From The New York Times: 

The young priest, always something of a misfit, chose an unconventional spot to start his preschool: a former pigsty near a slaughterhouse in one of Bangkok’s poorest neighborhoods.

For a fee of a penny or two a day, the Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Joseph H. Maier, took in children from the most destitute families, teaching them to spell their names in Thai script and feeding them what was often their only meal of the day.

He also lived nearby, his neighbors the castoffs in Thailand’s capital: butchers, scavengers, street vendors, professional beggars, thieves and prostitutes. Wooden planks formed walkways over the neighborhood’s muddy ground, which turned into polluted swamps during the rainy season.

Fifty years later, Father Joe, as the American priest came to be known by his neighbors, is still there, ministering to the residents of what remains one of the Thai capital’s poorest neighborhoods as Bangkok has transformed itself into a modern metropolis.

He initially came to the neighborhood, Klong Toey, as a sort of exile, he said, shunned by the church because of his boorish behavior.

“Nobody wanted me around,” he said in a recent interview. “I was drunk; I was always angry about something, an angry young man. I didn’t fit in.”

But in Klong Toey, Father Joe, now 82, found his place in the world, an outcast among outcasts.

That tiny, threadbare preschool was only the beginning of Father Joe’s life’s work as a socially engaged priest, as interested in people’s material well-being as in their spiritual growth.

In the years that followed, he started the Human Development Foundation and its related Mercy Center. The foundation has grown to include a network of more than 30 schools that have taught more than 30,000 children; a home for abandoned mothers and children; and an AIDS hospice that evolved into a home care system…

… But even now, Father Joe said, after gaining international recognition, a master’s degree in human settlements, two honorary Ph.D.s, honorary citizenship of Bangkok and a lifetime achievement award presented by Queen Sirikit of Thailand, the queen mother, he still has not shaken off his feeling of not belonging.

“I’ve always been an outsider, always on the margins,” he said. “I’ve always been, as the Irish say, ‘walking on the edges of the tin’” — on the periphery of society, as he explained it.

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