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Priest of the Party Circuit : Fund-Raising Father Chase Uses His Ins With High Society to Help the Down and Out on Skid Row

November 20, 1987|JEANNINE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

Father Maurice Chase calls the cramped, two-room apartment, an annex of the chapel at Notre Dame Academy, his home. His desk is littered with papers and sheets of postage stamps, and on a small table he has neatly arranged a plate of cookies for a visitor.

The walls are covered with snapshots, haphazardly stuck on the wall with Scotch tape, of himself with Gov. George Deukmejian, actresses Loretta Young and Irene Dunne, former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr. Chase considers most of those pictured to be friends.

For it is among the rich and famous that he spends much of his time as fund-raiser for and special assistant to the president of Loyola Marymount University. His frequent appearances on the Los Angeles party circuit have earned him the not-altogether-admiring tag of "The Society Priest." His name routinely creeps into local society columns; his face regularly smiles out from photos alongside Hollywood celebrities.

To some, his careful cultivation of the canape crowd smacks of star-gazing that is, at the least, undignified for a priest. Others are less charitable, calling him a blatant self-promoter.

"Some people think a priest shouldn't be out in society," he says. "And I'm often kind of hurt by that because those people can't see my heart. They see me superficially, and think I'm only out there trying to butter people up. And they really don't want an answer. They really don't want to hear that I spend hours each day praying."

The furrows in his brow disappear and he smiles broadly. "That's why it's so wonderful that only God can see our hearts."

This morning he is not headed for another society outing, but for Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. This is his other milieu, for if he is well-known among members of the Reagan "Kitchen Cabinet," he is also a familiar face to the down and outers at the missions.

On Sundays he can be found at the Midnight Mission and the Union Rescue Mission with $1,000 in crisp dollar bills, donated by friends and fresh from Bank of America, stashed in the pockets of his cuffed black trousers. He doles them out to most anyone he encounters and doesn't really care what they're used for. "Some will use them for a drink," he says with a shrug. "That's OK."

To Chase, there is no great division between his two worlds, no great gap between the Skid Row drug addicts and the wealthy party-goers.

Everyone Has Heartaches

"You think people that are famous have everything," he says, "but they're hungry for all kinds of love and needs. I used to think that those people always lived in another world. But they have their heartaches, and I discovered that I can minister to people whether they're on Skid Row or the wealthiest people in the world.

"Before I go out to a (society) dinner, I go into the chapel and kneel down and ask God to help me listen good tonight. . . . You know, I'd have more fun staying home and having my own little meal, watching TV or reading. I'd like to think that as a priest I'm trying to help people. I believe that as human beings we're all aching and hurting; we're all wounded."

At Loyola Marymount, he acts as a public relations liaison and drums up funds for scholarships. He also recruits people to the school's fine-arts council. The friends who know of his work at the missions routinely donate hundreds of dollars.

"I do feel this is my niche," he says. "It's not other priests', but it's mine."

Chase drives to Skid Row, starting at the Midnight Mission where men are lining up for lunch. He approaches a few familiar faces, shaking hands, handing out a dollar, asking how things are.

"You got a job?" he says to one man. "That's great. Well, congratulations." Out comes the dollar.

"Everybody knows Father," says a man. "Nobody messes with him. He does this 'cause it comes from his heart. The men don't just come to him for dollars. They can use it, sure, but he's a good guy."

"He puts a lot of confidence in people," says Milton Enoex. "He gives you encouragement. He gives me something to think about."

"A dollar is like a trophy sometimes," says another man who sits on rolled-up bedding.

The priest spots a young woman walking down an alley with her young son in tow. "Here's someone I see all the time," he says. He talks to her, asks if she has a place to stay. Before the woman gets a chance to answer, he pulls out a weathered black wallet and hands her a $100 bill.

She stares at it unbelieving, thanks him, hugs him and continues down the alley.

"It's the children," he says. "I just worry about the children."

Sleeping on Chairs

He suggests going to the Union Rescue Mission a few blocks away to show how the men there sleep at night, sitting up on folding chairs. He pauses to talk to a few, but his money is gone, more than $300 spent at the Midnight Mission.

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