In Serving Others, Holy Cross Connected an Alumnus, His Father and Paul Farmer Hon. ‘12

Paul Farmer stands in a photo, split with another photo of two men

The deaths of both Farmer and his father revealed the impact of his Jesuit education

Paul Farmer, M.D., Hon. ’12 and my father, Doric Scarpelli '73, both died unexpectedly. Both of sudden heart attacks. Both at just 62 years of age.

In 1987, Paul Farmer co-founded Partners in Health (PIH) in Haiti, eventually expanding the work to several countries around the world. PIH's work — to push the boundaries of what was possible or "appropriate" for the poorest of the poor — inspired a generation who have dedicated their careers to working toward health equity. As news of his death on Feb. 22, 2022, spread and I began to reflect on the influence Farmer had on my career path, one thing became clear: My time at Holy Cross primed me to follow his call to seek justice by working to address inequities.

I spent the first few years of my time at Holy Cross struggling to find my path. I was inspired by much, but ultimately directionless. Things began to shift as I happened into Mary Hobgood's Faith and World Poverty course. We read about and discussed the struggles of working class folks in the U.S. and those overcoming the legacies of caste in India, and we learned of the clear injustices all around us. I fell into a rhythm of shuffling out of her class each week in Beaven Hall, wandering toward Dinand Library, dazed and slack-jawed with the familiar question on my mind: How, then, shall we live? By my final semester on Mount St. James, I felt more grounded in my values and en route to a concentration in peace and conflict studies. Jim Nickoloff’s Liberation Theology course provided me with a framework for thinking about the inequities I had come to care deeply about. I was learning that liberation theology sprung out of Latin America and emphasized a preferential option for the poor, a focus on solidarity with those struggling against injustice, a focus on praxis, and an emphasis on the need to understand the structural underpinnings that lead to poverty. As I would later learn, Paul Farmer was influenced by these same principles. 

Some years after graduating from Holy Cross, I happened to read Tracy Kidder's "Mountains Beyond Mountains," about the life and work of Farmer and PIH. Like countless others before and after me, this book catalyzed the next stage of my journey: pursuing a Master of Public Health in global health, working for health equity organizations in Southeast Asia and East Africa, and eventually helping start the HEAL Initiative, a global health fellowship working to train and transform frontline health professionals in the U.S. and abroad. It is by no small accident that four of the sites in which HEAL operates are also PIH sites.

It was while sitting down to lunch with Farmer that I first came to know his sharp wit and keen intelligence. He was gracious enough to meet with the HEAL co-founders and I to discuss our mission statement and to offer advice. As we were leaving, he asked about my educational journey. He lit up at the mention Holy Cross and reached for a book to sign for me: "In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez." I shouldn't have been surprised that he'd co-authored a book with one of the founders of liberation theology. I should have been less surprised to learn that Jim Nickoloff was mentioned in the acknowledgements.

I later shared this story with my mother and father. I remember my dad chuckling as I shared the story and that Farmer and PIH were key inspirations for me and my work. In turn, he shared how some concepts in liberation theology and Catholic social thought had guided him throughout his life as a dedicated husband, father of seven and career educator in the public school system in Rockland, Massachusetts, where I grew up. Despite our different paths – his supporting students in a small working-class community and my supporting health workers in global health settings – the parallels between our inspirations were striking. It was clear that Holy Cross had taught us both to grapple with the question: How, then, shall we live?

Farmer died while taking care of patients and teaching on the campus of a medical school and hospital in rural Rwanda that he helped found. My father died in 2014, my mother's hand in his, while strolling the streets of Venice, Italy, to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. It's safe to say that they both died too young. It's also safe to say that they both died doing what they loved most.

Written by Joseph Scarpelli ’05 for the Spring 2022 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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