“This other priest is always drunk, so you go take his place.”
With that simple instruction, Joseph H Maeir, a Catholic priest from the United States, found himself in Thailand, ending up in the slums of Bangkok in the 1970s.
Fifty years later, he has nursed HIV patients, saved children from the streets and provided an education to the very poorest, and is now a slum celebrity with a slew of accolades in Thailand.
Yet the octogenarian credits all his accomplishments to others. “I’ve never had an idea on my own,” he says.
Maeir, who goes by the moniker Father Joe, says the church moved him to Thailand in 1967 because they considered him a nuisance who drunk and talked too much. After a stint in Laos cut short by the civil war, he returned to serve the minority Catholic population in Bangkok in 1972.
But rather than opt to live in the areas popular with the expats of the time, the new parish priest settled in a slaughterhouse in the district of Khlong Toei. At that time Catholics dominated the city’s pork production, he says.
“They lived in the slaughterhouse and they needed a priest … no decent priest wanted to deal with [them] but I said I’m a smelly old foreigner, low class, dirt farmer-poor Irish so I will be the priest.”
Half a century later, he’s a neighbourhood staple and says the dogs no longer bark at him and the nights of rats “licking the salt from his hair” as he tries to sleep are long gone.
Today, the area, which runs alongside the Chao Phraya river, is interspersed with towering condos and high-end hotels, but also remains home to one of the city’s biggest slums with approximately 100,000 residents.
In a bid to help the community, Father Joe opened “a slum shack school” in 1972, for children whose parents worked at the slaughterhouse. It has since evolved into a far-reaching foundation helping thousands of local lives.
The Human Development Foundation, otherwise known as the Mercy Centre, was co-founded by Father Joe with Sister Maria Chantavarodom, a Thai Catholic nun, now aged 92, who he credits with most of its success.
It was Sister Maria, he says, who came up with the idea of a community school, utilising a vacant pigsty that had a trough to act as a toilet. The Mercy Centre now operates 15 schools.
Sitting on a bench outside the vast three-storey building in the centre of Khlong Toei which hosts Mercy’s offices as well as one of the schools it operates, Father Joe explains that he never had a sense it would grow this big. It was simply that 10 years after the schools’ inception, someone suggested it be legalised in some way.
By that time, the team had gone beyond simply running a school to running outreach programs and shelters for street children, including those at risk of sexual abuse or child trafficking, offering a free health clinic and rebuilding slum houses.
When the HIV/ Aids epidemic arrived, they inadvertently quickly morphed into the city’s first Aids hospice before launching a program of home care that has since been replicated in other south-east Asian countries.
“With Aids … a taxi came up with a person almost dead and kicked him out … It’s all been helter skelter [since then], a kind of stumble,” he says.
Today, they are responsible for having created 15 schools, five orphanages and helping educate more than 30,000 children. While the foundation’s initial focus was education, today it has a far wider remit. Between housing and loans, schools and shelters, disability rights and disaster relief, there are few development areas it hasn’t touched.
The achievements have seen Father Joe – who is greeted by every passerby with a deep bow – receive a lifetime achievement award from Queen Sirikit of Thailand, and visits from the likes of Mother Teresa and actor Richard Gere.
But the priest, who has a Masters degree in human settlements, is quick to declare that he’s no hero and in fact credits the community of Khlong Toei with saving his life rather than the other way around.
“I was a drunk for 20 years … I stumbled along and the people would take care of me, kept me out of jail,” he says.
At an event to honour his half a century of service, he thanked the community for keeping him alive calling the slums a sacred place. And when asked what’s next, he simply says: “The people want us to stay, so we will.”