A Man of Heroic Courage, Nailed to the Cross of ALS
‘My Catholic faith, the Rosary and my belief in miracles have helped to sustain and save me,’ says Garth Fritel.
This is the story of how a man wins a war in the soul by crossing into the unknown territory of pain, isolation and a collapsing body to say one thing: “Yes, God — I give it all to you.”
One afternoon this past winter Father Jeff Lewis, pastor of St. Mary’s parish in Spokane, Washington, was listening to Al Kresta’s radio interview when I requested listeners to pray for Venerable Aloysius Schwartz’s intercession for anyone suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). I mentioned that the Church lacked a patron saint for ALS, the neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. “Father Al” died from ALS in 1992.
The cheerful pastor gathered his St. Mary’s flock and requested they join him to beg for a miracle of physical healing for Garth Fritel, 44, who has not moved a single body part below his neck in more than a year. For five years, he has suffered from ALS — a disease that often claims lives in less than three years.
Father Lewis told his parishioners he would plead with Father Al — the Washington, D.C., native who established Boystown and Girlstown communities all over the globe — to heal Garth. The priest promised no one in his parish — most especially Garth, his wife Adeline, and two young daughters, Daphne, 9, and Tovah, 6, that a miracle of physical healing was guaranteed, but he would certainly beg Father Al for one. What God could do through the Holy Spirit, Father Lewis said, was without limit.
Unbeknownst to Father Lewis, his timing of tuning into the radio show was providential. Although no one but his wife and close family members was aware, things had grown bleak for Garth.
Far too often this past autumn and winter, Garth awakened at the loneliest hours of the night, where a shifting kaleidoscope of thoughts came into view. His wife, Adeline, slept like a stone beside him. Because Garth knew his wife spent each of her days seemingly pushing boulders up Mount Spokane in juggling her work as a pharmacist, caring for their daughters and handling carpools, meals, cleaning, etc., he never dared to wake her. So in silence — total silence — Garth looked at the choice he was faced with:
A. Quit and die.
Every night since he was diagnosed with ALS in 2017, no matter how difficult things have become, Garth has chosen Option B. And then, with his bodily movements having long ago abandoned him, Garth has trained his eyes on those long nights to a computer resting on an arm above his bed. He shifts his line of sight to click a link, where within moments a calming voice begins to whisper to him.
The voice whispers the prayers of the Holy Rosary.
“Over the course of several years, I transitioned from being able to walk, talk, pick up and play with my daughters, and breathe independently to the shattered body that houses a perfectly functioning mind,” Garth said through his computer that articulates his thoughts. “My Catholic faith, the Rosary and my belief in miracles have helped to sustain and save me.”
Garth has learned the secret of the saints: suffering with and for God is the inseparable companion of union with Christ on the cross. He has consummated his love and devotion to God by tenderly offering sacrifices — his disease, aggravations, unseen daily torments and total immobility — knowing his offering will be accepted and used according to God’s purposes. Garth’s daily inclination is to unite his soul, body, his entire life to the agony of the cross.
“Garth has accepted the cross. In fact, instead of turning away from it, he has turned toward it.” Adeline said. “It has been hard. No one I’ve known has had a greater and purer love for life than Garth, and maybe that’s why ALS has been especially difficult. It’s hard to be stuck. Imagine not being able to scratch an itch or shoo away the fly on your cheek. Imagine the pain of not reaching for your daughters. Picking up his daughters, biking with them, playing — those days are gone.
“So yes, there were some dark days. I remember once Garth told me, ‘If I could pull out my trach (tracheostomy tube that enables breathing), I’d pull it out myself.’
Garth has found intimacy and union with Father Al, who before losing his life to ALS at the age of 62, saved countless thousands of lives in some of the poorest villages in the world. More than 170,00 children have graduated from the authentically Catholic Boystown and Girlstown communities he and the Sisters of Mary religious community established in seven countries. It can be argued that no Catholic priest in the history of the world has accomplished for the orphan, abandoned and humiliated than what Father Al did.
“People say that St. Vincent de Paul was the great apostle of charity and that Father Al Schwartz based his entire missionary life on his,” said Msgr. James Golasinski, who worked alongside Father Al for 10 years in the Far East. “But I’ve told people that Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz accomplished more than St. Vincent de Paul. … I was there, and I saw what happened.”
As Father Al’s body began to collapse, he left his home in the Philippines for Mexico in 1990, where from his wheelchair he orchestrated the construction of the first of five seven-story buildings that would become homes for some of the poorest and most abused teenage girls in Mexico. Today, 3,300 girls are cared for by the Sisters of Mary, who spend their days educating, nourishing, counseling, catechizing, jogging with, playing sports with and praying with the students. Today, more than 21,000 children are educated and cared for in 15 Boystown and Girlstown communities around the world.
