Checking out a bulletin board in the rear of St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee one day some 30 years ago, Dennis Manders saw a notice that would have a profound effect on his life. It was a brief announcement about Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and it summarized the work of this agency of the Vatican based in New York. He was impressed with the scope of CNEWA’s outreach to the churches in the Holy Land, Ethiopia and India. He took down the address and promised himself that he would write for more information.
The fact that he followed through on his promise would leave an indelible mark on at least 40 men and women whose lives would be changed by this unassuming man.
Looking over the packet of material he received from CNEWA, Mr. Manders saw that the greatest need of the church in these countries was to train its own young men and women to become priests and religious. By relying on nationals rather than “importing” missionaries, the roots of the faith would grow deeper. Mr. Manders readily responded by sending his first contribution toward the education of seminarians.
Mr. Manders credits his parents, who are both deceased, with giving him and his sister a firm foundation in the Catholic faith. The children attended parochial grade school in Milwaukee, and his sister joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1948.
While he himself did not don the habit, Mr. Manders has in other ways given his life to serving the church. For the past 38 years, he has worked at the main post office in Milwaukee. He began working there in the 1960’s, when much of the processing of mail was done by hand. Today, “the system is fully automated,” he says, and he has been a part of this evolution.
During the busy season, such as at Christmas and around holidays, it is not unusual for him to work a 12-hour day seven days a week. When there is a hiring freeze, he is often called in to work extra hours. He has never had a sick day, and he is grateful for his good health.
His usual shift begins at 4 a.m. and, because the transit system in Milwaukee shuts down at night, he walks to work, though he does admit to living about a mile from the post office. He does not own a car.
And what does he do with all the overtime pay? Years ago he decided to donate this money to serving others. CNEWA has been the main recipient of his generosity. He has not kept a record of the number of men and women who are now priests and religious because of his monetary gifts, but he estimates the number “at about 40.”
Mr. Manders is unmarried and “lives modestly,” he says. He considers the cathedral his parish, and while the church has been undergoing renovation, he has been attending Mass in the gymnasium of the old school. He sees his friends spending money on late-model cars, SUVs, expensive boats and trips to Las Vegas. “That’s O.K. for them,” he says, “if that’s what they want.” He, on the other hand, is happy supporting the church abroad. “I like to help those who are helping others,” he says.
An institution that has benefited from Mr. Manders’ generosity is St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Seminary in Trivandrum in southern India. In 1995, his gift helped construct the seminary chapel. A valued possession is a letter from the former rector, Father Varghese Ottathengil, thanking him for his donation. Father Varghese is now Bishop of Battery in Kerala, India.
He has also sponsored other programs through CNEWA. No doubt prompted by warm memories of his own Catholic elementary school education, he has been a generous donor to the schools in India. Altogether, he estimates that he has helped educate about 1,000 poor children there.
Unlike some donors who want to visit the countries to see what their contributions have accomplished, Mr. Manders has no desire to make such a trip. He is content to let his money “work for the missions.” He enjoys the thank-you letters the recipients of his generosity send, particularly when they enclose photographs of completed projects.
It was one such photograph that prompted an unusual outpouring of generosity on his part. Mr. Manders was sent a photograph of a group of children who posed in front of the school he had helped build. They were all smiling at the camera. Then he noticed that the children were barefoot. He not only arranged with CNEWA to supply the children with shoes, but he decided to buy shoes for the entire village.
On a recent trip to India, Thomas Varghese, CNEWA’s Project Director, brought back samples of the shoes. To help the local economy, the job of making the shoes was spread among several manufacturers in the area.
Aside from working through CNEWA, Mr. Manders has also assisted seminarians and missionaries in the Philippines and in Ecuador. He also finds time to volunteer on the annual Catholic Stewardship Appeal, the main fund-raiser for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee headed by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B.
Working long hours so he can perform outstanding works of charity would seem to leave little free time for Mr. Manders. When prodded about what else he does with his free time, he mentioned that he is a member of a bowling league and that he roots for the Green Bay Packers.
Building schools, seminaries and chapels would seem to be the province of the wealthy. But persons like Dennis Manders show that spreading the faith and supporting the missions can also be the work of the average person with a desire to spread the faith and change the world.