Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Father Mike's Community of Faith: The Life Sentence of Mike Maslowsky

by Zinta Aistars

When Mike Maslowsky was given six months to live, he realized that being a rising star in the corporate world gave little meaning to a man's life.

Published in the Spring 2004 issue of LuxEsto, the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine.

“…what ever you did for the least…you have done for me….”
Matthew 24:45

How to measure a man’s success? How to gauge the value of a man’s life or define the depth of its meaning?

For Mike Maslowsky ’70, a defining moment came in his early 30’s when he was handed a merciless diagnosis in a doctor’s office: prostate cancer, six months to live. Stunned, he looked at what he had built around him, measuring.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, he was educated in the States and the Far East, his family following his Air Force father to Japan, where he finished high school. Maslowsky returned to the States to attend Kalamazoo College, drawn to the College’s focus on diverse global experiences, majoring in history. His law degree came from Northwestern School of Law. He was a congressional speechwriter in Washington D.C., a law clerk of the U.S. District Court for Oregon, then a lawyer for a prestigious firm in Portland. Success was measured by the size of his client base—banks, hospitals, corporations—and in the hours he poured into his office work. He had been a man dedicated to career, recreation, and pleasure.

Maslowsky was not only stunned, he was embarrassed.

“Some questions cannot be left unasked,” Maslowsky says. “I looked at the life I was told I would soon lose, and I saw how self-centered all my achievements had been. What was there to put into an obituary? I was haunted by regrets and shame. I felt,” Maslowsky takes a slow, deep breath, “shallow.”

Maslowsky was overwhelmed with regrets for all the missed opportunities – “to be a good man, to express kindness towards others. No one regrets that they haven’t worked harder.”

And then: a second chance. News reached him of a misdiagnosis. As suddenly as it was handed down to him, the death sentence had been lifted from him. Maslowsky had gotten a wake-up call, and he had no intention of ignoring it. He now understood his mortality, and he began to search for meaning beyond the courtroom.

“I was raised Catholic, but religion had not played an important part in my life. I realized I had to think seriously about my spirituality. I wasn’t sure I believed in God or the church, but it was time for me to search for answers. I won another large case with my firm’s managing partner, and I should have felt wonderful about it, and yet… I didn’t. Something was missing from my life.”

Maslowsky started to attend church services, and he also took time to volunteer in the community.

“The first time I had to help someone different than myself, however,” he says, “I couldn’t do it.” Realizing the limit of his comfort zone only increased Maslowsky’s determination to expand it. It was a time when his education and experiences at Kalamazoo College would become invaluable.

“One of the most important parts of my education at Kalamazoo College was the K-Plan. My study abroad in Germany, career internships working in the government in Washington D.C., another internship in New York working with the disabled, all exposed and challenged me to examine the parameters in my own life, to look for connections with people where I may not have imagined them to be. I learned a healthy respect for our differences but also our commonalties. At this time in my life, I would have to return to what I had been taught as a young man.”

Maslowsky quit the prestigious law firm and traveled to Rome to spend the next four years in a seminary. The respected lawyer once again became the student.

“I went from being one of the youngest and brightest to, at age 35, one of the oldest and least knowledgeable,” Maslowsky smiles.

Some of Maslowsky’s biggest challenges lay ahead. He was ordained in 1987, served two years as associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Salem, Oregon, but then returned to Rome for his doctorate in theology. Back in Oregon, Portland’s then archbishop, William Levada, sent Maslowsky on a mission: assess the St. Anthony Parish, located in one of the poorer sections of the city. Thinking that this parish would have to close, Maslowsky found a basement church with cracked walls and windows, exposed pipes, collapsing ceilings. The property was littered with garbage and discarded tires. The parishioners were few, but passionate about their faith. Impressed with the strength of their faith, Maslowsky determined to not only keep the church open, but to make it thrive.