Garth began to draw deeply from Father Al after discovering Priest and Beggar: the Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, the biography Adeline nightly read aloud to her husband. As his story unfolded, Garth said he became transfixed by the words Father Al spoke as he neared the end of his life:
Jesus’s role on the cross was to pray and suffer. He offers to the Father His sacrifice of praise, His prayer together with His terrible pain, with His blood. On the cross, He does not preach. He does not teach. He hardly speaks. On the cross, He performs no Miracles. He does not heal. He does not visibly help. He does not plan or organize or do anything productive. Yet, on the cross, by His prayer and suffering, Jesus accomplishes the greatest work in the history of mankind. He redeems the world. He sanctifies man. He obtains salvation for us and nothing more noble, exalted, or holy can be imagined.
My role, now, is more and more similar to that of Jesus on the cross. My productive hour is over. I can hardly talk. I can no longer preach. I have difficulty in doing anything. So my role is simply to offer my prayer and my pain with Jesus to the Father. And this, I think, will be of more benefit to my children, my sisters, and my brothers than all of my planning and projects and programs. This is the supreme test and ultimate act of faith and love. …
I am nailed to the cross of ALS. Each day the struggle intensifies. The disease is inexorable in its progress. Each day becomes more difficult than the day before, and looking ahead, I see stretching before me uncharted paths of pain, suffering, and humiliation. Being a realist, I am trying to find out how to cope. The answer is found on Calvary in the person of Jesus. I must aspire to His heroism. I believe He has sent me ALS as a sign of his love and special favor. I believe this and I try to renew this belief at each instant. So it is. I do not look at ALS as an enemy which I fight. I accept it, embrace it, and welcome it as a friend.
Father Al’s echo of abandonment to God has become Garth’s blueprint. Father Al’s words are now Garth’s; they are now an icon within him.
Accordingly, his old thoughts have been replaced by Father Al’s radical thoughts of suffering as the agonized Christ. He ponders Father Al’s way of handling misery at Adoration, in meditative prayer and at Mass. There isn’t a day that goes by that Garth doesn’t spend time considering how the startling American priest on the path to canonization chose to live his priesthood as “the starved man on the cross.”
“Father Al was a hero for the poor for his entire priesthood,” Garth said. “Then he became a bigger hero when he helped them even with his ALS.”
Of course, things are hard. Nothing is the same. Garth, once the life of the party and former manager of more than 100 employees, doesn’t get out much. His basement man-cave and bar with Chicago Bears placards, collector’s uniforms and other sports memorabilia hasn’t been visited in more than two years. Bottles of beer in the refrigerator remain untouched, their expiration dates well past their time. The backyard swimming pool with its specially-equipped seat is no longer able to be used. At least a dozen times a day, Garth will have to endure the painful throat-clearing suctioning from Adeline and his own parents.
Every day is the cross for Garth and Adeline.
“The struggles are very real. I myself am guilty like Peter, not something I am proud of, but it’s true. I have denied Jesus — it’s easier to turn to mimosas, it’s easier to be judgmental, resentful, fall into despair. It’s easier to turn away versus looking Jesus right in the eye and saying, ‘I don't want to do this’,” Adeline said. “But as I continue to pick up my cross daily and continue to listen to God’s word, the struggle I once had does in fact become easier.
“I can choose to pick up the cross or I can choose not to. I can choose to give my suffering over to Jesus or I can choose not to. With God or without? I have the power of choice. … How people survive ALS without faith is a mystery to me.”
Garth, too, struggles with the mighty weight of ALS.
“I wish I could say I’ve been a model Christian — however, I’ve struggled with being bitter and angry towards God. I’ve often thought that Jesus only suffered for a day and I'd rather suffer that cross,” Garth said. “So when Father Al said those exact words, it resonated with me. I’ve gotten over being angry all the time. I was in a bad spot for a while … but I’m learning to offer it up.”
Each evening, Garth gathers his family in the living room where the Fritels pray as a family. Daphne and Tovah gather around their dad’s wheelchair in their oversized cowboy boots or ballet slippers. They often carry with them toy nunchucks, coloring books, schoolwork or their latest artwork. Adeline, cheerful and loving, looks into her husband’s eyes for leadership as they begin to pray.
Always, at a point in their prayer, a single question is asked: What was your blessing today? Garth always manages to fish up an answer. His word or two brings settled peace to his family. Over the years, perhaps more than anything else, the family has given thanks for the love of those in the community who have prayed for them or stopped by to lend a hand.
“My husband has no fear; he has an enormous amount of love for life,” Adeline said. “He sees all the people who love him in his agony. I see things more and more like the stations of the cross. I see Garth’s parents [Shelley and Garry, who’ve moved into the Fritels’ home to help care for Garth] in this. His mom is like Mary at the foot of the cross, who suffers to see her son in so much pain, but knows he is suffering for good. Garth’s dad is like Simon of Cyrene; he gives all of himself to physically help his son, and that is physically demanding to take on that weight and burden. The friends who come by the house to check on Garth are like the women who comfort Jesus on the path to the cross. When Father Lewis thinks to take a towel to clean Garth’s face, he is Veronica.
“We are all involved in this cross, but we have joy in it, because we have united it with the pain Jesus endured. The blessings that have come to us through this pain are too many to count. … As his wife, I’ve learned through this that nothing here on earth is mine — it is all God’s.”