‘The Church is a hospital for sinners’

| September 9, 2014 | 2 Comments

Retired priest to receive lifetime achievement award for helping people with addiction

Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Tim Murray came to the doorstep of Father Martin Fleming in 2009 looking for a way to stay sober.

But, this retired priest and full-blooded Irishman gave Murray much more than just an alcohol-free environment.

First, Father Fleming offered full acceptance. Then, friendship. And finally, a path back to the Catholic faith of Murray’s upbringing, a religious practice that got drowned by alcohol and a series of bad choices.

It all started with something both now call a “God shot,” a term used for a remarkable coincidence that they feel can only be explained as the work of the Lord.

“I showed up on Father’s doorstep as a guy who had one year in recovery, had a successful one-year stay in a sober house, but really wasn’t ready yet to go live on my own,” said Murray, who now belongs to the Cathedral of St. Paul. “I needed an in-between, graduate level sober house. I must have looked at about 15 different places and talked to about 20 different guys trying to cobble [something] together.”

Then, he saw an ad that changed his life. It was on Craig’s List, offering a room for rent at an affordable price of $385 per month.

Murray was skeptical, thinking “this must be a dump.” But he decided to check it out. That brought him to the doorstep of Bethany Village, a cluster of four houses Father Fleming bought in 1977 with the goal of helping people just like Murray — those beaten down by addiction who want to try to make a fresh start in a safe, clean place.

Though never a problem drinker himself, Father Fleming, 87, saw plenty of it during the years right after he was ordained a priest in 1952. In fact, he said he was often chided for letting people know how many drinks they had consumed at social get-togethers. He even saw a few priests tip the bottle too much.

“In 1952 when I was ordained, there was a lot of excessive drinking in the Catholic community,” said Father Fleming, who retired from priestly ministry in the archdiocese in 1997 and now spends his retirement at Bethany Village (two of his older brothers also were priests, Fathers John and Francis Fleming, both deceased). “Nowadays, when you go to people’s homes, they give you beer or wine. Back in those days, it was martinis and margaritas and highballs and scotch and soda. People took great pride in having the best bar in the neighborhood, and there was excessive drinking.”

Father Fleming had no part of it. And now, more than six decades later, nary a drop of alcohol can be found at Bethany Village. He is far too considerate of the 29 residents who live there to do anything to threaten their sobriety.

During the nicer months of the year, Father will take a stroll around the grounds and greet the residents as he tries to get valuable exercise that is hampered by Parkinson’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

But, just like he will never touch a drink, he will not accept sympathy for his nagging maladies. Far from counting his woes, he maintains a hearty sense of humor in conversations, and even pokes fun at himself.

“I haven’t done my shaking act for you,” he joked, in reference to the classic symptoms of Parkinson’s. “Just give me time. It comes and goes.”

It’s remarks such as these that have endeared many people, including Murray, to the gruff-sounding, but compassionate priest who will receive a lifetime achievement award Sept. 18 from Trinity Sober Homes, a pair of Catholic sober houses Father Fleming and Murray started in 2012, both in St. Paul.

The event will be at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul, with proceeds going to Trinity Sober Homes. It quickly sold out.

“Trinity is just another example of Father’s lifetime commitment of helping other people,” said Murray, 55. “Father has touched so many of our lives and changed our lives. He saved my life. There’s no question. It’s that simple. The man saved my life.

“For me, he’s become sort of a surrogate dad. My dad died 23 years ago, and so he’s the closest thing I have to a father. I love him. He’s very encouraging.”

It didn’t take long for Murray and his clerical mentor to come up with the idea of a Catholic sober home. In their many conversations, they bemoaned the fact that nearly half of all men who come out of treatment call themselves “recovering Catholics,” meaning they no longer practice their faith.

Murray was once one of them, and it took very little discussion for him and Father Fleming to agree to start working on, back in 2011, what they believe is the only overtly Catholic sober home in the country.

The first one, called St. Michael House, filled to capacity (12 men) so fast that they instantly recognized the need for a second one, which they opened last fall — St. Gabriel House (11 men). The homes are for men 40 and older, and offer a faith-filled environment, including prayer, spiritual counseling and even Masses held on site. But, no one is required to embrace Catholicism.

