Michael Kirwan, 54, who as a member of the Catholic Worker community in Washington for more than two decades was known for his feeding, housing and living with the poorest of the poor, died of cancer Nov. 12 at his mother's home in Washington.
In a farewell letter sent to friends and benefactors on Sept. 8, Mr. Kirwan reflected on his faith-based service to the city's destitute: "We cannot by ourselves lift the burden of racism, economic and social disparity, suspicion and mistrust. But we can begin to lighten it."
The hungry and homeless came daily to Mr. Kirwan's residence at 1305 T St. NW, the Llewellyn Scott Catholic Worker House of Hospitality. Over the years, tens of thousands of meals were served. Tons of clothing and other supplies were dispensed. Countless hours were given listening to and comforting the city's lost and lonely.
Mr. Kirwan's residence was seen by some in the increasingly gentrified neighborhood as a homeless shelter. At times, as many as 30 men and women were given space--some staying for a night or two, others for long stretches--while Mr. Kirwan lived in a third-floor cubicle.
Not much larger than a monk's cell, the book-lined room was Mr. Kirwan's only haven of quiet from the demands of people whose problems were as complex as schizophrenia or as simple as needing a shower.
Mr. Kirwan, a native of Washington and one of 10 children in a home often visited by Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the early 1930s, was the grandson of Rep. Michael "Honest Mike" Kirwan (D-Ohio). He often played in the congressman's office as a boy.
Rep. Kirwan, who served in the House from 1935 to 1970, had been a nearly broke day laborer during the Depression when he won election to Congress by telling voters in Youngstown and other labor towns that he wanted to go to Washington because he needed a job.
Such total honesty overwhelmed the voters, who gratefully gave him his first of many landslide victories. Mr. Kirwan often joked that his grandfather would have been one of the poor and homeless if he had not been elected to Congress.
In the winter of 1978, Mr. Kirwan was a graduate student in sociology at George Washington University preparing for a conventional career in business or government. One freezing night, he passed a homeless man keeping warm on a heat grate near the State Department. The man asked for food. Mr. Kirwan ignored him and kept walking to his campus dorm room. There, unsettled, he had second thoughts and took back a bowl of hot soup to the man.
So began a life's mission. Mr. Kirwan continued bringing food to homeless people at 21st Street and Virginia Avenue NW.
"One night, as I brought down a large gallon jug of hot split pea soup and set it down on the cement block near the heating vent where they gathered, a rather rough-looking fellow picked up the jar of soup and, in one motion, broke the jar over my head," Mr. Kirwan recalled.
"Instead of running away, I asked the man why he had done that. These were probably the first words I had ever spoken to any of them. He told me that I was doing nothing more than bringing food to the dogs. I was bringing food, setting it down like I was feeding them out of a pet dish and then just walking away. He said, 'Talk to us. Visit with us. We don't bite.' "
Mr. Kirwan did begin visiting. "What happened that night," he said, "was that a first barrier had been broken in my perceptions of who homeless people are. I realized that these men and women on the streets had feelings, just like me. They wanted to be loved and respected and listened to. They cared that someone cared about them, but just giving food and a blanket was not enough."
Soon after, Mr. Kirwan opened his George Washington University dorm room to his new friends. One homeless man stayed a month.
After giving a talk at a Catholic parish in the early 1980s, Mr. Kirwan received a five-figure donation from a woman in the audience, a sum large enough to open a house of hospitality at Fourth Street and Florida Avenue NW. In 1986, with funds donated by a McLean physician, Mr. Kirwan moved to 1305 T St. NW, a dwelling between two boarded-up buildings and near an alley where crack cocaine was sold.
After an article about his work appeared in The Washington Post, he received a donation that allowed him to buy a residence at 939 T St., NW, which was named Mary Harris Catholic Worker House of Hospitality and overseen by Connie Ridge, a longtime ally of Mr. Kirwan.
In 1982, Mr. Kirwan had enough donations to purchase a farm in West Virginia where over the years he brought hundreds of homeless and unemployed people for rest and recovery. In 1988, a Charleston, W.Va., philanthropist heard about the operation and supplied the funds to build a $350,000 16-room house for the residents as well as a barn for animals.
The animals were not raised to be eaten but to be respected.
It wasn't just poor people who came to Mr. Kirwan for help. His T Street house was regularly visited by high school, college and law-school students wanting to learn of his work and his philosophy. His living room seminars were often packed with students, many of them in awe of a man who lived in voluntary poverty.
"It is community and in community that we find love, and in love there is no ending," was his constant message.
Survivors include his father, John J., of Houston; his mother, Ruth M. Kirwan of Washington; six brothers, Thomas, of Meadowlands, Pa., Gerald, of Philadelphia, and Lawrence, Leo, Anthony, and David, all of Washington; and three sisters, Monika Spoor of Houston, and Maria Owen and Regina Wardwell, both of Mount Rainier.
CAPTION: Michael Kirwan, above in 1988, shared his home with the poor.