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The Mission-Driven Podcast features conversations with alumni who are leveraging their Holy Cross education to make a meaningful difference in the world around them.  Produced by the Office of Alumni Relations at the College of the Holy Cross.  Learn more at

Dec 10, 2019

Will McAvoy '20 interviews Frank Kartheiser '72 about living the Holy Cross mission through his work in the Worcester community.

Recorded May 8, 2019



Frank:                   I think Men and Women for Others talks about charity and the work of charity, but that can be, that sets up a power dynamic of one over and against the other. Whereas with others recognizes the basic dignity, worth, value of every person, no matter where they're at and that we've got to meet them face to face and that we can do more together than we can do by ourselves.

Maura:                 Welcome to Mission-Driven where we speak with alumni who are leveraging their Holy Cross education to make a meaningful difference in the world around them. I'm your host, Maura Sweeney from the class of 2007, Director of Alumni Career Development at Holy cross. I'm delighted to welcome you to today's show.

Maura:                 This episode we hear from Frank Kartheiser from the class of 1972. Frank received an honorary degree from the college in May, 2019 to celebrate his career devoted to social justice. Among some of his many accomplishments, Frank founded the Mustard Seed, a Catholic worker house in 1972. In 1993, he expanded his focus to found Worcester Interfaith. Its mission is to bring people of all religions together to strengthen communities. Will McAvoy from the class of 2020 speaks with Frank about his time at Holy Cross and how it inspired him to pursue a life devoted to service and social justice within the Worcester community.

Will:                       Thanks for coming today, definitely excited, for sure.

Frank:                   Thank you for doing this.

Will:                       Of course, of course. So first question here. I've read about the wonderful work that you've done and the important organizations that you founded over the years. I would love to hear about your professional journey in your own words. How do you come to your professional role and other involvements?

Frank:                   That's a good question. When I was, when I came, I grew up in Chicago and when I came out here to go to school, big things that were important to me going to college were football and having fun. So I hope you had bigger dreams than I did Will. But it was during the time of the Vietnam war in '68 and I had to grow up in a hurry and the reality of what was going on in the world. I came in here thinking, I'll go into business, four years here and then I'll do that. But I then realized that people in our country who don't look like me get treated differently. And that was a wake up call for me, that was embarrassing and I felt guilty about it, but I think the stronger feeling was how do I give back? What do I have to give back to the community? So that's kind of what moved me into the work I do.

Will:                       Interesting, that's absolutely amazing, I think that's awesome that you're able to do that.

Frank:                   I had to drop out of school to do it. Once I realized what was going on, I couldn't stay here in school. I just needed to be out in the world. So I dropped out and that's when I did some work in the community and then we opened Mustard Seed Catholic Worker house.

Will:                       Very nice. And you got the honorary degree this year, so that's good.

Frank:                   Yes. Yes my family was, because I dropped out, My family was saying, Oh you're finally getting your degree.

Will:                       Hey, its true enough, that's impressive.

Frank:                   Well actually I came back, I did come back in 1987 and I came back for a year, got my diploma in 1988 so I was in a 20 year plan. 68, 88.

Will:                       I've heard the five and six year, now the 20 years.

Frank:                   Well it's college, why rush it?

Will:                       Of course, of course. Enjoy it. So there's another question here. So what mission drives you? In other words, what drives the work that you do?

Frank:                   I think the most important thing for me and I didn't always realize language for this. But when I read about Pope Francis, he's a Jesuit, his talk about encountering the other and what that means and how it moves us. And I think that said to me that reality is more important than ideas. So I was up here and in school and learning about ideas and what to pursue the truth, but what I really need was, cause as a privileged white man I felt like I just wasn't in touch with reality. And so leaving the school and starting to work in the community, that learning to be real.

Frank:                   What that is like, what that's about, that's kind of driven me cause that leads to all kinds of caring for one another.

Will:                       No, I totally agree. And now currently at Holy Cross, there's a lot of students, whether it be in SPUD, community-based learning, spring break immersion, a lot of those students are trying to do the same thing. I guess they're trying to follow in your footsteps in a sense.

