Blessed Peter was an orphan at age nine, left to the charity of the city of Vallendar in Koblenz (Rhineland, Germany). A kindly woman took him in, but had not the money to send him to elementary school. Instead, he followed his brother Jacob in the chimney sweep trade, eventually working his way up to master. Passionate about his religion, he used to sing hymns from the rooftops, encouraging boys in the streets to sing along with him.
At age 26, he stayed briefly at a Redemptionist house in Holland. He might have accepted monastic life then, but Jacob died, leaving a wife and ten children. So in 1845, he replaced his brother as the official town chimney sweep of Ahrweiler. But chimney sweeps need hobbies too, so he continued his street mission with the town boys. In his beatification homily, Blessed Pope John Paul II spoke not only of Peter's evolving vocation, but also of hiscourage in the face of declining health. Nothing like a daily lungful of soot to reassure you that your retirement funds won't give out before you do.
|FMMA: rollin' deeper than numbers|
By 1848, he had been granted a house to use as an infirmary. The following year, the Bishop of Trier asked him to try to revive the Order of Celli, a brotherhood of religious nurses. It had been a well established Order, but had lapsed during the Napoleonic occupation. Peter found the old Rule a little stodgy, I guess. He told the Bishop he wanted "new fire, new spirit, new momentum." So instead of reviving an old Order, he founded the Brothers of Mercy of Mary Help of Christians. Branding experts today might fault such a cumbersome name -- it's hardly better in Latin: Fratrum Misericordae Maria Auxiliatrice, but the abbreviation FMMA might pass Madison Avenue.
The FMMA spread in western Europe and eastern Asia. In the 1960s, it had about 800 members, but today it has dwindled to about 100. Hans Christen Anderson and Charles Dickens might well have had a protagonist like Blessed Peter: an orphan who works to support his late brother's children, a chimney sweep who desires a new spiritual fire, a vivacious man who meets an early death. Sometimes it is nice to find these folks in the pages of non-fiction, or better still in our own communities, rather than in novels.