By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor
He lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Binghamton. He had no car, few clothes, but many friends. And when he died on Oct. 19, 2010, Michael Phillips was one of Catholic Relief Service’s longest large-gift contributors.
On a social worker’s salary, Phillips had slowly and steadily donated a total of approximately $250,000 to the charity.
Jim Lund, vice president for charitable giving at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), said that due to donor confidentiality he was not able to say the exact figure that Michael donated during his lifetime.
“But it was in the six figures,” he said. “For a substance abuse counselor it’s a substantial amount of his income.”
Michael didn’t designate his donation for any particular area of CRS’s work, Lund said. “He gave the money to care for, in his own words, the hungry in the world.”
Michael’s father, Deacon George Phillips, helped Michael with his monthly budgeting and his taxes. He said there was one year when Michael made around $34,000 and donated $17,000 to CRS.
“So you take the taxes out of that and you see what he had to live on,” he said.
Few who knew and loved Michael had any idea the amount of money he had donated over the years. But none were surprised. Michael was very clearly someone special.
At four or five years old Michael asked his parents if he could stay with his newly-widowed grandmother so she wouldn’t be lonely. A few years later he talked some of his pals into volunteering to rake leaves for elderly neighbors.
As a student at Seton Catholic High School, Michael belonged to a group on the outer fringes that called themselves “The Irregulars.” They were the misfits: the eccentric personalities, the new kids in school, kids that were too shy or too round to fit in elsewhere. And Michael was always finding new friends to invite into the group.
“He was a friend to the friendless,” said Chris Phillips, one of Michael’s three brothers.
Julie McWright grew up next door to Michael and knew all about the Irregulars. “We all came from different places of need and he seemed to know where we all were,” she said.
“He loved being Catholic and he lived for Jesus. He suffered without ever complaining because all he did was love Jesus more than I could ever understand,” McWright said. “Through his example of love I felt like a piece of Jesus was here on earth. That’s the kind of friend I was blessed with my entire life.”
She remembers Michael crying with her over high school disappointments and praying for her through illnesses of her own and in her family. The two remained close even when she married and moved to another state.
“I’ll tell you right now that I was his best friend,” McWright said, “but I guess some other people might probably say that, too.”
One of those people is Jim Flint.
The two met in high school after Flint had transferred at the start of his junior year. It was the first day of football practice. Flint didn’t have cleats and had to wear high-top sneakers in his old high school’s colors. “Everyone called me a big spoiled brat and pretty much knocked me flat on my back all during practice,” Flint said. “Afterward, Michael came up and introduced himself and we became friends. We were best friends from that day for the rest of my life.”
Michael helped Flint manage his temper and allowed him to be the best version of himself without placing any expectations on his friend. “When you had a bad day the phone would ring or someone would be at the door and it would be Michael. He just had that ability to know when people needed someone,” Flint said.
Flint and Michael would walk to Mass or around the neighborhood and Michael would stop in to check on elderly or sick neighbors. He would take out their trash, walk their dog or check that they had been taking their medication. “In this day and age, most people don’t even know their neighbors,” Flint said.
When Flint was married with small children and a new house, Michael knew his friend was struggling for money. At Thanksgiving, he would come by with a card with $400 in it for Christmas presents for the children. “He would insist I take it or he said he wouldn’t come by anymore,” Flint said.
“He was probably the most kind and generous person I have ever met,” Flint said. “I will never in my entire life meet another person like Michael Phillips again.”
Michael spent two years of discernment at the Franciscan seminary in Holyoke, Mass., but he found that his vocation lay elsewhere. He began working at Covenant House in New York City.
There, Michael counseled teenage girls who were pregnant, runaways, or trying to escape a life of prostitution. After two years, Michael returned home to work as a case worker for the Salvation Army in Binghamton.
He went on to earn a degree at Binghamton University and began working as an alcohol substance abuse counselor for Broome County Mental Health Forensic Unit. He worked with mentally ill and addicted people in the criminal justice system.
It was a job he told his father that he wasn’t sure he could handle.
“He was in with all these big tough guys, but he just had a way with them,” Deacon George said. “He said, ‘I just prayed that I could love them as much as Jesus loved them.’’’
In 2002, Michael was honored as Counselor of the Year.
“I’d walk with him on the streets of Binghamton and quite often some former client of his would come up and say, ‘Hi, Mike, I’ve been clean for so many years now,’” said Michael’s brother George K. Phillips. “He cared for people that no one else did.”
George said he also saw how passers-by would mock his brother for the cross he drew on the back of his clothing and for his frail body. From his 20s onward, Michael struggled with anorexia. At his healthiest, he weighed only around 120 pounds. At his sickest, his weight would plummet closer to 80 pounds. He was in and out of hospitals and treatment centers.
But the mockery of others and the illness he struggled with only served to deepen Michael’s faith.
He lived in an apartment that cost him about $200 a month in rent. The furnishings were sparse, but he had a prayer bench where he would spend the first hour and a half of every day.
“He had a real relationship with Christ. He lived it daily and it wasn’t fake,” his brother Chris said. “He always felt you were blessed to have faith.”
Michael taught his brothers how to pray to Jesus throughout the day and even encouraged them to pray for those who had been unkind to him.
His brother Robert said Michael also had a striking ability to listen.
“He was in the present moment and he was totally there listening and just empathizing and hearing you out,” Robert said. “You’d talk to him and his sole focus was on affirming you and making sure you were heard and understood. I think I’ve never had someone listen to me the way he did in my whole life.”
When he was well enough, Michael would meet with his father after the noon Mass on Sunday and walk the seven miles from Binghamton to Endwell. This was at a time when Deacon George had just retired.
“Life was changing a lot for me. I didn’t know what direction I was going in,” he said. Michael became his father’s spiritual director and encouraged him in his journey through the diaconate.
When Michael could no longer walk that distance, they would walk shorter distances. Eventually, he could only make it a few houses down the road. On Saturdays he would walk across the street to spend some time sitting with a widow who enjoyed the company.
“Some people might say he was odd, the way he didn’t have new clothes or buy things,” his brother George said. “He used to say did he not get it or did the rest of us not get it. You know, ‘Wait a minute, there are kids who are starving here and this is what we’re doing with our money?’”
Michael moved from his parents’ house back to his own apartment in the months before he died. One night in October, Deacon George had stopped by Michael’s apartment to help him with his groceries. Michael was too weak to put away the boxes and bottles, so Deacon George was putting them away for him.
“When I went to leave, he looked at me and he said, ‘Dad, I love you.’ And it was something that he normally said, but it was the only thing he said,” Deacon George said. “I think he knew.”
Deacon George called Chris to say that he should check on his brother, he didn’t look good.
When Chris arrived in Michael’s apartment, he found him kneeling in his prayer bench. He had died from heart failure due to his anorexia.
The night after he died, Chris and Deacon George were carrying out boxes of items from Michael’s apartment to donate to Catholic Charities when a woman came up to them.
“You don’t know me,” she said, “but Michael changed my life.”
She explained that she was a neighbor of Michael’s and that she had struggled for many years with an addiction to crack cocaine. Michael would walk by her house on his way home from work and say hello to her and her daughters. After a while, he would stop and sit on the porch with them to chat. Then the chats turned to talks. One day, he brought the woman a rosary.
This, she said, was the beginning of her recovery.
The woman brought a rosary of her own that she hoped to put in Michael’s casket. The one that Michael had given her, she said, she would keep with her the rest of her days.