The ‘priest with the apron’: restoring buildings as well as broken lives

The ‘priest with the apron’: restoring buildings as well as broken lives

A few years ago (November 2017) Brother Andrew (A.L. de Carpentier) retired as Executive Director of the Holy Land Institute for Deaf and Deafblind Children in Salt – Jordan, a position he held from May 1977. Most of his working life, now some 50 years, he spent in the Middle East.  Before that he studied Civil Engineering* in Holland, Special Education in Beirut and the USA, and Theology in Lebanon. That he had a flair for languages only became evident after his school years. But together with a good musical ear it only took much practice but little effort to improve on his school-knowledge of languages such as Dutch, French, German and English, besides new languages such as Hebrew, Arabic and others. Fluency in Arabic Sign language was the result of falling in love with the language. However, learning languages or teaching deaf children did not make him forget his first vocation as a ‘builder’. The difference was that his hobby of working with children, of pastoral care for people in need and of a tendency to read and practice theology became his profession. His professional training as a builder stood him in good stead when that became his ‘hobby’.

In Jordan and in many Middle Eastern countries his building activities earned him the nickname – or honorific title, as Andrew tells it – of “the priest with the apron”. The apron or ‘scapular’ is a traditional church garment that is thrown over the shoulders. Monastics wear it over their habits (cloaks) and it symbolises protection against evil, although for Andrew it is more a way of keeping his habit reasonably clean. This tends to be a mixed success because he is often found at work in a carpentry work shop, or mixing concrete to build something. The scapular is, literally, his ‘overall’. But is there a better moniker for a brother-monk-priest than: ‘the priest with the apron’, i.e. the servant, or ‘the Carpenter’s Son?

And so he began with ** repairs on a hospital in Ramallah – Palestine, the restoration of the ruins of a Clarisse Convent in Latroun (Emmaüs) – near Jerusalem, followed by an extension to a school for deaf children in Lebanon.

Initially Andrew’s father was dismayed that he seemed to be wasting his education, but eventually even he was at peace when learning of extensions or new schools for the deaf, the blind and the deafblind in Jordan, Egypt and Yemen, vocational training in Jordan and Gaza, clinics in Yemen, Palestine and Kurdistan, technical contributions to schools for deaf children in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bahrain and to schools in East Africa and Congo, etc… In fact if time and life permit he believes and hopes to add one more country – Southern Sudan to this list.

Over time repairing became building things, building became renovating things, and renovating became restoring things. The difference is that in renovations the end-result of a building project is more important than the original building. In restoration it is the original design, the lay-out and the history as well as the integrity of the building itself that are most important. Owner, architect and engineer alike may have ideas about the restoration of a building, but mostly it is the building itself that will decide how it is going to be.

There is tremendous satisfaction in taking an old, dilapidated and ruinous house or building, try to discover what its meaning or function used to be and could be again, and restore it to its former glory. Its uniqueness, perhaps its beauty and its restored grandeur or its formerly hidden humility, might be just what is needed in its present (new?) environment. Most of this work was done free of charge and simply because he loved doing it, but if the job also brought some extra income, so much the better as it would either benefit the Deaf institute or make other projects possible.

Through years of study and experience, this ‘Carpenter’s Son’ developed a thorough and first-hand theoretical and practical expertise and experience in the area of educating and rehabilitating children with disabilities. He is particularly interested in persons with sensory impairments, i.e. Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing and Deafblind.  Little can match the satisfaction of seeing people who are impaired, perhaps injured and neglected, possibly without hope, goal or purpose; and to help rediscover – literally uncover – beauty, purpose and hope, as well as God’s Grace to help make their invaluable contributions to the life of family, community and society.

With apron over his shoulders Brother Andrew has the almighty pleasure of restoring buildings as well as broken lives of persons with disabilities that are crying out for cheering up and a little attention.

They helped him see the great honour of having these opportunities to serve, teach, heal, repair, rehabilitate and restore children, youths and our elders. And that this includes people who are stuck, but who may be enabled to rediscover a restored function and ability, beauty and dignity.