‘Humanity’: The Legacy of John Olsen

Photo courtesy Brothers’ Helpers
John Olsen with a volunteer.


Some look at church as a place to go on Sundays, but then there are others who take the church with them wherever they travel. Such was the life of John Olsen who took his church’s service to others traveling from downtown Los Angeles to Ghana.

Olsen passed away after a lengthy illness on Aug. 11. He was a member of St. Bede the Venerable in La Cañada.

“He used to work at the church in the evening reception,” said Lori Juma, a member of the St. Bede congregation.

Olsen had answered the phone when Juma was searching for a parish. He was the first person she spoke with and Juma immediately felt that she was at home at St. Bede because of his welcoming manner. They became friends.

“Humanity,” she said of what she feels defined John’s life.

Oxford dictionary defines “humanity” as “the quality of being humane; benevolence.” It could have easily included Olsen’s name in that definition.

In 2003, Olsen founded Brothers’ Helpers Ministry. According to Juma, he was joined by a handful of St. Bede the Venerable volunteers who were active in the Peace & Justice Ministry. Together they cared for the hungry and the homeless of Los Angeles who were trying to survive day-to-day on the streets in one of the richest cities in the nation.

Juma said that Olsen could be seen daily unloading donated food that would be prepared in the church kitchen, then packed and delivered to those in need.

“He could outwork any of his younger colleagues,” she recalled.

Olsen invited other Catholic ministries from the area, as well as members of other churches, to join in the preparation and delivery of meals.

After filling a vehicle with food, volunteers would caravan to downtown LA. At first sight, the location may have caused some to pause, especially for those arriving first to the meal distribution site. Then Olsen would get out of the vehicle and people would come to him. Those who had been waiting for a meal, maybe the first and only for the day, seemed more like old friends than anything else. It was like Olsen had invited them to share a meal with him. He would talk to those he had known for years. He seemed to be able to remember everything about everyone. He would ask them about their families, if they had followed up with a job interview and if they had gotten the health care they needed. As the meals would be handed out, he would shake hands with the adults, showing them a respect not often shared, and he would high-five kids, who were all smiles when they saw him.

“He did this five days a week,” Juma added.

Over the years, Brothers’ Helpers grew and now has five Catholic churches that have volunteers who work together to serve those in need. They have expanded to providing meals to women’s shelters in LA, too.

Juma stated since it was founded Brothers’ Helpers has served over 500,000 meals to LA’s homeless.

Olsen’s reach of humanity was not limited to LA. He had established a friendship with a St. Bede associate pastor who was visiting from Ghana.

“In his mid-70s, John decided to go to Ghana,” Juma said. “Can you imagine that in his 70s? My son just went to Ghana and he saw where John was living.”

Olsen traded his La Cañada lifestyle for something … a bit different. He stayed in a small village in a shack with a dirt floor where he lived for several years.

“At the request of the bishop in Wa, Ghana, he served as bursar/procurator for St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary and High School. John then went on to help the Christian community in Loho, Ghana where he started a thousand-capacity community hall/church that was later roofed by members of the community. John never saw its final completion, as failing health forced him back to the United States,” Juma stated.

His life aside from Brothers’ Helpers and Ghana was full. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 40 years and had a very successful business.

“He was amazing. He did all of this while raising eight kids as a single parent,” Juma added.

In a social media post by Fr. Tony Marti, president of St. Francis High School, he wrote, “John is now seated at the Lord’s Table, enjoying the best meal he ever had, and being rewarded by his love to the poor.”

Anyone who would like more information on Brothers’ Helpers, or would like to donate, can visit brothershelpers.org. For more volunteer information, contact (818) 949-4338.