Frank:                   Well it's funny you say that. We had the community, SPUD had their community thing with the Donelan Center yesterday and this young woman who was leading it, a woman named Kate, she said, well she told her story a bit and she said, I came here to get into business and then I volunteered at Nativity School and now I head up the student educators and I'm going to teach at Nativity School for the next two years.

Frank:                   So I said to her, wow, that's like my story of how the reality, how being in the world and real moves the mission as you were saying.

Will:                       And I feel like the topic of this podcast, mission-driven, I feel like that's a lot of what the school does, helps form students in a sense and see what's right for them. So I guess on a similar tangent to that, how has Holy Cross's mission influenced your life?

Frank:                   The, when I was here, when I came, when I started here in 68 we didn't really have a mission statement like that. We had an an understanding that it was a good school and work hard at the academics, but it was more this sense of the mission of encountering and being with people, being real. And I think now the mission of Men and Women for Others kind of came up in that period when I was working in the community.

Frank:                   And initially it was Men and Women for Others and now the language is starting to change to get to With Others. And for me, I think that's an important change that's been important to see that happen. I think Men and Women for Others talks about charity and the work of charity. But that can be, that sets up a power dynamic of one over and against the other. Whereas With Others recognizes the basic dignity, worth, value of every person, no matter where they're at. And that we've got to meet them face to face and that we can do more together than we can do by ourselves.

Will:                       So you're saying a sense of solidarity in a sense.

Frank:                   Very good, yeah good word. Yeah, that sense of solidarity.

Will:                       My freshman Montserrat class with professor Ginny Ryan, it was entitled Exploring Differences and Modifying Technologies. And we spoke about this one document called Toxic Charity.

Will:                       Are you familiar with it?

Frank:                   I'm not. But I've read a few different articles and I can't remember it. But it goes to that toxicity.

Will:                       So it was actually, it's interesting you're referencing that, cause that sounds like a pretty parallel story to what I read in toxic charity my freshman year. I still remember it.

Frank:                   Well for me, I dropped out of school and then we opened the Mustard Seed as a way to be more immersed. And what happened was at first it was great and we're sharing food, shelter, clothing, confusion, loneliness. We shared what we had, but then the line got longer and longer and more people started to come and it became toxic in the sense that we weren't there to have a longer line at the soup kitchen.

Frank:                   That's not why we got into this. We were there to care for those folks in a crisis and then work with the institutions in our neighborhood so that people could move out of poverty, move out of that kind of situation. And unfortunately, I don't think we're very good in this country about moving out. Everyone loves charity, the for part doing for others. But this idea of doing with the justice dimension, we struggle with that.

Will:                       I feel that. And the Mustard Seed is, it's still present today, right, in downtown Worcester?

Frank:                   Yes, unfortunately, that goes to the point you were making, unfortunately, what's this, almost 50 years and we still have a soup kitchen in Worcester. We never, when we started it, we never thought this thing would endure. I'm not saying it's bad, I'm saying that's not where the dignity needs to come from, where the dignity can come from.

Frank:                   It needs to come from working with one another around changing systems that honor every person.

Will:                       I totally, I totally agree. It's interesting. So on that same tangent, is there a certain person or experience that inspired you to live out the Jesuit mission after your time at Holy cross, like a professor or mentor that comes to mind?

Frank:                   I was very fortunate Will when I decided to drop out of school to go work in the community, I bumped into professor David O'Brien and I told him I was dropping out and he said, well, where are you going to live? And I said, I don't know. He said, well, would you like to live with Joanne and me and the family? And that's probably one of the greatest things that's happened to me in my life. I had a year, it was like a private tutorial in the Catholic worker movement, community organizing, Catholic social teaching.

Frank:                   So he's been a friend and mentor, both of them, Joanne and David, and they've been tremendous. Also, I learned a lot about babysitting too. They had four little kids, two, four, six and eight at the time. But it was a great opportunity for me and for growing in my faith because faith had kind of gotten a little flat for me because my whole life had caved in. Looking at the world, what was going on, realizing how much privilege I had, but how other people weren't treated the same. And that kind of tore at my, the fabric of my Catholicism and being an American. And so to get these tools from Dave to think about other ways of being in the world that was invaluable for me, still is.

