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1/8/2015 1:05:00 PM
Brother cooks up unusual ministry
Brother David
Brother David

Thousands: That's how many children Brother David Parrish, CSC, says he has.

They include students at northeast schools whose cafeterias he managed, Ugandans he touched with mission work, inmates he counseled in county jails in the Albany Diocese, and residents of a homeless shelter, for whom he cooks.

When Brother David thinks about giving advice to young people considering religious life, he talks about sacrificing a life of marriage and children - but, during a half-century as a Holy Cross brother, he has valued his own unconventional "family."

Brother David can still remember what planted the seed for his vocation: the talk a brother gave at his parish in his native Rochester in his junior year of high school.

"All of a sudden, I was hit with the thought, [and] it stayed with me," he told The Evangelist. "I liked the idea of being of service to people. I just kind of felt called.

"My last name was Parrish," he added, "and the kids would kid me: 'You should become a priest!'"

Brother David did talk to the priests at his high school his senior year, but he felt torn between calls to religious life, the police academy and the military.

"[Vietnam] seemed like a just war at the beginning," he remembered. "I was interested in some type of service."

After high school, he sold furniture in a department store and visited different orders of brothers. The vocations director of Congregation of Holy Cross played football at the University of Notre Dame, which the order founded. This was enough for Brother David, a sports fan, to favor them, and he joined the order at the age of 19.

His novitiate lasted a little more than year at St. Joseph's Center in Valatie. At the time, men in formation slaughtered steer, baled hay and cut wheat on a farm. Brother David then studied at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., for two years. While most men in his order earned teaching degrees, he learned to cook - a calling he'd discovered in Valatie.

He professed his final vows in 1971 and cooked in schools in Connecticut and Rochester and a home for troubled youth in Chester, N.Y., for four years. Before he turned 30, he earned a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

Brother David ran a school cafeteria in Wilmington, Del., for 20 years; but in the middle of that, his provincial asked him to go to Africa for a few months to see if he'd be interested in serving there. So he ministered to people in Fort Portal, Uganda, which was so rural that it took 10 hours to travel 115 miles.

On his second day, a black mamba snake greeted the missionaries at a chapel, and a brother who had been stationed there a long time killed it with a machete. This was a bit much for Brother David: "I came back a little scarred by it, [and] disappointed, because I knew in my heart I could never live there."

Back in Delaware, he balanced his cooking with running a school club and coaching baseball and basketball. He had spent a few summers doing jail ministry in the Albany Diocese and switched to that work here for two years.

One day, he got a call from diocesan Catholic Charities, asking him to work at the St. Charles Lwanga Center homeless shelter for men. He did some research and discovered St. Charles was the patron saint of Uganda.

"I said, 'Oh, my God. This is where I'm supposed to be,'" he recalled. "'It wasn't Uganda. It was here.'"

Today, Brother David has been a cook and resident assistant at the 19-bed shelter for a decade. His jail and shelter work have inspired him to go to school for addiction counseling. He struggled with his own gambling addiction for almost 20 years and has been sober eight years; he hosts meetings of recovering gamblers once a week in Valatie.

The Lwanga Center residents inspire the brother.

"I don't know if they give more to me or if I give more to them," he said. "There's so much wisdom. They don't have much, but they can remain happy. They're kind of spiritual. I don't bring it up, but they will. Some guys will ask me to pray for them."

Brother David has always admired his congregation's charism of hospitality and service of people from different walks of life. He believes he would have been a "lifer" no matter what vocation he chose, "but I recently watched a videotape put out by my congregation. It moved me so that I said, 'No wonder I joined the brothers.'"

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