The two men don’t think they’re finished yet. Plans for a third sober house are under way, and Father Fleming, for one, has no doubts that Murray, who has a business background that includes sales and executive positions all the way up to CEO, will be able to solicit enough cash donations to make it happen.

Once again, Father’s wry sense of humor emerged when he was asked to assess Murray’s fund-raising acumen.

“He’s the best moocher in captivity,” Father Fleming joked. “Put your hand in your wallet when he comes in the door.”

But, without hesitation, Father Fleming was quick to offset the light-hearted razzing with some serious praise for the man he mentored for two years at Bethany Village.

“He’s got boundless energy, and he’s gifted and he’s sincere,” Father Fleming said. “He’s really the brains of this place. And, he’s a good CEO.”

As much as Father Fleming downplays his own role, his spiritual guidance  and pastoral strength form the backbone of Trinity Sober Homes. Three decades of work as a military chaplain, including a tour in Vietnam, plus just as many years helping those struggling with substance abuse, well qualify him to lead an effort to extend the Church’s social justice mission to the lives of those who have lost their way.

And, on top of all that, he was the first archdiocesan director of evangelization back in the early 1990s. He was appointed by Archbishop John Roach shortly after he retired from his military service.

How does he think evangelization should work?

“You have to be careful that you don’t mess up the centrality of the Jesus event,” he said. “You have to put that first.”

What does that look like? Murray has the answer. It’s a simple slogan he has seen his mentor put into practice every day at Bethany Village, and taught him to do at Trinity Sober Homes.

The succinct summary of Father Fleming’s heartfelt ministry to those trying to break free from addiction fell on Murray’s ears one day not long after he arrived at Father’s doorstep.

Father Fleming was trying to draw his new resident back to the Church, but Murray was reluctant.

“Well before the Church was on this theme of trying to bring Catholics back home, he really encouraged me to reconnect with the Church,” Murray said. “And frankly, I said, ‘Father, I’ve committed probably every sin that’s out there. I don’t feel worthy, and I certainly don’t feel like I would be accepted back into the Church.’ Without blinking an eye, he just leaned over and gently touched my forearm and said, ‘Tim, the Church is a hospital for sinners, it’s not a museum for saints.’”

That won him over.

Similarly captivated by Father Fleming’s genuine faith and charm was a key Trinity fundraiser, Marty Dehen, whose first name was chosen in honor of Father Fleming. Leon Dehen, Marty’s father, roomed with Father Fleming at Nazareth Hall, a former Catholic boarding school in Roseville, and the two developed a strong friendship.

Though Marty Dehen had seen Father Fleming’s picture on his father’s dresser during his childhood, he did not meet Father Fleming until recently when Murray called to ask if Dehen would help with fundraising for Trinity Sober Homes. Dehen agreed, provided he could finally meet the man he was named after.

That meeting took place, and Dehen has been raising money for Trinity ever since. He has come to realize that, with Father Fleming’s encouragement and presence, many men who have let alcohol destroy their Catholic faith can reclaim it at Trinity Sober Homes.

“You talk to people who are living in a car. Tim Murray lived in a car,” said Dehen, 61 and a parishioner at Holy Name of Jesus in Wayzata. “You talk to people who’ve lost everything, all because of alcohol. But, the one thing they didn’t lose, they were still Catholic, even though they’re broke, even though they’re living in a car. There’s still something there. And, it’s a treasure — it’s buried treasure. Father helps these guys discover their treasure . . . and helps them build up the cathedral that each of us can be if we really embrace Catholicism.”

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  • Jane

    What a wonderful, wonderful priest to help these men in this way!!! He deserves to be honored for all he’s done and continues to do. Just so selfless and doing exactly what Jesus would want him to do. God Bless Father Fleming and may he enjoy many more years!

  • James

    Great job Chaplain Martin Michael Patrick Fleming, Tim Murray and Marty Dehen, Your mission and vision to continue to grow is nothing short of a miracle. Keep it up….