Will:                       That's really cool. And I can also say, I think there's been several professors who have done something like that.

Will:                       They haven't, they haven't taken me into their home and raised me but I have parents for that. But that's awesome that they've done that, for sure. So in regards to your work that you've done in the 40 or so years post your first year of college 50 or so years, what has surprised you most about your work?

Frank:                   I think what continues to surprise me is what little impact I've been able to have, or we've been able to have. Cause there's nothing that I want to do in the world that I can do by myself. Obviously all the things I want to do, I need other people. But we were talking earlier about the college this year dealing with demonstrations and sit ins and a lot of it comes back to race and gender and income inequality. Well that was 68 and 69 it was all those same issues.

Frank:                   And so I guess it's feeling the frustration of that and then the yearning to how do we continue to try to have a deeper impact on what's happening.

Will:                       And when you're saying that, it's like tough to just not make that much of an impact. Have you ever heard like the starfish analogy? When you said that, that immediately came to mind for me. So it's like you see a beach full of starfish and you're just one person on the beach and you're throwing a few starfish in but at least you're making a difference to that one starfish that you can help.

Frank:                   The only thing I don't like about that story, I'd go try to organize a couple of hundred people, so that we could get a couple of hundred in at a time. I'd be a little frustrated by myself one starfish at a time.

Frank:                   That's what moved me from doing the soup kitchen and doing the Catholic Worker Movement. I'm still part of it, but move me to think about community organizing as a tool for justice. Community organizing is the antipoverty tool of the Catholic church. And it has been a tremendous gift to me. It's been a way of life really.

Will:                       And I remember at the Nonprofit Careers Conference this past winter break, I remember you spoke about that. It's about the 30 or so students that were there listening about community organizing and talking about how many of these famous people that we know of, like our former president, president Obama was a former community organizer. So I think that's, that's really impressive that community organizing and being introduced to that field. It's awesome.

Frank:                   And I think we struggle with what it is.

Frank:                   How do we do it better and how do we have these broader impacts. We all know that it takes people, but in this country the wealth dynamic is so out of whack that I think it threatens our democracy where people feel like they can come together and have the impacts that they want and that we need and that wealth. I mean, in other words, everyone knows that my vote is not as important as Bill Gates and how do you deal with that kind of inequality?

Will:                       So another question we have here. In what ways have you faced challenges in incorporating your service work and social justice into your career life?

Frank:                   Say that again.

Will:                       Sure. In what ways have you faced challenges in incorporating your service work and social justice into your career life?

Frank:                   So my career is social justice. I'm not sure how to incorporate it, but I go back to the part about being at the Mustard Seed and when I was at Holy Cross and realized that people who don't look like me don't get treated the same. That was very discouraging and depressing for me and a guilt driven. And then when I was at the Mustard Seed and I saw the line getting longer and things not improving, just things getting work worse for people. That forced me to ask these questions. Why? Why is this happening? Why in the richest country in the world do we need soup kitchen? And those questions why were pushed me into more of the social justice piece. And then I had to figure out, well how do you do it? How do you do this social justice thing? And what came to out of Catholic social teaching was a recognition of community organizing as the key tool. But we got to do a better job than that. We got to do other kinds of ways to put social justice and social change to work.

Will:                       So on a similar tangent, so this is in comparison to college campus and the rest of the society of the world. So like on a college campus there is a clear cut way to bring up a new idea and certain channels exist to help implement these new programs or initiatives, in the workplace that may be a different story or basically in society. For example, for you in the Worcester society, do you have any experience of bringing up a new initiative? And how did you successfully do that?

Frank:                   That was my job to bring up new initiatives and the dynamic is a power dynamic, right? And so I needed to build power. That's how you bring up new ideas. New ideas don't come out of the mind. When I was saying that before about Pope Francis talking about reality is more important than ideas. There's a ton of great ideas and ton of great things to do. But if you don't bring people together who have the muscle to put their values into action on these new ideas, the best idea in the world is going nowhere. Does that make sense?

Will:                       Completely.

