“It was an accident, literally and metaphorically,” says the Jesuit priest. “It started in 1994 when I gave a talk about service to the seniors at St. John’s,” the high school for boys in Toledo where he was then president. “In it, I said service to the poor is the most important and the most pressing” need for Christians to address. “Afterwards they said, ‘Lead us by example. Show us how!’ And I said, ‘Oh, no! Now the onus is on me.’”
Vettese (his name rhymes with “release”) is sixty-one, and his round face and silver hair give him a deceptively tranquil appearance. Only his keen eyes hint at the energy that prompts his longtime boss to call him a “spiritual entrepreneur.”
“I invited them [St. John’s students] to come with me and see third-world poverty firsthand,” Vettese recalls in an interview in his office on Ashley Street. “I arranged for a summer service in Guatemala City for four kids to visit an orphanage called Boys Hope,” one of a series of orphanages Vettese had helped found and administer in the 1980s.
“The plan was that we’d be living with friends and travel to the orphanage every day to do work—to paint, repair, and so on. And one day on our way to the orphanage there was an accident, and the traffic had to be rerouted through the city’s garbage dump.