Although it would take over a decade, the resurgence of St. Anthony’s is nothing short of, well, miraculous. If God helps those who help themselves, Maslowsky knew how to help himself and this parish. Remaining an active member of the Oregon State Bar Association, he would bring his legal and business skills to join with his theology skills to fund, build, and inspire. Together with his parishioners, Maslowsky tapped into his business network, sought financial support from federal tax credits and state guarantees, used his legal expertise in nonprofit housing, and on five acres built a village centered about the church. Today, the St. Anthony Village is a nonprofit, low income housing community with assisted-living units for over a hundred residents, 24 cottages for Alzheimer’s patients, a daycare center for children 4 months to 5 years full to its capacity for 80 children, a series of adjacent gardens, walking paths, a reflection pond, and, at the center of the Village, a new church.

It took $12 million to build the Village. Maslowsky modeled its design after the Italian villages where he studied. European towns were often built around a plaza, and in the plaza, a church. The community came together in the plaza, gathering all generations. At St. Anthony’s Village, where Maslowsky is fondly referred to as Father Mike, the idea is to encourage the connections between individuals as well as between generations.

“No one likes to live in isolation,” Maslowsky says. “The Village is a place that fosters relationships. Here, we focus on the commonalities between us instead of the differences, the hope that we can bring to each other, and the social integration of a community.”

St. Anthony’s Village today has 425 families registered in its church, but the parish operates as a separate entity from the Village. Maslowsky is president of St. Anthony’s Village Enterprises, now with plans for possible similar developments in north Portland, in Corvallis where Oregon State University is located, with a village to include student housing, and in southeast Oregon, providing housing for special needs and young adults with various disabilities and low income housing. Representatives from the archdiocese in Ohio and Georgia are studying the Village as a model for similar villages. About half of the Village residents are Catholic, but church affiliation is not a perquisite for residency. About 80 percent of the residents are on Medicaid.

“Financing has always been difficult,” Maslowsky says. “When the economy is hurting, it affects us as well. But we are a village here, a family, and evicting anyone due to financial problems is not an option.”

When the Oregon Department of Human Services has sent out notices due to budget cuts to Medicaid recipients that their benefits will be cut, St. Anthony’s Village has had to face, and will continue to face, financial challenges. For Maslowsky, he must continually balance being a business man and a parish shepard, bringing out the best of both. Saving the parish once will not be enough; he must continually fight to keep the Village viable.

Maslowsky’s fight for the parish continues, but if he should ever again think himself alone, he has only to step outside of his office and walk one of the paths, towards the center of the Village to the church he helped not only build, but design.

“I’m a frustrated architect,” he admits.

While Maslowsky was the idea man behind the project, the Village church was the first in Oregon history to be designed by a women-owned architectural firm. At approximately $160 per square foot, Nancy Merryman and Diana Moosman built the church to Maslowsky’s specifications, based on the churches he had seen in Italy while drawing on Northwest church architecture for inspiration. The cost was about 25 percent less than a lower-end custom house.

Maslowsky’s wish to have a design similar to hands holding something precious between them resulted in two arcing walls that embrace the congregation while opening to the surroundings. At one end, the walls open to welcome parishioners into a foyer where a simple and elegant sculpture, designed by Maslowsky, centers a baptismal font, illuminated by stained glass windows showing the trinity and the 12 tongues of fire that descended on Christ’s apostles. At the opposite end of the arcing wall are the altar and another stained glass window that spills light and color across the front of the church. A bell tower rises above with one cross that shines towards the busy street just outside the Village, and another cross that shines across the Village.

As he strolls the winding paths of the Village, Maslowsky is Father Mike, greeting everyone he passes, resting a hand on the shoulder of an elderly resident for a moment as he asks about her health, chuckling at a scampering child in the play area of the daycare center, giving direction to a young man working in the gardens, stopping to accept a cookie in the kitchen.

“I used to get irritated as a student at Kalamazoo College at the idea of ‘gracious living,’” he remembers. “But it is perhaps the most important lesson I learned there, if not at that time, a lesson to return to me later in life. I realized life is not about living in comfort, but about rising to the level of the noble, to pursue the good and true , to become richer by the act of giving to others. Life is about the connections we make with other people. Life is about community.”

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