Frank:                   And so when we're doing for people, the power dynamic is almost power over. The organizing dynamic is power with. So how do we come together, make the kind of compromise, get political and make the compromises that we need to make in order to raise not the best idea, but an idea that the broadest number of people can get behind to move things forward.

Frank:                   Now some people argue that a camel is a horse made by a committee. And people hate meetings and, but I'm with Martin Buber, Martin Buber, everything is about meeting. Everything. And that's Pope Francis: encounter. And I'm not in a way to manipulate the other into doing you, what you want. I wouldn't, I'm such a whore for power. I would manipulate people. I just can't do it. It doesn't work. Or you could guilt guilt them. But unfortunately I'm Catholic, so I know the power of guilt, but it doesn't work. What works is respecting the other person and their interests and then sharing your interests and carving out opportunities for joint action. To me, that's a good idea. You see what I'm getting at?  I don't care what, I don't care what the idea is so much. What I care is that in this we have the opportunity to develop the relationships that we need to have enough trust so that we can hang together in the hard times to see that idea through to the end.

Frank:                   Does that make sense?

Will:                       No, completely.

Frank:                   Trust in our communities is shattered. We talked about Barack as a organizer. What Barack said, the problem in the inner city isn't a lack of solutions. It's a lack of power to put those solutions to work and the reason there's a lack of power in many of our inner cities is what Barack called chronic isolation. Chronic isolation, that's the definition of powerlessness. So how do we build power? Power doesn't mean you get what you want. Power means you get a seat at the table where decisions are being made about your life, about who you are, about your family, about your neighbors. The line. I don't know if you've heard this Will they say, well, if you're not on the, if you're not at the table then you're probably on the menu.

Will:                       That's tough, no it is tough.

Will:                       Yeah, it does make sense. Yeah, interesting, that's a good analogy. So in regards to balancing your home life and then also your career working in the Worcester community, how are you able to balance everything? And in regards to the students who are going to be listening to this, what would advice would you give them in regards to that?

Frank:                   I think love, love balances everything. There's a great line from attributed to, Arrupe.

Will:                       Father Pedro Arrupe?

Frank:                   Pedro Arrupe.

Will:                       The Superior General of the Jesuits.

Frank:                   Have you heard this, I don't know if you've heard it. It's like nothing is more practical than finding God. And he goes through, but at the end he says, "fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything". And I think, I think that's the tool, so the love helps decide everything and fall in love and stay in love. It's not, I'm not saying it's easy, but I think that's what's exciting to me. You know what I mean? That's what gets me up in the morning.

Will:                       So now it's time for the infamous speed round that you've been hearing. So this is just a list, we've got several quick questions for quick responses here. Nothing too fancy, I promise.

Frank:                   All right.

Will:                       You ready?

Frank:                   Yep.

Will:                       Okay, what was your favorite dorm on campus?

Frank:                   Wheeler.

Will:                       Wheeler, okay, Wheeler's doing well right now up near the field house in the construction.

Frank:                   Yes, I was an RA in Wheeler.

Will:                       Oh you're an RA in Wheeler, very nice. What floor?

Frank:                   One, two, I think, no, that was my first one. It must've been the third floor.

Will:                       Third floor, okay, my friends, my really close friends that I live with now, I remember my first year there on the second floor. We were always on the second floor just hanging out, watching football games.

Frank:                   Well, freshman year and my room number at Wheeler was one, no sophomore year I was, sophomore year I was in one, two, three.

Will:                       That's pretty easy to remember.

Frank:                   So that was the first floor, but then my roommate and I got to be RAs. I think it was the third.

Will:                       Very nice.

Frank:                   But then I dropped out.

Will:                       Yeah, yeah and then the whole story began.

Frank:                   That's right.

Will:                       No, that's good. What's your favorite meal on campus?

Frank:                   This is more of a joke or whatever. But you know you have names for meals?

Will:                       Of course.

Frank:                   Right? Speckled Death.

Will:                       Oh gosh.

Frank:                   Did you have like stuff like that?

Will:                       Nothing, the food here is, I'm a fan.

Frank:                   This school was, we ate family style.

