Soaring prayers. Tears of joy. Expressions of gratitude. All of that washed over Woodbine Street in Roxbury last week.
For two families, it was nothing less than a life-changing event. Keys to their own homes. At long last, a place to call their own in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.
But the man who made it happen stood beyond the reach of the long lenses carried by news photographers. He did not make a speech. He did not introduce himself to the grateful new owners.
He smiled. And when the event was over, he walked away.
“I shook their hands and congratulated them, but they didn’t know who I was,” the benefactor told me this week. “It was wonderful to see. There was a young girl showing me her new room. And she was beaming.”
The man, now in his 50s, was beaming, too. He is an alumnus of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. His wife graduated from Boston College. And they have done well. He was a banker, worked in real estate development, and now owns his own investment business.
But his most valuable lessons were learned not in mahogany-paneled boardrooms of big financial firms, but across the kitchen table at his home growing up. His mom and dad taught by example. They donated. They volunteered. On Thanksgiving, their dinner table was open to anyone in need.
“The lesson is to give back to others who don’t have the same opportunity that you do,” he said, insisting on his treasured anonymity. “It’s ours not to have but to share. And that’s something I try to think about every day.”
And so by the time he showed up in Roxbury last week, remaining on the fringes of the event as Cardinal Sean O’Malley dedicated two homes for Habitat for Humanity Greater Boston, his generosity had eclipsed $3.3 million.
That money has helped build 59 Habitat for Humanity homes across the country — homes for people like Niulka Martinez and her husband and two kids. They poured sweat equity into their new home all winter. They move to Woodbine Street soon.
Martinez wishes she could have thanked the man who helped make it happen. She knows what she would have told him. “This is a prayer is being answered,” said Martinez, whose family now lives in one room of her parents’ place in Dorchester. “It’s security. It’s safety. It’s a place where I can raise my kids.”
Think about what a grand gesture this is. Anonymous generosity. Our city is blessed by the works of good men and women who open their hearts and checkbooks to help the neediest among us. Sometimes their names are chiseled into marble on the sides of great hospitals and museums.
Do these quiet gifts carry more virtue than those announced over loudspeakers?
When I asked the donor about that, he said he’s not interested in recognition. What matters? Good works.
“I don’t know whether anonymity is unusual or not,” the man, inspired by Pope Francis’ commitment to social justice, told me. “It’s not important to me. This mission is not about us. It’s about providing opportunity. We’re just planting seeds.”
Cardinal O’Malley knows how desperately needed those seeds are. For much of his priestly life, he worked among the poor, first in Washington, D.C., and later in the Virgin Islands.
Today, from his cathedral pulpit, he can see that housing remains an urgent concern among working people for whom high-rise condos are many stories and another lifetime away.
“There is a social mortgage on all wealth, and there is a responsibility to use it for the common good and to generate employment and housing and educational opportunities for others,” O’Malley said. “I know a lot of very generous people. Unfortunately, there are also wealthy people who are unwilling to feel responsible for others, even those who help to generate their wealth.”
Both the benefactor and the cardinal are familiar with the Scripture passage that says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven.
When we spoke on the phone this week, Cardinal O’Malley chuckled, recalling that G.K. Chesterton, the English writer, once observed that ever since Jesus said those words we’ve been frantically trying to breed smaller camels and make bigger needles.
When it comes to camels and needles, I don’t think the benefactor — this man who seeks results, not applause — has anything to worry about.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.