By Soaking a Few Rich Friends, a Hollywood Priest Takes Up Alms Against a Sea of Troubles

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

If you saw him only at the private parties, rubbing elbows with Betsy Bloomingdale and other swells, or among such movie aristocrats as Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, you might be inclined to dismiss Father Maurice Chase as one more frivolous "society priest."

But catch him on Sunday morning as he picks his way through the cardboard shelters on Los Angeles' skid row. Watch him discreetly tuck dollar bills into the bruised, sore hands of the suffering derelicts, and you will see that the gift of currency is a sign of concern.

"The man is our saint," says Buck, a middle-aged skid row regular who sleeps in an alley under two burlap bags. "Father Maury cares about us. He cares who we are."

Every Sunday for the past 10 years the priest known as Father Maury has come to the cluttered, crime-ridden streets of central Los Angeles preaching hope and handing out $400 or $500 in crisp new bills—money he has extracted from his society friends. For the 59-year-old diocesan priest, charity begins in some pretty fancy homes.

"I think it's rather wonderful that Father Chase likes to be down there among those people," says Betsy Bloomingdale, Nancy Reagan's close friend, who regularly invites Father Chase to her champagne soirees. "He is personally helping others, so I feel like I'm not just giving my money to a charity." Bob Newhart agrees: "He believes in the hands-on approach to religion, religion in the trenches and not just in some distant ivory tower."

Former California Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown, who claims that "Father Chase goes to more parties than I do," recently sent him a check for $250. "Those people stand in line, sometimes for hours, just to get something to eat," he says. "I figured the least I could do was write him a check."

On a salary of $300 a month, Father Chase depends on such donations for his work on skid row. He draws only brand-new bills from the bank and carries the cash folded in his front pocket. "I give them a present, something brand-new and fresh to let them know that someone truly cares about them," he says. "It's not much, but to them it can seem like a hundred dollars, when they've got nothing left in the world."

One recent Sunday Father Chase rolls up eight single dollar bills for an elderly man with torn shoes. The man silently offers his hand in gratitude, and Father Chase shakes it warmly, ignoring its open, festering wounds. He has long since come to terms with the risks of his ministry. Several years ago an angry, homeless man tried to stab him in the back, and more recently someone tried to hit him over the head with a slab of wood. Each time, the denizens of skid row intervened.

"Don't nobody mess with Father down here. He go wherever he want, and we take care of him," says an unshaven man named Charlie, hitching the piece of rope that holds up his rotting pants. "He on our side."

Slowly Father Chase makes his way around a building where 27 people live in boxes, sleep under bits of yellow plastic or wrapped in urine-stained blankets. After helping a one-legged man into his wheelchair and folding several bills into his hand, he moves on to a woman who has been badly beaten the night before. "Bless me, Father," she pleads, and he does. He also hands her some cash.

"I know that money is just a Band-Aid, but it makes them feel better," he explains. "My real gift, what touches them the most, is my presence and willingness to listen."

He also knows that some of the money will be used to buy liquor. "I don't want them to drink, but look at them," he says. "When you've got nothing, not even a place to sleep at night or to get out of the rain, who's to say that they can't have a drink? Who are we to judge? As long as they're not habitual winos, what does it really matter?" For Father Chase, there has been too much misery witnessed to deny anyone such a small measure of comfort.

In February, he says, he found a dead man on the sidewalk. "He lay there for three days, and no one cared about him. It was the most emotionally upsetting experience I have ever had down here. I keep wondering if he died from discouragement."

Thanks to Father Chase, such concerns are now also shared by his well-heeled patrons. It was Irene Dunne who, 15 years ago, introduced him to Hollywood's A-crowd by inviting him to one of her annual Valentine's Day bashes. The two remain close friends, and the priest still visits her Holmby Hills home on Thanksgiving and other holidays. His famous friends also need him as a priest, he points out, because they "are hungry for love too. They have heartaches no one knows about."

Photos of the priest and his Hollywood benefactors are taped to the walls of his two-room apartment in a middle-class family neighborhood. Seeing himself in the society columns "is fun," admits Father Chase, who is clearly no stranger to paradox. The only son (he has three sisters) of a Dinuba, Calif., judge, he had originally enrolled at UCLA in hopes of becoming a lawyer and had even joined "the snobbiest fraternity" there just to impress a girl. "I wanted a wife and children, a family," he admits. But after attending Mass one day and pondering his future, he concluded, "I just wasn't happy, and suddenly I realized I was being called to be a priest."

He was ordained in 1953 and eventually assigned to a Palm Desert parish where his brushes with the celebrity set who vacationed there began. He met John F. Kennedy, became close friends with President and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and began making regular trips to the San Simeon castle of William Randolph Hearst Jr.

In 1974 Chase became the chaplain at Notre Dame Academy, a Los Angeles elementary and high school where he still serves. Although his party-hopping keeps him up three or four nights each week, he is at the altar conducting 6:30 a.m. Mass every day. His school is integrated, a mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians, and many of the students' families struggle to afford the $1,000 yearly tuition.

As he does on skid row, Father Chase conducts school business in his own special way. At a Mass for the lower grades, he begins by telling the children that there is a $5 bill hidden in the chapel and that the money will belong to the student who guesses its whereabouts (in a nun's pocket). Then he offers dollar bills to the children for correctly answering some questions of theology. "You have to use a gimmick to get their attention," he says. "Some priests do magic tricks. I've been doing this for 10 years in front of a very strict order of nuns, and never once have I gotten any criticism."

Later, on the playground, he is beckoned by a young second grader. "Father, you didn't call on me today, and I knew the right answer," she tells him. "I guess you deserve a prize," answers the priest, flashing a grin and handing her a dollar bill.

It is a long way from skid row, but perhaps the lessons taught with his small incentives will one day be expressed in concern for those less blessed. As far as Father Maurice Chase is concerned, the buck only starts here.

—By Ken Gross, with Angela Blessing in Los Angeles

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