Holiness among Philanthropists – Part XXXII

Some donors live frugally and modestly, then make large donations upon their deaths



Continuing our discussion of recognizing lay holiness, let us look at philanthropists. We could discuss the donors of large sums — $10 million, $100 million — to causes consistent with Catholic social teaching, including Catholic schools, hospitals, and more. Many such donors take advantage of “naming rights” — for buildings, foundations, scholarships, grounds, playing fields, etc. But here recall Jesus’ admonition:

When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matt. 6:2-4)

There are many anonymous, secret donors. And there are many donors whose donations are so small that they do not raise the visibility of the donor. Recall in this connection, if you will, two stories from the Bible. In the First Book of Kings, Elijah asks a widow with a son to share, or give, him their last bit of food before they would die. And she does (1 Kgs 17:7-16). The second story is from the Gospels; it is called “The Widow’s Mite.” Jesus makes an observation:

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to Himself, He said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.’ (Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4).

I often picture the widow in this story as elderly and living alone, but she could very well be a younger woman with a child. (This story is usually cited for the purpose of praising the woman for giving from her substance, as I myself am doing here. But at least one biblical commentator has argued that, in context of surrounding stories, it shows Jesus as critical of the economic system that kept this widow poor and as critical of the religious leaders who encouraged her to donate beyond her means. See Addison G. Wright, “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol.44, 1982, pp.256-265; Jeremy Marshall, “Rich Scribes and Poor Widows,” neoprimitive.wordpress.com, May 14, 2013.)

I want to highlight here the stories of a few people who lived frugally and modestly, making large donations upon their deaths. These donors did not publicize their donations before their deaths, perhaps to avoid having people beg for their money — or perhaps to avoid any acclaim during their lives.

  • Ronald Read, a Vermont janitor (1921-2014) (see Mark Yapching, “Millionaire Whose Own Coat Was Held Together by Safety Pins Leaves Millions to Local Institutions After His Death,” Christianity Today, Feb. 6, 2015)
  • Sylvia Boom, a Brooklyn legal secretary who worked until her death in 2018, at age 96 (see Corey Kilgallon, “96-Year-Old Secretary Quietly Amasses Fortune, Then Donates $8.2 Million,” N.Y. Times, May 6, 2018)
  • Grace Groner, a secretary (1909-2011) (see “Grace Groner, the Secret Millionaire, Donates Her Fortune,” personalmoneystore.com, July 13th, 2015, ; Courtney Comstock; “ Business Insider, March 5, 2010)
  • Catholic Kathleen Magowan, a first grade teacher (d. 2011, age 87) (see “What Happens When Your Neighbors Turn Out To Be Secret Millionaires,” huffingtonpost.com, Nov. 27, 2013; $6 million donated)

Series to be continued…


***Editor’s Note: For Part XXXI in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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