Rubin: Inside the Capuchin closets, and a $1.25m donor

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Michael Schodowski is a wonderful guy —not that he would ever tell you so — who has raised $1.25 million for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

Me? I just want to know about the robes.

Schodowski, 54, puts on an annual event called Benefit on the Bay that drew 650 people to MacRay Harbor in Harrison Township last month. Beyond that, he and his brothers donate 10 percent of the annual profits from their second-generation shelving business to the Capuchins.

“Many hands make a light load,” he says, which is his way of deflecting credit to the event committee. “I don’t want to beat my chest or anything.”

He’s being too modest, but that’s fine — because I want to know about the robes.

Find a friar from Detroit’s Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph at an event like Benefit on the Bay, and you will find him in a brown-hooded robe with a white cord.

It’s a distinctive look for an order than does distinctly kind things, among them feeding throngs of hungry people every day.

Years ago, at a charity banquet where most of the men were wearing neckties, I stood in my Hawaiian shirt and sportcoat before dinner talking to a friar. We agreed that everyone else was sorely, and uncomfortably, overdressed.

That set me to wondering about a Capuchin friar’s closet. Do you swing open the doors and find nothing but eight brown robes on hangers next to a rack of ropes?

Thanks to Schodowski, I had an excuse to find out.

“We call them habits,” says Dan Crosby, 77, “and most of us have two.”

Dazzling the Amish

There is nothing Biblically significant about the number, though it has deep roots.

“It goes all the way back to St. Francis,” Crosby says. “When you’re washing one, you have to be wearing something else.

“Otherwise, you don’t want to be watching the guy who’s doing the washing.”

When Crosby joined the order 59 years ago, the robes were wool and heavy, and they constituted a brother’s entire wardrobe. Also, the friars wore beards, assuming they were old enough to grow one.

Now they’re lighter weight — the habits, not necessarily the friars — and the newer, fresher one is saved for Sundays.

They’re custom made back east someplace, Crosby says, possibly New Jersey, and they’ll last a good decade. The province pays for them, so he’s not sure of the price, “though I’m sure they’re not cheap.”

The friars wear them for daily mass and prayers, and they’ll don them if they’re doing something official in public, even if it’s somewhere as familiar as the soup kitchen.

Around the residence, or at dinner with family, “you wear regular clothes, so you aren’t a spectacle to everybody.”

At a long-ago posting in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Crosby encountered an Amish gentleman and his daughter on the street. He and the other man both gawked, and when Crosby turned for another look, he saw the man stealing a second glance at him.

“I’m sure we both went home,” he says, “and told everyone, ‘You never will guess what I saw this afternoon.’ ”

Deflecting credit

At the Benefit on the Bay, Schodowski wore a natty orange pocket square.

He was introduced to the Capuchins 31 years ago by an older friend from karate class. He was struck by their humility, generosity and warmth — “They treat everybody as human beings, with dignity” — and immediately began volunteering.

The benefit started in 1993 with pizza, half a keg of beer and an AM/FM radio. It raised $1,400. Last month’s somewhat more elaborate affair included a raffle for a donated 1953 Ford that raised $30,000 of the $150,000 total.

Sponsors, including the Schodowski family’s Shelving Inc., cover all expenses. Every dollar that comes in goes to the soup kitchen.

Gerry Brisson, president of Gleaners Community Food Bank, was the fundraising director for the soup kitchen when Schodowski put on his first half dozen events.

“He’s just a genuine guy,” Brisson says. “He likes this, he feels good about it and he does it.”

Schodowski, typically, will tell you he’s just the point man for his two brothers and his brother-in-law, all executives with the company.

“I guess you could say we’re are all cut from the same cloth,” he says — even if it isn’t a brown robe.