This week's series of Patch Portraits also include a and .
For years, children have called him “Uncle Pete.” They know him as the man who collects sack lunches, clothes and furniture and drives them to low-income neighborhoods to distribute to homeless and needy people.
At age 89, Peter Zonsius has become a local legend for his charity in driving to Chicago's rough neighborhoods to deliver food, clothes, furniture and hope.
Kids who attend St. John Brebeuf School in Niles, where he worked as custodian for 26 years before retiring, are used to his friendly greeting and his practice of collecting baby clothes for poor women who are expecting.
What they may not know is that “Uncle” Pete Zonsius is still carrying out the charitable work he’s done for 40 years--despite the fact he’s 89 years old, got out of the hospital two weeks ago for respiratory trouble, and is carrying around an oxygen tank.
Delivering the goods
That won’t stop him from soliciting donations from Niles residents and hand-delivering them to souls in desperate circumstances on Chicago’s West Side.
“I've got work to do yet," said Uncle Pete on Monday, visiting with relatives and friends at St. Juliana parish, near the Chicago-Niles border, where he sometimes attends Mass, though his home parish is St. John Brebeuf.
Uncle Pete motioned to his portable oxygen tank, explaining, "They gave me a little Uncle Pete Junior and I'm still going.”
The soft-hearted man said he was inspired to do good works after seeing suffering while in the Army, watching his father help the poor as a member of the St. Vincent DePaul Society (a Catholic organization devoted to helping those in need) and gratitude after he and his wife Barbara adopted their two children with assistance from Catholic Charities.
Started by working with newborns
He started his misslons of mercy in 1965 by volunteering with Catholic Charities, picking up newborns from mothers who couldn’t keep them and taking them to foster homes where they would be cared for until adopted.
"This one boy I picked up years ago...I'm still in touch with him, I still see him, I call him up on his birthday. He's a freshman in college now," reminisces Uncle Pete.
Sister Catherine Madigan, D.C., one of the Daughters of Charity nuns who has known Zonsius for years and originally encouraged him to get involved, recalled that he once took her students at the now-shuttered Marillac High School, which was in Northfield, down to a soup kitchen near Chicago’s then-Skid Row to volunteer. They fed about 100 men and two women in a soup line—an experience that overwhelmed the suburban girls.
To individuals, not institutions
Uncle Pete is proud of the fact he doesn’t just take goods to thrift shops, but directly to people in need.
“I don’t just drop things off at shelters and leave,” he said, adding he gives to individuals, not institutions. If he can, he engages people in conversation.
“It’s about being out there and touching people,” he said. “People just need a little hope, and it means a lot to give them something and treat them with humanity.”
To that end, Uncle Pete asks church and school groups in Niles and Park Ridge to make up sack lunches for the homeless. People also call him to donate clothing or furniture.
He takes them to Madonna House, Everett’s Place, or similar shelters for people who need a helping hand, or low-income women who are expecting a child.
Sometimes, though, he’ll just spot a homeless person in a park, stop his car and make an Uncle Pete-style mission of charity, which includes friendly conversation.
Goes to rough neighborhoods, but never harmed
He goes to about 20 places in all, in high-crime Chicago neighborhoods such as North Lawndale, West Garfield Park and East Garfield Park. In 40 years, no one has ever bothered him, he says; though once, someone smashed the windows of his car and took the food that was inside.
Some of Uncle Pete’s work takes place closer to home. Madigan says he brings flowers to widows and widowers, and Zonsius told of how he sends cards to the bereaved parents of a son and daughter, St. John Brebeuf students, who died of health problems. He sends the cards every year on the children’s birthdays.
Uncle Pete acknowledges his softest spot is for children—whether they’re babies, or the children at a shelter who recently rushed up and hugged him so enthusiastically that they knocked him to the floor.
“I love children,” he said simply.
The beat goes on
The octogenarian has no plans to slow down, oxygen tank or no oxygen tank.
“God is good,” he said, hugging those he was visiting with at St. Juliana’s. “And he’s not finished with me yet.”