From Business to Church Work to Public Service

Donald L. Carcieri is the 57th Governor of Rhode Island.

At the age of 40, in 1982, he was an executive vice president of a bank. He asked Bishop Kenneth Angell, then-Auxiliary Bishop of Providence, how a businessman could contribute to his community under the umbrella of the Church.

Bishop Angell — now Bishop of Burlington, Vt. — recommended Catholic Relief Services. Carcieri ended up serving as program director in Jamaica.

Gov. Carcieri spoke with Register correspondent Wayne Forrest from the governor’s office in Providence.

What was it like growing up in a small town like East Greenwich, R.I.?

My dad, who was an Italian  Catholic; my mom, who was Swedish-Lutheran; my wife’s grandfather; and my grandfather were all born and raised in East Greenwich. So both our families have deep roots. We grew up on Marlboro Street behind Our Lady of Mercy Church with Polish, Irish, Italian and Jewish families. And, of course, the Church’s impact in a small town is significant.

My father, being a coach and teacher, gave his life to the town. When he died in 1997 at 79, there were 1,000 people who attended the services. He was enormously respected because he was a very straight, honest, right-down-the-middle, hard worker, fundamentally fair, and always polite.

People ask me how it was to play [football at East Greenwich High School] for my father, and during the [gubernatorial] campaign, people would ask me what helped define my standards. I would tell the story of my father, who said to me when I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, “You have to understand, I can’t have you play unless it is abundantly clear to everybody else that you should be [playing].”

In other words, he would not have a situation where his son was playing, [solely] because I was his son. His personal integrity and reputation were too important to him to have a situation where somebody would question his judgment.

Did you stay close to your faith during your teen years?

I did. In fact, I met my wife in high school at a Catholic Youth Organization meeting. She also is very strong in her faith. She lost her dad at age 47 when she was a senior in high school. She was the oldest of four children and [her dad’s death] impacted her life and prompted a deeper appreciation of family, values and faith.

As our kids came along, like anything else, we wanted them to have the same grounding. So, the Church has always played an important part of our lives and helped our family immensely — and that’s how we got to Catholic Relief Services.

How did you serve Catholic Relief Services in Jamaica?

I was the program director of an area that included Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean islands, such as St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Dominica. At the time, a lot of the programs were intended for disaster relief and to supply food, but there was more — assisting economic and human development.

What were some of the programs you helped to initiate?

We always looked for things that could begin to create a livelihood for people. We started a plastic recycling program for women in Kingston. On the islands, the farmers subsist on root crops, like potatoes, but they needed more nutrition from beans, peas and other vegetables. So, we had a number of programs to teach the farmers in the rural areas how to grow vegetables.

You have a lot of tourists in the Caribbean, and they are used to eating things that we are used to eating. We helped to set up cooperatives where farmers grow crops for their own consumption and sell [the surplus] to some of the hotels to provide a source of income. We also established health clinics and brought in medicines and milk powder to schools.

How large was the staff and the budget?

We had a staff of six people in Kingston, Jamaica, and a contact person at the other islands, generally a priest or nun who would act as coordinator. I would visit the other islands three or four times a year. We had an annual budget $250,000, and that money would come from Catholic Relief Services and grants from other [non-secular] agencies.

What were some of the challenges you and your family faced in Jamaica?

It was very difficult at times, because there is little freedom of movement. We rode 10-speed bikes.

It was warm in Kingston, and our home was in a nice area, but it was surrounded by a ghetto and there was so much tension. Nice people didn’t want to stop for traffic lights. It was not uncommon for people to smash [car] windows and be robbed. When we arrived in March 1982, the island was still on edge from the violent 1980 election. Plus, if you’re an American working abroad with a business background, they all think you’re with the CIA.

In March 1983, one of my best friends, Father Jack White from Marshfield, Mass., who joined the priesthood later in life, was murdered. We were the last people with him. We had dinner with him and told him we would be returning home soon. I dropped him off at the rectory that night and heard the next morning that he had been brutally murdered. I went to the church that morning and the Commissioner of Police in Jamaica, who also belonged to the parish, said that it was not politically related. To this day, they still don’t know who committed the murder.

How much longer did you stay in Jamaica?

We returned home in July 1983. That was a very tense time. You think you’re doing good things, trying to work with the Church, the community, the farmers, but there are political issues there.

What are some of the memorable lessons that you carry with you?

I learned a huge lesson from Jamaica’s Archbishop Samuel Carter, who said to me, “I don’t want you to give my people anything.”

He said, “I want them to feel as though they earned it. When you give, the giver is always in the position of superiority; the receiver is always in the position of inferiority. When you give to someone who doesn’t feel as though they have earned it, you diminish them as a person in their self worth.”

It knocked me off the chair, because I never really thought of it that way. As I thought about it later, he is absolutely right. The notion that somehow, in my giving something good I would be diminishing the self worth of that person, stuck with me.

How has that perspective translated to your role as Governor?

In government, a lot of well-intentioned motivations have an unintended consequence of actually diminishing the recipients, making them feel that they can’t do this without the help.

Wayne Forrest writes from Providence, Rhode Island.