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Mathias Barrett of Albuquerque

Mathias Barrett of Albuquerque by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artwork Narrative:

Brother Mathias Barrett was born in Ireland, but he spent most of his life in North America. He was a simple man who loved the poor and who founded the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd. Originally his order worked only with homeless men, but in time it expanded its apostolate to include homeless women, alcoholics, the elderly, and the mentally and physically handicapped. His early years were painful and left him burdened with an abrasive personality. In his last years he labored to make peace with those he had offended. "People say I am cracked," he would admit, "but light shines through the cracks."

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The Good Shepherd Center began its work on January 19, 1951 as Good Shepherd Refuge for transient men -- “Knights of the Road,” as founder, Brother Mathias Barrett used to call them. Simultaneously, the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, were also founded by Brother Mathias at the direction of the Most Rev. Edwin V. Byrne, Archbishop of Santa Fe.

Brother Mathias Barrett was born as Maurice Patrick Barrett on March 15th 1900 in Waterford, Ireland. On March 17th 1916 Brother Mathias entered the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God. Brother became a leading force not only as the North American Provincial of his Order, but in building many institutions such as hospitals, soup kitchens, and rehabilitation centers. Brother came to New Mexico in September of 1950 after retiring from the St John of God order to help Father Gerald Fitzgerald with the care of priests at Via Coeli.

Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne had other plans for him, however and on January 19th 1951 Brother Mathias went to Albuquerque NM to establish a new Order of Brothers and a house for men on the road. This house was located at 306 West Iron Avenue on the corner of 3rd Street. It consisted of two shacks scheduled for demolition. Monsignor José Garcia of Sacred Heart Parish let him use this property until a more suitable house could be found. After moving some office furniture out, and carrying in ten beds which were obtained from St Joseph’s Hospital, Brother Mathias served some donated day-old bread and bacon drippings to hungry “guests” who were sent over by Father Garcia.

Soon more donations came in -- beds from the Air Force at Kirtland AFB, a washing machine from a generous lady, money from people who had received appeal letters from Brother Mathias mailed for a penny apiece as unsealed mail. The Brothers ranks grew at an astonishing rate, with hundreds of letters of inquiry pouring in. The work of the Brothers, by now known as the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, touched a responsive chord in quite a lot of people. Soon there were houses all over the US and Canada, with houses in Ireland, England, and Haiti to follow.

Because of the proximity of Brother Mathias’ birthday to St. Patrick’s Day, a dinner to honor him became the big spring social occasion in Albuquerque, eventually growing to feed thousands of people a dinner of corned beef and cabbage. The Good Shepherd Refuge was dedicated on February 3rd 1952 after Brother Mathias convinced the landlady of the St. Francis Apartments at Second and Iron to rent the facility to him for this purpose. Hundreds of volunteers made the facility like new. An Advisory Board and an Auxiliary were formed. Brother Mathias appeared in Time Magazine complete with t-shirt and suspenders, his normal attire at this time. The rest, to quote a well-worn cliché, is history.

Brother’s Order grew to hundreds of Brothers. Despite feeding and sheltering thousands of people, Brother Mathias was proud that he never had to buy a loaf of bread. The generous residents of Albuquerque, NM would provide for all the needs of the refuge through its growth period when it became Good Shepherd Center to reflect it’s expanded scope. Eventually there would be a house for families (Holy Family) and other similar facilities to meet the needs of an ever growing and changing population. Brother Mathias died in retirement in 1990, an almost legendary character with worldwide fame by that time.

The population of the homeless, usually alcoholics in the 1950’s and 1960’s changed radically in the late 70’s when legislation “freed” the mentally ill and retarded, but then did not provide for their needs. Government social workers can only do so much in a 9 to 5 workweek. Up to 80 percent of the homeless were mentally ill by the early 80’s. Then the drug culture sent many more young people, both men and women, to the streets.

In Albuquerque, there have always been a number of poor immigrants, unskilled, non-English speaking, and uneducated for the most part, that have needed the temporary services of the Center to feed and clothe them, help them find jobs, to get an education, and to better their lives. There are as many different “stories” as there are clients. But to the Brothers each one represents Jesus walking the streets, hungry, poorly clothed, cold, wet, in jail with no one to visit Him. America’s homeless are created in the image and likeness of God, just like the rest of us, perhaps more so than the rest of us, because they are unencumbered with material goods that often act as a buffer against feeling the true spirit of mankind.

Today, Good Shepherd Center is doing more than temporarily feeding and sheltering these homeless people. It has rehabilitation programs, halfway houses, councilors, medical and mental care programs, and many other programs that go beyond immediate needs.

—Excerpts from Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd