updated 3/30/2005 10:38:44 AM ET 2005-03-30T15:38:44

Conspicuous in their simple black friar's robes, two Roman Catholic monks move daily among the colorful knot of protesters and reporters outside the hospice where Terri Schiavo lies dying.

Instead of quietly providing food and shelter to the homeless and downtrodden back in Minnesota, Paul O'Donnell, 45, and Hilary McGee, 51, have joined the internationally watched right-to-die battle and the accompanying media circus as counselors and advocates for the brain-damaged woman's parents, who are fighting to keep her alive.

Members of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace in St. Paul, Minn., the monks also serve as much more than spiritual advisers to Bob and Mary Schindler _ they prepare meals, chauffeur the family around the state, even pick up their mail and dry cleaning.

And lately, O'Donnell has stepped before the cluster of microphones and bank of TV cameras to talk about the family's plight. He started his day Monday speaking to Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show.

"If this is going down, I'm glad I'm here to make the statements and bear witness to what I call the gospel of life," said the balding, bespectacled O'Donnell, the leader of a 10-man order that usually serves the homeless and gives shelter to international torture victims. "I thank God for bringing me into this situation."

Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed March 18 on a court order sought by her husband, Michael, who contends she wouldn't want to be kept alive artificially. Early Wednesday, a federal appeals court agreed to consider the Schindler's petition for a new hearing on whether to reconnect their daughter's feeding tube.

Time running out
Doctors have said Terri Schiavo, 41, would probably die within a week or two of the tube being removed. She suffered catastrophic brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped for several minutes because of a chemical imbalance apparently brought on by an eating disorder.

The legal and moral question of whether she should be kept alive with a feeding tube hit close to home for O'Donnell. He spent more than 12 years caring for Brother Michael Gaworski, the founder of his order, who suffered severe brain damage after being stricken with bacterial pneumonia.

Gaworski was "slightly above a vegetative state" and was kept alive with a feeding tube until his death two years ago at the friary, O'Donnell said. Through it all, O'Donnell became what he calls "a self-taught medical advocate for brain-injured persons," speaking on the subject around the country.

O'Donnell met Terri Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, at a national Right to Life event where both were scheduled to speak. Bobby showed the now much-aired video snippet of his disabled sister apparently reacting to her mother. Neurologists say those actions were involuntary, but O'Donnell _ who saw many parallels to his experience with Gaworski _ doesn't believe it.

"I saw the videotape of Terri, and I was compelled to get involved and more than just in an ordinary supportive way," he said. "We wanted to be on the forefront of this effort to save her life."

The monks' help has been invaluable to the family, said Mary Schindler's brother, Mike Tammaro.

"They are a tremendous comfort," he said. "They're there for Bob and Mary, they pray with him and take care of all the minor details. They'll do anything you ask. They're just a tremendous help."

The monks came to the Florida with the blessing of the Roman Catholic bishop in Minneapolis to help the Schindlers, whose supporters have been openly critical of the Diocese of St. Petersburg for not taking a strong stand in the parents' fight for Terri Schiavo's life.

"If people cast us off as fanatics, then they cast us off as fanatics," O'Donnell said. "But that's part of what being a prophetic witness is, to be able to say something is the truth. Whether or not people listen doesn't matter to us. We're called to speak it and live it."

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