Father Douglas McKay buries too many bodies.
He received a call after mass on an October morning. It was regarding a 52-year-old woman; she passed unexpectedly in her sleep. As a priest in his home parish, not all the bodies McKay blesses pass so peacefully.
“My brother Anthony died in a crack house when he was only 30,” McKay said. “I bless bodies of young kids, bodies hanging from rafters, from overdoses. There’s just so many drugs right now.”
In a city where alcohol abuse tallies 36.8% of treatment center admissions, followed by heroin at 22.7%, McKay fills a spiritual void to those suffering from addiction in the Grays Ferry neighborhood. He founded Our House Ministries in 1997 to give recovering addicts housing security while striving for sobriety.
McKay considers it critical work in a community atrophied by addiction. He himself heard the call to God’s work in a bar.
“I was 19-years-old. I had just had a fight and was sitting on a stool with a bloody nose, drinking with my friends, and asked myself, is this where I want to be in 30 years?” McKay said.
Working nights as a janitor and taking day classes at the now-closed Lincoln Preparatory School, a young McKay took a second try at high school after an ineffective first tenure. McKay said after his first graduation he remained illiterate.
From Lincoln, he commenced as valedictorian. McKay went on to graduate from the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Lower Marion to become a priest in 1982.
Our House Ministries owns five properties across the street from St. Gabriel’s Parish on 29th and Dickinson that act as the ministry’s recovery homes for individuals suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.
A small number of residents normally inhabit the Matt Talbot homes, named after the patron saint of men and women struggling with alcoholism. The apartments are free-of-charge while securing stable work and long-term sustainable housing.
The properties, however, have sat empty for about a year.
“The city Licenses and Inspections sent us an order that we had to cease and desist,” McKay said. “There were two guys that were dying in our homes; we couldn’t put them on the street. We kind of had to break the law to have a greater law of love until we found places for them.”
With help from alternative recovery homes and shelters, all ministry residents were housed within a matter of months. McKay said the order was issued in response to a neighbor complaint, and successful due to a long-standing breach in the wall between the Talbot homes.
In a recent Oct. 11 open forum zoning meeting, over 100 neighborhood residents came to support Our House Ministries, echoing support from the city’s second district councilman Kenyatta Johnson and demonstrating McKay’s long tenure of respect and credibility in the community.
Kathy Diering is a pious woman with a soft voice. At 62, she is a third-order Franciscan born and raised in Grays Ferry. She first fell into an addiction to alcohol and diet pills in the late 1980s that quickly progressed to pot and intravenous methadone injections.
Her struggle with recovery came at the cost of her marriage and through it she has felt the pain of losing two children, one to suicide and another to an overdose.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get through it if Father Doug wasn’t there,” Diering said. “He’ll come to you right at the level you’re at. He makes you feel like your problems are his. Nobody else had that patience or time to be present.”
Our House Ministries President Ken Johnston called McKay a “holy man,” and is not alone in his acumen. Now 25 years sober, Johnston paired with McKay to run the Grays Ferry chapter of Calix, a Catholic supplement for those enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous who wish to speak openly about their religious faith.
Johnston met McKay in 2008 to bring him into the fold as a spiritual guide to speak with authority on the teachings of the catholic faith.
“Everyone knows who he [McKay] is,” Johnston said. “They all ask him for a blessing. Some of those asking for blessings will be high on heroin, they’ll be drunk, but they all recognize him from growing up in the neighborhood. He has that recognition.”
The ministry offers financial assistance for members of the church community to aid with high school and college tuition, and helping families pay their bills to avoid eviction from their homes.
“It’s not just recovery work, but community work,” McKay said. “Throughout the years there have been so many blessings. God keeps sending the donations so that we are able to help so many families and so many people.”
On Nov. 1, the Grays Ferry Zoning Board will hear a plea from McKay, Johnston, and other supporters of Our House Ministries to resume their work in housing addicts in recovery.
With the challenges of the cease and desist letter addressed, all McKay needs is a little faith.
-Text, images and video by Brianna Spause and Maggie Andresen