LOS ANGELES — You'll find him here every Sunday among the tattered blankets and cardboard lean-tos.
Here, in downtown L.A., Father Maurice Chase — known to the locals as Father Dollar Bill — comes each week, rain or shine, to give out not pennies from heaven, but dollars from the stars.
For 19 years Father Chase has brought a stack of dollar bills to hand out in front of the Fred Jordan Mission to the denizens of the streets.
To raise the more than $100,000 a year he gives away, Father Chase has turned to the likes of Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra.
Bob Newhart calls the priest “truly a man of God.”
“It goes back to the phrase, ‘Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me,’” the actor and comedian told the Register. “He's really taken that to heart.” Newhart, a Catholic, has a sister who is a nun.
Two days before Christmas, more than 1,000 people lined Towne Street waiting for a dollar and a chance to talk to Father Chase. That day Father Chase brought an extra treat — ten $100 bills.
“He's the only guy who comes down here,” said Troy Johnson, a homeless man who came to L.A. from Hope, Ark., one of the lucky few who found themselves $100 wealthier. “There ain't nobody like him.”
Johnson said he has been coming down to that corner to meet Father Chase for 10 years. As he spoke, another $100 recipient shouted out: “It's going to buy us dinner and let me take my family to a movie!”
Why has Father Chase made this face-to-face cash disbursement his mission?
“Mother Teresa said to touch the poor,” he said. “It is one thing to give them checks or cash, but another thing to touch them. They come for the smile as much as for the dollar.”
The biggest problem the homeless face, he added, is that “they feel unloved.”
“Money is the least of it,” he said. “You can always give money, but you can't always give a hug or listen to people's problems.” He does all three things each Sunday.
After Father Chase gave out the last of the Christmas $100 bills, the crowd thinned out and local television crews left. Father went back to doing what he does every Sunday.
Many of the $1 recipients wore rosaries around their necks; one man had a Bible in a shopping cart. Many asked for a blessing. Some brought Father Chase a gift — a musical Christmas card, a pair of headphones, whatever they had, to wish him a “Merry Christmas.”
One man, Bruce, brought Father Chase a watermelon.
“Pray for me,” said Bruce. “And you pray for me,” said Father Chase.
“I do!” insisted Bruce. “Every Saturday I pray that you will be here Sunday.”
‘Go to Skid Row’
Father Chase got his start helping the homeless while working in the administration offices at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Another priest suggested Father Chase “go down to Skid Row” to meet the poor. Father Chase took the advice to heart.
The 82-year-old priest said that what he does is “what priests should do; we should be in places where people need us.” Through the contacts he made while at Loyola and Good Shepherd Parish in Beverly Hills, Father Chase was able to fund his new work.
Some question the efficacy of what he does. Father Chase tells the story of one wealthy couple he had dinner with. “Just as she finished her second scotch,” the wife complained to him that the people he gave the money to were likely to buy drinks with it.
“What I do is much more than hand out money,” he said. As for the potential that the money might go to drinks: “How can I begrudge a poor old soul a little comfort?”
Jim Armstrong agrees that Father Chase gives out more than money. He wrote Father Chase a letter in 1998 to tell the priest that he had been a crack addict and had seen “stabbings or shootings on an almost daily basis over nothing more than drugs or money.”
Of each of his Sunday meetings with Father Chase, Armstrong wrote: “At first it meant nothing more to me than a pack of cigarettes. But after a while, I got to where I was anxiously waiting for this man who, but for a moment, brought sanity into an otherwise inhuman existence.”
Eventually Armstrong got off drugs, went back to school and got a job. “I most humbly thank God and Father Chase for coming into my life when I needed them most,” wrote Armstrong.
Father Chase cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church to explain his ministry: “God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them: ‘Give to him who begs from you, do not refuse him who would borrow from you’; ‘you received without pay, give without pay.’ It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones. When ‘the poor have the good news preached to them,’ it is the sign of Christ's presence.” (No. 2243).
To those who doubt that Father Chase is truly helping the people on the street, Bob Newhart explains that, “very simply, it lets the homeless know that there is still someone who cares.”