Father Joseph Towle of Harwich gazes through the front window of the West Chatham Dunkin’ Donuts and across Route 28 to a cluster of four Habitat for Humanity homes where he worked until last fall, when the houses were completed.
“I think it’s great because we’re hammering nails and cutting board but there’s a greater vision,” he says. “Building a more just society would be the secular way of looking at it. Something greater than ourselves.”
By now, Towle estimates, he has volunteered constructing over 50 Habitat houses on the Cape. Currently he is volunteering on a 14-house build on Paul Hush Way in Brewster.
Founded by a Christian minister, the non-profit Habitat for Humanity first came to Cape Cod 30 years ago, in 1988. Habitat invites faith communities to partner with it, and in three decades it has formed relationships with over 60 congregations in all 15 Cape towns, according its website.
Towle—that’s pronounced to rhyme with “coal”-- now 80, was ordained in 1965. After growing up outside of Boston, he entered seminary in 1955. Ten years later, he had earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. Towle entered Maryknoll, a Catholic society of priests dedicated to missionary work overseas in 22 countries. As a young priest, Towle’s first assignment was to Guatemala where he worked among the Mayans.
“I like languages,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go overseas as a priest.”
At one point he visited some priests in Nicaragua. This was in the 1980s, during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Entering the priests’ town, he happened to see two Habitat houses made of adobe with clay roofs.
“I said, this is absolutely incredible. Here we are in the midst of a war, and here is Habitat for Humanity involved in construction,” he recalls. “It impressed me greatly.” In fact, 10 percent of unrestricted donations to Habitat go for building Habitat homes in developing nations.
After nine years in Guatemala, Towle transferred to Bolivia where he worked among the Aymara people. His parish was between Lake Titicaca and the Andes Mountains at 13,000 feet. He remained there for 15 years.
When he returned to the states in the 1990s, he worked at the Maryknoll Center in Ossining, N.Y. in social communications producing educational video documentaries. These films reflected his interest in indigenous peoples. He created a 28-minute feature on the early 1980s massacre of people in Guatemala and the resettlement of the refugees, and another 28-minute video on the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, a land reform movement. After that, he created short films in his Children of the Earth series which Maryknoll sold to schools. These were profiles of teens in other countries.
“It was a very exciting time of my life then,” he says. To work on these short films he traveled the world—Cambodia, Egypt, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico and more. In one case, his crew filmed a young Mayan girl whose family had been massacred in Chiapas, Mexico.
“That was a dicey one to film,” he says, as the military surrounded the place. “A Jesuit priest wiggled us in.”
Two videos shot in North America featured a Navaho girl in Arizona and the Sto:lo tribe, river people, in British Columbia, Canada. The films also highlighted the religious beliefs of the people involved.
In 2003, Towle retired to a family home in Harwich which he shares with his sister. Yet after a career of helping others, he was not one to sit down and put his feet up. As well as celebrating a weekday and a weekend mass at Holy Trinity Church in West Harwich, he serves on Habitat for Humanity of Cape Cod’s board of directors.
On a sunny Tuesday morning a few days after his interview in the Dunkin’ Donuts, Towle is back with the volunteer crews in Paul Hush Way. Standing on scaffolding, Towle, John Karr of Chatham and Joanne Broderick of Orleans are shingling the side of one of the five “green” houses under construction. All have solar panels. One house, built last fall in a “blitz build” in one day, is already occupied. The houses are scheduled to be completed by June.
Subcontractors work on the roof, electrical work, heating, plumbing and insulation, Towle says. In addition, the homeowner has to put in 250 hours of “sweat equity.” Habitat’s volunteers do the rest, which includes putting up walls, windows and doors and laying floors. About 30 volunteers, mostly retired people, work one day a week in all types of weather.
“It’s an amazing group,” he says.
Towle also volunteers for the Family Pantry of Cape Cod in Harwich on Saturdays from 9:30 to noon, distributing food. In the summertime Towle is known as “the squash head” because he is in charge of the acorn and butternut squash in the Family Pantry’s 9,000-square-foot garden. He is also studying Portuguese which, in addition to his Spanish, is often a great help at the Family Pantry.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he says.