MICHAEL J. C. WOLFE (1922–1995)
Michael Joseph Colbert Wolfe was born on July 14, 1922, on New Street, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. He was the son of Richard Barrett Wolfe, a pharmacist who lived with his family above the shop, and Catherine Elizabeth Colbert Wolfe. His siblings were Johanna Frances (b. 1914), Hanora Josephine (b. 1915), Cornelius Colbert “Con” (b. 1917), and Richard Michael (b. 1919). All of them became priests or nuns.
Wolfe’s parents were active nationalists before and during the War of Independence (1919–1921). Catherine Wolfe’s younger brother, Con Colbert, participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 and was one of fifteen men executed at Kilmainham jail, in Dublin. Dick Wolfe’s pharmacy became a hub of nationalist activity, and in 1920 it was damaged by the Black and Tans after the Irish Republican Army killed a local constable.
In 1941, Michael Wolfe joined the same Spiritan Congregation, in Kilshane, County Tipperary, as his brothers Con and Richard Wolfe, professing his vows in 1942. He was ordained a priest in 1950 and worked in public relations. From 1959 to 1962 he served in the Archdiocese of Nairobi and then traveled to the United States to raise funds for his order. In 1965, Father Wolfe began work in San Francisco, California, and in 1972 became the chaplain at Laguna Honda Hospital, a city-run facility for the elderly and disabled.
In 1977, Father Mike, as he was known at the hospital, established the Freewheelers program, which arranged for wheelchair-bound patients to take day trips outside the hospital. “When I came here and got to know where I was at,” he told the United Press International in 1982, “I realized there was one need that wasn’t met. The patients were confined, and it made them angry, bored. I was hearing people wanting to die rather than to live.”
Members of the program began regularly traveling to baseball games and wineries. “These people thought the world was something yesterday,” the priest said. “They found they could relive it today. People who said goodbye to life found it was there again to enjoy.”
The Freewheelers organization incorporated and in 1982 had a budget of $257,000 and a fleet of two specially equipped buses. At the time of his death, it still operated, although separate from the hospital.
In 1992, Father Wolfe was appointed chaplain of the Marian House nursing home in Kimmage, a suburb south of Dublin. He died there suddenly on October 21, 1995.