After a decade of charitable efforts, hundreds of miles under his belt and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised, Brother Shamus McGrenra, a St. Francis University employee, is looking forward to another 10 years of philanthropic bike rides.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” he said.
Since 2011, when he began his charitable trips, McGrenra has raised more than $500,000 for the Dorothy Day Outreach Center, based on the St. Francis University campus in Loretto.
Last year, he biked 400 miles along the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany, New York, and set his largest single-year goal of $92,000, which he ultimately surpassed by more than $10,000.
McGrenra’s idea for the annual excursion came from an exchange he witnessed between a person in need and a staff member at the center 10 years ago. Realizing that he’s never been in such a position and most likely never would be, McGrenra, now 73, decided to organize an event to lend a hand. Utilizing his love of cycling, which developed in the 1970s because of the movie “Breaking Away,” he began to explore how he could turn that passion into a fundraiser.
With the help of friend Robert Crusciel, St. Francis’ vice president for advancement, the Franciscan scheduled a 350-mile ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., along the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal.
McGrenra and Crusciel have known each other for more than two decades.
“Brother Shamus is the epitome of giving of oneself to make life better for others,” Crusciel said. “His dedication to the less fortunate is so admired by all of us here at St. Francis and beyond. He’s the genuine article – a ‘salt of the earth’ kind of guy who sees the best in everyone he encounters.”
The first year, he suggested McGrenra start with a goal of $5,000.
“I looked at him and said, ‘You’re nuts. I’ve never raised five cents let alone $5,000,’ ” McGrenra said.
After reaching out to sponsors, though, the pair saw that that goal wasn’t out of reach.
“Quite surprisingly, donations came in to the tune of $12,000,” Crusciel said. “Brother Shamus and I looked at each other and thought, ‘We’re onto something here.’ ”
Thus began a yearly odyssey on two wheels.
McGrenra has traveled up and down much of the East Coast on his trips, visiting states including Virginia, New York and Florida. Every year is a different route and a new adventure.
Typically, he’ll set a goal of a few hundred miles, invite some friends, sleep in cheap motels, eat light and start early. He used to cover 80 to 90 miles per day, but has cut back to 40 or 50.
The trip he took in 2016 was his biggest undertaking. He traveled from New York City to Sarasota, Florida.
“I hope to go ’til I drop,” McGrenra said.
Gabriel Amato, Dorothy Day Outreach Center director, is thankful for McGrenra’s charity.
“We believe it is a wonderful event that brings people together such as alumni, students, and faculty,” he said.
The money raised has also allowed the organization to expand its ability to “help more individuals and families” than before.
“As a result of the bike ride, it has increased our resources as we assist people with heating, utility bills, rent, car insurance, eye glasses, medical (and) car repairs for people who need their vehicles for work or doctor appointments,” Amato said.
Since starting, McGrenra has only missed one year - 2013.That’s because he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. McGrenra was “flabbergasted by the diagnosis” because he had lived a clean life, with no drinking or drugs. He began the necessary treatments, and by November of that year the disease had spread to his lungs.
McGrenra described the experience as “horrible” and said he could barely get out of bed most days.
“Obviously, that year’s ride was postponed, but we decided to still send out a fundraising letter explaining Brother Shamus’ condition, but reminding folks that the needs of the (Dorothy Day Outreach Center) will always be there,” Crusciel said. “Alumni and friends contributed $30,000 in his honor to the DDOC cause. Believe me, that wouldn’t have happened if Brother Shamus hadn’t become a part of their lives. And he was back on his bike the next summer.”
McGrenra endured two years of chemotherapy, and in 2015 he decided to retire from the university after a nearly 40-year career in higher education.
In 1966, he joined the Franciscan order and received his undergraduate degree in 1972, followed by his master’s in 1978.
McGrenra, originally from the Philadelphia area, worked at St. Francis for about 10 years after finishing school, then joined St. Johns University in New York City, where he worked in recruitment and admissions for 22 years.
While in his 60s, the friar considered retirement and wanted to end where he started in Loretto. That was in 2009. Now, he’s been cancer-free for five years and has been back at St. Francis, working part-time with Crusciel in the advancement office.
McGrenra said his upbringing has played a large role in his charitable endeavors. He is the son of Irish immigrants and one of six children.His parents instilled important principles such as thankfulness to the Lord in him and always tried to give to those who were less fortunate, he said.
“In many ways, they lived the gospel message,” he said.
Those values have stayed with him throughout his life, and he considers them his “guiding light.”
McGrenra’s next trip is in the planning stages at the moment, and he’s considering a longer trek than ever before. He’ll start in Nashville, Tennessee, bike to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama before finishing the 1,300-mile journey in Sarasota, Florida.