A Franciscan friar trades a field of dreams for an empire for the poor

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy of Agape Association of El Salvador

By Rhina Guidos

El Salvador (CNS) — His Boston Red Sox baseball
hat is almost as big a part of him as his brown Franciscan habit. Anywhere Franciscan
Father Flavian Mucci goes in El Salvador, he’s known not only for his love of
baseball, but more importantly, for the only thing he loves more than the game:
the poor.

Fifty years ago this July, Boston native Father Mucci arrived
in El Salvador with one piece of luggage, much in the same way his Italian grandparents
first arrived to the United States, the country where he was born. Though the
U.S. is where he grew up and received his formation in the Order of Friars
Minors for the Province of the Immaculate Conception in New York, “my heart, my
mind, it’s all here,” said Father Mucci, referring to El Salvador, the country
to which he has devoted five decades of his life.

In those five decades, he’s built what amounts to an empire
of social and public services called the Agape Association of El Salvador. Known
in the country simply as Agape, the Greek word for love, it includes clinics, a
soup kitchen, a home for the elderly, a nascent university and other
educational centers for children and adults, as well as a restaurant (named
after his mother), a hotel, and TV and radio stations.

Through war, natural disasters, and now the rampant gang
violence that plagues the country, Father Mucci has remained steadfast to his
vision to serve the poor of El Salvador. 

As others abandoned the country because
of the impending conflict, Father Mucci began feeding the poor in a rural soup
kitchen in 1978, and as the country found itself in the middle of war in the
mid-1980s, he built the Agape headquarters on the rural outskirts of the city
of Sonsonate in the western part of El Salvador.

“When I want something, I get it done,” said Father Mucci,
84. Though he’s retired from his post as head of Agape, he keeps an office on
the Sonsonate campus where he sees visitors wanting to know about his life’s
work. It all began in 1977 when he hosted the homeless for Christmas dinner at
the parish where he was serving.

“That day I learned the true meaning of happiness,” Father
Mucci told the International Labor Organization in 2009, when it honored him
with the Social Entrepreneurship Award. “Not that I was not happy before, but
this was a different type of happiness, one more profound and meaningful. It
was a happiness based on giving.”

What began with a soup kitchen expanded into more than 50
programs that medically treat, train, educate, feed or employ hundreds of
thousands of Salvadorans who have at one point or another used Agape’s services,
now in 24 locations throughout the country.

Father Mucci’s vision was simple, said Franciscan Father Jack Hoak, who
now runs the organization, he wanted to put into practice what the founder of the
Franciscans called them to do: love the poor.

When Father Mucci arrived in El Salvador on July 9, 1967, as a
32-year-old friar, there was no war, but there was rampant poverty.

“It was easy for me to understand (the poor) more than any
other priest because I was poor,” said Father Mucci in an April interview with
Catholic News Service.

Though his father had once made a good living as a mason in
Boston, he became ill, died and the family went into poverty. A group of
religious sisters and the Knights of Columbus helped his mother with education
for the children and other necessities such as shoes, but they couldn’t save
his dreams of becoming a baseball player.

“I never wanted to be a priest,” he said. “But when that
path (of playing baseball) failed, I took another one.”

He beams when he talks about baseball.

“I wanted to be a billionaire baseball player but my father
got sick and I had to forget about that dream,” he said. “I was a good baseball

Looking back, Father Mucci, perhaps jokingly, said he’s
still not sure what would have been better, life as a priest or as a baseball
player. As a baseball player, he’d be retired by now, he said, perhaps

“I think God chose this, so this must have been better,” he
said, recounting the difficulties of his life as lessons and opportunities.

During his formation, he recalls, when seminarians were told
to go home and give away all their possessions, he had nothing to give away,
“not even five cents,” so instead he used to the day to learn to drive and got
his driver’s license the same day. When he arrived in El Salvador, he said he clearly
understood when mothers asked for help to send their children to school because
of what his mother had gone through. He knew what it meant to be hungry, what
it meant to have no money.

He asked to forgo vacations, other than occasional ones to visit
family in the U.S., because the “poor
can’t even take one vacation” he said. Instead, he devoted that time to building what
has become of one of the biggest employers in El Salvador and a
spiritually based empire of sorts.

“When I first arrived, my understanding was that health and
education, that’s what people needed,” he told CNS. “But so many things have
happened and the war ‘ it destroyed this country. And now the gangs are putting
the nails ‘ into destruction.”

International organizations seeking to fund programs to help
with the violence are betting on Agape, with its emphasis on education and
employment, to help reduce the most dire problems the country is facing, said
Father Hoak.

“We’re often the ones others ask for help when it comes to
programs for youth, so that they don’t fall into drugs,” and even gang
prevention, said Father Hoak. When people are looking to give money to an
organization that produces results, the Agape association is usually the one
the players in the country recommend.

For his contributions to El Salvador, Father Mucci has been
given numerous awards and honors over the years. His friar’s sandals — including
one with a hole in it — and his cincture, a cord, were gold-plated and now hang
outside a shrine he helped build. On July 9, his many admirers in El Salvador
gathered at the Agape compound in Sonsonate to mark his 50 years in the

Father Hoak, who often finds himself toiling in the shadow
of his fellow friar, said it’s not a difficult task because he understands the
enormity of what Father Mucci built.

While preparing a presentation on saints, he said, he began
thinking about Father Mucci.

“I can make a list of saints who’ve done less than that what
Father (Mucci) has done,” he said. “And once I had given a presentation and
someone told me, ‘Do you realize you’re working with a saint?”

Father Mucci sees it another way, however, said Father Hoak.

“He said ‘I’m a builder but then I need someone to
administer,'” he said. “That’s what he has entrusted us with.”

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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