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Faith built on action
At Arlington homeless shelter, Michael O’Rourke witnesses ‘miracles with a small m’
Some people in this world are serious about their faith. Some have the drive and the talent to concretely put this faith into action by working tirelessly to help the least of their brothers and sisters. And some people embrace what God has given them with abundant joy.
Michael J. O’Rourke Jr., executive director of the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless (AACH) and a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Vienna, is a blend of all those qualities. Plus he’s just plain fun.
The self-proclaimed “winner of the lottery” when he married Joan, his wife of 40 years, O’Rourke loves his family, his faith and making a difference in people’s lives.
For 22 years while O’Rourke was an Army officer, he and Joan traveled the world, raised two children (Mike and Eileen) and helped establish more than one Catholic church on or near Army bases. Now settled in Vienna, O’Rourke is a proud grandfather to four grandchildren ages 2 and under and a full-time advocate for the homeless in Northern Virginia.
Though his Army career often meant a lot of moving around and starting over, O’Rourke faced each change with the same positive attitude that is inherent in everything he does.
“We’ve always just really made the most of things,” he said. “When you always go with that attitude, good things happen. We’ve always been happy and participative in the Catholic community and met wonderful people.”
O’Rourke was born June 27, 1950, in Riverdale, Md. (now Riverdale Park), and raised in Laurel, Md. One of two children of Michael J. O’Rourke Sr. and Margaret Poland O’Rourke, he grew up riding his bike five blocks to St. Mary of the Mills Elementary School and St. Vincent Pallotti High School, both in Laurel.
Growing up, the local church was always at the center of his family’s life. O’Rourke served at the altar and played ball in the Catholic Youth Organization. His parents, too, were active in the life of the parish community.
“That’s just how it was,” he said. “I didn’t realize just how fortunate I was at the time. It was an idyllic set of circumstances. People’s doors were unlocked and you knew everybody in town.”
O’Rourke was all of 8 years old when he met Joan in the third grade at St. Mary. And while they didn’t start dating until the summer after his freshman year in college, O’Rourke said he’d always had his eye on her.
After graduating from St. Vincent, O’Rourke moved to Providence, R.I., in 1968 to attend the Dominican friar-run Providence College. Interested in history and the military, and having observed the example of his father who fought in World War II, O’Rourke knew he wanted to be an Army officer.
While the Dominican friars were prevalent in all aspects of campus life at Providence, O’Rourke said he didn’t give much thought to his faith as an undergrad. His college years, instead, mostly were focused on ROTC and any and every sport.
Faith and family soon were to take top billing, as 10 days after his college graduation — on June 10, 1972 — he and Joan were married.
On the road
With O’Rourke’s Army career just taking off, the couple went to Fort Sill, Okla., followed by Fort Dix, N.J. O’Rourke’s next stop was Korea, but Joan stayed in the United States, giving birth to Michael O’Rourke III, who O’Rourke would see for the first time at 4 months old.
While in Korea, O’Rourke gravitated toward the small chapel on base. A missionary priest would come celebrate Mass on Sundays, and O’Rourke helped serve and organize lectors.
When O’Rourke returned to the United States in 1976, the small family moved back to Fort Sill, where Eileen was born in 1978. They didn’t stay put for very long, though. In 1979, they moved to Germany, where they immediately got involved with the tiny Catholic community.
“We both had that (Catholic) foundation from school,” O’Rourke said. “Our parents were wonderful role models, and we knew that’s what families are supposed to do.”
The family attended weekly Mass and O’Rourke taught religious education. Three years later, in Marietta, Ga., (O’Rourke was assigned to Fort McPherson) they again immediately found a parish community, right away helping in the building phase of the community’s newest church (dubbed “the tin tent” after its temporary structure).
“It was really a tremendous faith community,” O’Rourke said. “Everybody was young and everybody wanted to participate and everybody wanted to be part of what was going on.”
It was a perfect fit for the O’Rourkes, who loved being involved.
After four years in Georgia, the family moved back across the Atlantic to Bad Kissingen, Germany. With the move, the family lost the vibrant Catholic community that they’d come to know and love. In its place was a “very small” community with no chaplain on base.
“There was no Sunday school, there were no activities, no bulletin,” O’Rourke said.
No matter. He and Joan got to work.
“We said, ‘There’s a lot more that we can do,’” O’Rourke said.
They started by offering home-baked refreshments and friendly conversation after Sunday Mass. Soon they incorporated an annual Catholic picnic and an Easter Vigil Mass. They trained lectors and altar boys. Joan and other wives started a religious education program. And they named the chapel St. Michael Parish.
For the second time in a row the couple had made a lasting effect on their local Catholic community. And, as a result, O’Rourke said he grew in his own faith.
“We started being more attentive to things spiritually,” O’Rourke said. “We just realized that we need to be more involved and more attentive to the spiritual side of things. There was a lot more to being a young couple than going to an officer’s club and going to work and coming home.”
Working for God
In 1990, the family left Germany and moved to Northern Virginia where O’Rourke was assigned to the Pentagon. One of the first things he did was to call the Chancery to find that his new home was within the boundaries of Our Lady of Good Counsel.
They joined immediately, and, naturally, it didn’t take them long to make friends with fellow parishioners living on their street.
Throughout the next 22 years, the O’Rourkes have had “various levels of activity” at Our Lady of Good Counsel, O’Rourke said. He was a lector; both he and Joan were involved in their respective men’s and women’s clubs.
A year after O’Rourke retired from the Army, he put the Church front-and-center in his professional life by applying for and accepting the position of associate director of finance and administration for Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities. With his love for the Church and his general management and administrative skills gleaned from the Army, “I just felt that it would be a good fit for me,” he said.
For 12 years, from 1995 to 2007, he worked at Catholic Charities, helping them get accredited multiple times.
In 2007, O’Rourke accepted the position of executive director at AACH, where he and a small staff help homeless families get back on their feet through their transitional shelter and services. Though he’s no longer working directly for the Church, O’Rourke knows he’s still doing God’s work.
“Every day I sit here and I hear the kids upstairs getting ready for school and see them going out,” he said. “And (I) see folks who have left here and have done well with their lives come back and say, ‘thanks.’ Miracles with a small ‘m’ take place here all the time.”
While at AACH, O’Rourke gained an appreciation for the difference diverse faith communities can make while working together for the same cause.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of various faith communities,” he said, including St. Charles Borromeo and Our Lady, Queen of Peace parishes in Arlington.
The different groups donate canned goods, baked goods, help teach English and give regular monetary tithes.
“In a way it’s humbling that people have so much confidence in us, that they’re so generous to us,” he said. “It motivates us. We have to do well so that we don’t let them down.”
Reflecting on his 62 years, O’Rourke said working at AACH has made him even more thankful for the eventful, happy life he’s led.
“It makes me think about the foundation that my parents provided me in faith,” he said. “It’s a constant reminder of how much I owe others, how fortunate I was in my life.”