Mary Craig (right) profiles Fr Raymond Brennan, the remarkable priest who runs the Children's Orphanage in Pattaya, Thailand.
UM IS A little Cambodian boy. His age, — who knows? One day, a few years ago he was travelling with his mother on a public transport truck near the border with Thailand, when Communist guerrillas opened fire on them.
Dum's mother flung herself over her child to protect him and there he was found, pinned beneath his mother's body, the sole survivor of the "bus". He was by that time insane, and his wits have never returned.
Dum is being brought up by a remarkable man, Fr Raymond Brennan, and his new home is the Children's Orphanage in Pattaya.
Orphanage? 'One feels the shudder, senses the automatic recoil from the word. But forget about preconceived ideas for the moment, for Fr Brennan — does not fit into them easily, and neither does his unique "orphanage". This middle-aged Redemptorist — he describes himself as "fat and fiftyish" — combines the energy of a tornado, the inventiveness of Heath Robinson with the figure of Friar Tuck and the charisma of Robin Hood.
Well, he doesn't exactly rob the rich to give to the poor, but local businessmen and hoteliers might have their own views about that. "I tell them Purgatory's hotter than hell," says Fr Brennan. "They don't believe a word of it, but they're taking no chances." An IrishAmerican from Chicago, Raymond Brennan came to Thailand in 1960 to work with refugees. Twelve years later, speaking five Asian languages fluently, he fetched up in Pattaya.
His story is that women in the street kept handing him their babies, and as he didn't know what else to do he started an orphanage.
The Catholic Church gave him land on which to build, but, as most of the children he took in were Buddhists, much of his help came from the Buddhist community. His relations with the Thai Buddhist monks are excellent.
There are over one hundred children at his orphanage now, and, with the four Thai nuns who help him, he succeeds in providing them with a "home", not a Home. Nowhere, in the low two-storey building or in the extensive grounds is off-limits; the kids go where they please, sit where they please and they are not always being summoned by bells.
They go off to school in the morning with a packed lunch, and return to the family atmosphere provided by the man who has been called "father of the biggest family in Pattaya".
Some mothers bring their children because they're too poor to keep them, but the reasons are not always economic. Sometimes a crippled child is brought, because the whole village is superstitious and thinks the child will bring bad luck or cause the crops to fail.
There are children of women hooked on her heroin — one of these was kept trussed up like a mummy until he was three and a half, and it took several months to straighten out his limbs.
The older children receive a weekly allowance, and if they want to supplement it by a spot of volunteer labour, there is no shortage of possibilities. For the orphanage is almost entirely self-supporting.
Brennan remembers visiting an orphanage as a child with his father. Leaving there, his father exploded at the sight of the wellkept lawns bordering the drive. "If they're so bloody poor, why don't they plant carrots", he remarked angrily.
His son never forgot: he plants carrots and every known type of vegetable, together with serried ranks of fruit trees. And if it moves, he breeds it: chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, cows, pigs (local hotels provide him with garbage, in exchange for extra fresh meat at Christmas). He even stocks catfish.
Brennan has devised a system for recycling the water used in the house for re-use in the vegetable garden, and another for making cooking gas out of animal dung. He saves rainwater in fourteen home-made tanks for kitchen-use and has recently managed to convert a concrete mixer into a washing machine. No-one could complain that money sent to him is squandered.
He doesn't invest it, he ploughs it straight back. As he has to provide eleven thousand meals a month, with the aid of only one cook, the economies are a matter of survival.
Though even in his day there are only the same number of hours as in anyone else's, Fr Brennan has opened a deaf school; a day-care service for children of working parents; a residential service for children whose parents are in prison (sometimes he has to look after them until they're adults); and a new training centre where handicapped young adults can learn to become self-sufficient. He looks after homeless exprisoners, edits a monthly ecumenical newsletter, in Thai and lectures in English at the local seminary. The bar-girls in Pattaya treat him as a fatherfigure and an unofficial banker, and he won't hear anything said against them.
Ask him if he's achieved anything, and he gives a rude snort. "You never achieve anything", he booms in a voice like a force-nine gale, "you start something, and it never comes to an end. "All this isn't work", he says cheerfully. "I enjoy life. I never would have believed that being a priest could be so much fun".