To the people Albuquerque’s Brother Thomas helps, he’s a hero

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

The Christmas cards taped onto Brother Thomas Reis’ living room television tell it all.

There are Thank You’s, and God Bless You’s and Peace Be With You’s. There are so many that it’s hard to see what’s actually on the screen.

In all, 71 are visible, from Maine and Florida and Alaska and Hawaii, with surely more tucked away in other parts of Reis’ spare one-bedroom home. Others are no doubt on their way.

“This one is from the nicest person, a real angel,” Reis says.

His first sentence on a recent afternoon is the type of phrase he repeats over the hours.

“Why don’t you write about Ida instead of me?” he asks.

“Why don’t you call up Cheryl? She’s helped a lot of people. I’ll give you her phone number.”

Brother Thomas makes these inquiries even though a reporter is sitting in his Downtown apartment specifically to talk about him and his work. He has to be steered back on topic several times.

That’s because pointing to others is what he does.

But those he’s pointing at – the people in Albuquerque who know him and his charity and his influence – say Brother Thomas is a man an entire city should be following.

“He has the patience that only a modern-day saint could have,” says longtime friend Richard Treynor.

“Here’s a guy who cooks 20 or 30 meals and then hands them out. But he won’t take any credit,” Treynor added.

Though Brother Thomas demurs, constantly deflecting attention to others, he is a hero, the real thing, in Albuquerque’s low-income, elderly and religious communities.

He is, they say, a man who has dedicated his life and belongings to helping those who otherwise might not have a chance – or a champion.

They credit him with helping get the Barrett House up and running.

And keeping residents at St. Mary Rest Home, where he once worked, comfortable.

And making the other 31 elderly and low-income citizens feel welcome at the Hibernian House, where he lives.

And getting food to – and cooking for – thousands at the Good Shepherd Center and other centers around the city.

“He doesn’t like a lot of fanfare,” says Good Shepherd Brother Charles Schreiner. “He’ll pull in with a whole station wagon full of food. He doesn’t expect receipts or publicity or anything.”

With climbing food costs this year, places like the Good Shepherd are struggling to keep the hungry full, Schreiner says.

“Because of people like him, we can continue to help people. Otherwise, we’d really have to struggle,” Schreiner added.

The sight of Brother Thomas and his sun-battered, subcompact station wagon full of food is a common one in places where hunger is a constant shadow and help a rare beam of sunlight.

Acquaintances and friends repeat tales of Brother Thomas pulling up to a homeless shelter, a rest home, wherever, with just the things people need.

The other thing they say is this:

You can’t say no to Brother Thomas.

“If somebody needs something, he can get on the phone and talk anybody into anything,” says Patrick Newell, the outgoing director of St. Mary Rest Home.

Newell recalls the time a resident at the home couldn’t afford some badly needed dental care. Within days, a dentist was volunteering his time, Newell says.

When working the phones doesn’t do the trick, Brother Thomas goes in person to grocery stores to pick up food that he redistributes to shelters.

Larry Vehar, an Albertsons store manager, says Brother Thomas doesn’t have to work much to get others to give.

“He doesn’t have to try very hard,” Vehar says. “His work is a good cause and we don’t mind helping.”

Vehar says he’s seen others inspired by Brother Thomas during his trips to the store.

“I’ve seen people pull money out of their pockets,” he says.

Just as no one seems to be able to say no to Brother Thomas or his Irish eyes and hopeful smile, he, in turn, wouldn’t dream of turning anyone down.

Isabel Quillin, who has known and worked with Brother Thomas for 30 years, says she’s only gotten angry with him once.

“He took back a guy who was stealing from him,” she says. “I was mad for two weeks.”

Unfortunately, Brother Thomas is slowing down. At age 72, he does his work with the help of 14 medicines for his ailing lungs, a fragile kidney, shot bronchial tubes, plus a tumor that has crunched his spine.

But slowing down is far from stopping.

Brother Thomas still starts his days with the early Mass at Immaculate Conception Church. The service is tantamount to his breakfast – a chance to replenish his soul before a day of hard work, harder stories and little relief.

“I’m there before 7. I make my holy hour, my rosary, my stations of the cross, my spiritual account,” Brother Thomas says of his devotional at Immaculate Conception. “That’s my bank. God, I need that so I can make it through the day.”

If that doesn’t do it, Brother Thomas knows he’s got one last stash of peace – and peace of mind.

In his bedroom closet, next to the clothes that Quillin buys for him at second-hand stores, are pallets of beans, soup, canned chili.

It’s not for him. It’s for someone else – just in case he runs into someone who needs help.

That kind of preparation is something he’s been doing in Albuquerque since the mid-1950s, when he first arrived – seven years before Thomas Reis actually became Brother Thomas.

He rode the train into town, armed with a love of cooking, opera, classical music. His previous stops were varied – rural Oregon and Houston and Philadelphia and New Orleans. He says he was born in 1935 on a boat between Ireland and the United States, before his family’s name was changed from Rice to Reis.

“Don’t put those silly little details in the paper,” he pleads.

He came here to work with someone he had been writing to: Brother Mathias Barrett, a man he credits as a major inspiration in his life.

Barrett was an Irish priest who founded the Congregation of the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd in Albuquerque in the 1950s. The center is known as one of the first to concentrate on helping the city’s homeless.

Brother Thomas could relate to the homeless, in part because he left home when he was 14. He’d wanted to see a Benedictine monastery, he says.

“You’re not going to put that in there, are you?”

He smiles.

He says he was one of six brothers and sisters, though Brother Thomas’ family is now in the Midwest. He has no children.

As he worked, the years flew by. One success story begat another, which begat a connection, which helped someone else.

He is flipping through a book of photos inside the community room at the Hibernian House – Thanksgiving dinners and St. Patrick’s Days, Christmases past.

He smiles again, and tries a sigh, which turns into a cough, fueled by pneumonia and bronchitis.

“She’s a gem, that doctor I’ve got,” he says.

Though he has a vast network of friends who are virtually family, Brother Thomas has a true love.

She’s 5 inches tall, with whiskery tan-and-white hair, four legs and a love for Brother Thomas that won’t quit.

She’s Baby, his dog, another of his “angels.” The one who sleeps right next to him, follows at his heels as he pulls his oxygen tank.

Vehar, who says Brother Thomas has given away the gifts he’s given him over the years, has only seen Brother Thomas keep one: a chew toy and a sweater for Baby.

“Everything else, flowers, I don’t care what we’ve given over the years . . . he always finds somebody that’s more needy,” Vehar says.

Brother Thomas says he has never thought of doing anything else with his life.

“You have to give in order to receive,” he says by way of explanation. “If you put money into the bank, you get interest.

“You put no money in, you get nothing. So what you put into the almighty God, when those days come when it’s so hard, (and you’re wondering) ‘Where’s my next meal coming from?’ . . . there’s where the almighty God gives you that interest, there’s that faith you have to have.”

Apart from God, Brother Thomas’ inspiration comes from those who served before him – those other people he keeps pointing at, giving the credit to.

“Everyone I know, who I’ve read the lives of, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of the Little Flower, St. Catherine, Mother Teresa, Brother Mathias, all them people suffered,” Brother Thomas says. “But He never gives you no more than you can take.”

Published Dec. 25, 2007.