking and light-hearted banter among the visitors as they avail of the opportunity to catch up with one another over a cup of tea, no-one laughs at the ambitious sentiment expressed.

There is a sense that, if Fr Peter were to ever consider a run for high office, his support base would be broad and unshakable.


“Peter is like a father figure,” says another visitor, who like some others, would rather not be identified. “Whenever I’ve had issues I’ve gone to him and he gave me direction.”

David expands on this: “Since meeting Peter, I’m clean. I’ve gone back to college, I got a diploma in addiction studies and I just got my degree in social studies. He made that possible.”

Another visitor, Ger, makes it clear that he is able to share his story only because of Peter.

“I met Peter when I was 15, and he was there for me after I got out of prison and lost my mother. I was heavy on the drugs, and Peter got me to the doctor who got me better by reducing my methadone. I tell you honestly, I wouldn’t be here without Peter, I would have killed myself.”

Another concurs: “I’d be on everything going, or doing a heavy sentence without him. He deserves a much bigger reward.”


One visitor who proves unwilling to get into his own story nevertheless offers a tangible measure of what Fr Peter means to him.

“Soup,” he says, gesturing to the packets available in the kitchen, “sandwiches, cornflakes, a cup of tea.” What you and I might call ‘basics’ are held up in sequence as treasures to be perused as proof of an immense goodness.

“I never got any help from anyone but Peter,” says Kevin, another who insists that his circumstances were leading to a certain death until the Jesuit crossed his path.

“I met him in prison,” he explains, “and he was a great help to me there. Updates from outside, messages to family and friends. And since then, his door has always been open. He’s a great man, a great man.”

And another: “When it was a choice between prison or suicide, I found Peter.”

And another: “I can live my life now, that’s the difference Peter made to me.”

And another: “You can come to Peter and be vulnerable.”

It is to be noted that Fr Peter’s personal impact communicates far beyond his charges. In January, The Irish Catholic was able to report that the charity bearing his name had not suffered in the sudden onset of cynicism in December that greeted revelations about the charity sector. Whatever about sins committed elsewhere, the donors seemed to communicate, Fr Peter McVerry would not engage in that.


In the end, among the many many voices seeking to praise their champion, there is just one who offers any counter perspective, and that is Fr Peter himself.

Ensconced in his simple office at the centre, where the door is indeed open for whatever traffic may come, the Jesuit shrugs off any attempt to lionise him, and even appears uncomfortable at mention of the forthcoming city honour.

“Homelessness is much worse than when I started in Dublin,” he says of the current impact of austerity on his work and the visitors he cares deeply for. “There are six new homeless every day in Dublin, that’s just the official figure, by the way. Rents are up while rent allowance is going down, there is a shortage of accommodation, so landlords can pick and choose, and they prefer workers with cash. What have I achieved really?”

The question seems completely incongruous when set against the stories that have just been shared elsewhere in the centre.

Why not quit, then, The Irish Catholic asks mischievously.

“The little we can do means a lot to people,” Fr Peter concedes, again his natural humility reducing to a ‘little’ that which he has set in train over his years of service.

And what, then, of his award as a Freeman of Dublin? He receives his award alongside rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll, joining a list of previous recipients including John F. Kennedy, U2, Nelson Mandel and Mother Teresa.

Fr Peter smiles at the notion before placing it firmly within the context of his ongoing work as a voice for the city’s vulnerable.

“I heard somewhere that the honour lets me keep sheep on Stephen’s Green overnight,” he says. “But if I put homeless people in there they’d all be arrested.”

For a full listing of the services offered by the Peter McVerry Trust, visit www.pmvtrust.ie