Will:                       So it's changed, yeah it's changed a lot,

Frank:                   They passed out the food and if you were at the wrong end, you were thin. And so they, they, we had names, I can't even remember all the names for them. So I'm from the Midwest, so we're going down to eat and people say, oh we're having swordfish. I'm going (laughs) that's hilarious, swordfish, I love that. Cause I thought it was a joke name for what we were having and it was a first time I ever had swordfish. Oh my God, it was fabulous.

Will:                       Did you like it?

Frank:                   I loved it.

Will:                       There you go.

Frank:                   It was great. It was great.

Will:                       You got your seafood, that's good. What's your go to cool beans order?

Frank:                 When I'm meeting with students or folks up here, I'm just getting a decaf coffee.

Will:                       Decaf?

Frank:                 Yeah. It's not a, it's not a big order.

Will:                       Nothing fancy, iced or hot?

Frank:                   Hot.

Will:                       Okay.

Frank:                   Always hot.

Will:                       I'm a iced coffee fan.

Frank:                   Oh all right, mine's always hot and always D.

Will:                       Interesting, okay.

Frank:                   I'm buzzed enough Will.

Will:                       I can sense that.

Frank:                   (laughs)

Will:                       What was your favorite class on campus?

Frank:                   I took, I had a few a lot of great ones, but freshman year I took a literature course with Tom Lawlor and that guy blew my mind. He still does today, his wife Pat and he lived back over in Auburn, just over the hill. Tom was, it was just, it blew my mind all that he could take out of the readings that we were reading, all that he could fish out of there. I had never had an experience like that. And again, fed into this idea that, wow what I've been missing the whole world here, man. Where have I been? What have I been doing? Well, probably screwing around, playing football.

Will:                       Well did you get any touchdowns I hope? I guess would you say that he was your favorite professor?

Frank:                   Lawlor?

Will:                       Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Frank:                   I'd say probably Dave O'Brien, but there were so many tremendous. When I was a kid, we weren't allowed to read the Bible. The only reason you had a Bible in your house was for show and tell. And in the center of the Bible you could write down the dates of baptisms and first communion and confirmation and all that stuff. Right? But you couldn't read it. So when I came here in 68 and 69 when I started out here, we got to read some stuff, but it still, we couldn't read scripture. We could read the documents of Vatican 2 and those documents said you could read scripture. So when I came back in 87 I had a guy, Rick Murphy, who was teaching new Testament, and we actually got to read the Bible.

Will:                       It's pretty cool.

Frank:                   It was cool for me.

Will:                       Interesting. During your, during your time at Holy Cross, what was your favorite memory?

Frank:                   (laughs) I kissed my wife up on the top of the hill.

Will:                       Very nice, and the rest is history. Very nice. Last one here, what is the best part about being a Holy Cross alumnus?

Frank:                   Well, there's a bunch of great things like this honorary degree. It's been very humbling and tremendous. The kind of recognition I still get around the Chaplain's Office, I get a lot of recognition and appreciated up here. I don't know if you know this, I get a little card so I can go into the heart center and work out.

Will:                       Oh, I want one of those, I don't even have one. That's awesome.

Frank:                   So I get a little card to go workout. But just honestly, the school has a great reputation in Worcester and so when people hear that you've gone to Holy Cross, that means something in this town.

Will:                       Very nice. Thank you so much for coming, it was a great honor having you and to talk with you and learning more about your story, I really appreciate it.

Frank:                   Well, thank you Will, I'm glad you put up the time here.

Will:                       Of course. Of course.

Maura:                 That's our show. I hope you enjoyed hearing about just one of the many ways that Holy Cross alumni have been inspired by the mission to be Men and Women for and with Others.

A special thanks to today's guests and everyone at Holy Cross who has contributed to making this podcast a reality.

If you or someone you know would like to be featured on this podcast, please send us an email at If you like what you hear, then please leave us a review.

This podcast is brought to you by the office of Alumni Relations at the College of the Holy Cross. You can subscribe for future episodes wherever you find your podcasts.

I'm your host, Maura Sweeney, and this is Mission Driven. In the words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola "now go forth and set the world on fire".


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