He’d say: “Thanks for coming everyone. It means a lot that we do this, week after week. We could be doing so many other things on a Sunday evening, but we choose to be here, we choose to do this. So, just as we have found the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, let us now find the Real Presence of Christ in our homeless brothers and sisters.”
Honoring the Life and Legacy of Jim Skerl

By Fr. Raymond Guiao, SJ

In the cover story, Fr. Ray Guiao, SJ, celebrates the life and legacy of his former theology teacher and colleague, Mr. Jim Skerl, who taught at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland for 37 years. As Fr. Guiao prepares for his new role this fall as Saint Ignatius’s 26th president, he remains grateful for Jim Skerl, who died at age 58 of pancreatic cancer on October 23, 2014—exactly 523 years after Ignatius of Loyola was born.

I spent a lot of years in my Jesuit formation studying graduate theology to prepare for priesthood. All that study also prepared me to teach theology at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland alongside Jim Skerl, who deeply inspired me when I was a student at the school. A product of Jesuit education (Gesu School, Saint Ignatius High School, and John Carroll University ’78), Skerl embraced the Jesuit ideals of forming men and women for others and serving where the need is greatest.  

Jim was a master theology teacher, inspiring and transforming countless students, with the gospels as his textbook and his lived example as his method. He taught Eucharistic theology, especially the theology of the Real Presence of Christ, as clearly as I have ever seen. Not in the classroom, mind you, but in the school cafeteria kitchen, school chapel, and city streets of Cleveland every Sunday evening in the St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry to the Homeless. “Labre,” as the students call it, was the brain child of Jim Skerl as a way to make the Corporal Works of Mercy come alive by sharing food, faith, and friendship with the homeless poor of Cleveland. 

Students “doing Labre”—some regulars, some occasionals, and some first-timers—gather in the school’s cafeteria kitchen every Sunday evening, roll up their sleeves, and get down to the business of making sandwiches and stocking essentials, such as hygiene kits,

Saint Ignatius’s Labre Ministry serves Cleveland’s homeless on Sunday evenings. Jim Skerl (far right) helped found and lead Labre for 12 years.
into the back of school vans that journey on established routes through the city to reach out to those in need. Since 2003, thousands of students have delivered food and comfort to nearly 90 homeless people each week.

It’s an upbeat vibe at the school kitchen prep counter, the sandwich assembly line humming away with bread bag openers, peanut butter and jelly spreaders, and the wrappers and baggers. Ignatius students (and sometimes their girlfriends, too) dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies, spinning tale after teenage tale about their weekend exploits as their hands stay busy with sandwich assembly. 

At the kitchen stove, another group of students hover over giant stock pots filled with instant hot chocolate heating up before it’s all poured into plastic beverage urns. Just outside the kitchen, students form a bucket brigade to load the coolers full of sandwiches; vats brimming with hot chocolate; and sacks of travel-size soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and even flashlights, spare batteries, and donated blankets, pillows, and clothing.  

Once the vans are loaded, the teens shuffle off to the school chapel, chatting away until they reach the Blessed Sacrament alcove, where, without a cue, they fall to their knees for 10 minutes of silent prayer. One of the students lights the six candles flanking the tabernacle on the antique carved wooden altar. 

Until the very end of his life, Jim Skerl—still looking like the basketball player that he was—would stand next to the altar before everyone piled into the vans to break bread with their homeless friends. A broad smile would spread across his face, and, in a warm, hushed tone, he’d say: “Thanks for coming everyone. It means a lot that we do this, week after week. We could be doing so many other things on a Sunday evening, but we choose to be here, we choose to do this. So, just as we have found the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, let us now find the Real Presence of Christ in our homeless brothers and sisters.” 

And with that simple statement, Jim Skerl taught his students the deepest truth about the Real Presence of Christ. And in chorus, the teens would respond with the Labre Ministry mantra: “Poor in the eyes of men, but rich in the eyes of God! St. Joseph Labre, pray for us.”

But Jim Skerl’s reach didn’t end with teaching his students to feed and befriend the homeless. For years, Jim was friend to the mentally and physically disabled residents of Cleveland’s L’Arche Community. On a regular basis, Jim would introduce his students to his L’Arche friends to whom he was so devoted.  

Even the dead had a special place in Jim Skerl’s heart. In 2002 he started the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry. Through the years, Jim would train hundreds of Saint Ignatius upperclassmen to serve as pallbearers and ministers of consolation at the funerals of Clevelanders who had little to no means or mourners at their funerals. Like the Labre Ministry, the Arimathea Ministry is a quiet service, one that attracts little or no attention. Yet hundreds of upperclassmen participate each school year. There was nothing glamorous about what Jim Skerl taught his students about living Christ’s love, but to them, there’s everything cool about living it, about being a part of it. 

Jim was waked in the school chapel, his simple pine box coffin lying in state, just yards away from the tabernacle where he and his students would silently fall to their knees to pray on Sunday evenings before serving where the need is greatest. And for hours at his wake, I listened and watched as hundreds of people—students, alumni, colleagues, friends, family—poured into the chapel to linger over cherished memories of a man who let his example of Christian love for society’s last and least do the teaching.

I once had a theology professor in seminary pose a question to us in a Eucharistic theology class: “What good is the transformation of bread and wine on the altar into the Body and Blood of Christ if we, the faithful standing around the altar, are not similarly transformed, too?” It was only years later, by “doing Labre” with a bunch of Jim Skerl’s students, that I finally got what my professor was asking. No one taught—indeed, no one transformed—students the way Jim Skerl did. I know. I was blessed to be transformed by Jim Skerl. 

Fr. Ray Guiao, SJ, is the provincial assistant for formation for the Midwest Jesuits. In fall 2015 he will become the president of his alma mater, Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland.

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