Sunday, February 1, 2009

Shepherds of the Flock

Our neighborhood church (est. in 1872) was Our Lady of Lourdes on Aberdeen Street and Broadway in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. It was a large, magnificent place to worship; a real old-fashioned church with marble columns, a huge altar, giant stained-glass windows and a Gothic looking choir loft from which we choir boys had a bird's eye view of the splendor and ritual that was the Catholic mass. The feature that stands out most sharply my mind was in the back of the church...a recreation of the grotto in France where Bernadette of Lourdes had a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Built and dedicated in 1904, it was a dramatic and inspirational place, with a statue of Mary in the side of a mountain cave hewn out of rock.

Churches today have difficulty recruiting priests; if it wasn't for India, the rectories would be empty. Not so back in the fifties when religious vocations were high. Most parishes had a staff of priests who (like the Yankee and Dodger lineups) never changed. Each parish the size of Lourdes had at least 4-5 full-time priests in residence, and a full schedule of Sunday masses. I don't recall the priests as clearly as I do the Franciscan Brothers who taught in the schools, simply because we spent so much time with the Brothers and only saw the priests on Sundays. Here are the ones I remember; maybe my friend and old schoolmate Joe D. will chip in anything he may recall from those bygone days 50-60 years ago.

Father Schaefer is the priest I remember best, probably because he was so young compared to the other priests on staff, and because of the incident I will describe. He was a handsome, strapping, red-headed Irishman who looked more like a union organizer than a priest. He took an interest in the kids in the parish, and the girls followed him around like wide-eyed groupies. He also supervised the "confraternity" dances held in the school basement. One night rumor had it that one of the local gangs was planning to crash the dance. Father Schaefer rounded up some of the bigger eighth graders and told us to stand behind him at the top of the stairs that led to the church basement. When the gang showed up, he stepped up and told them they were welcome to stay if they behaved, but if they wanted trouble, he would give it to them. Just like they were following a script, they turned and left, (thank God because I was scared to death. He was Gary Cooper in High Noon, and the punks knew they had met their match.

Father Gonzalez is next, a Hispanic priest with a round face and shy smile who spoke very little English. He was a very popular priest on Saturday afternoons when we kids would dutifully go to confession. Why so popular you ask? Was he an understanding and sympathetic confessor who left you feeling truly forgiven for your sins? Really, you're not from Brooklyn, are you? Father Gonzalez had the longest line outside his confessional because of his difficulty understanding English. Whether your sin was premeditated murder or impure thoughts, Father doled out the same penance, three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, the best forgiveness deal in town!

Father Lacy was a dark, good looking man with black hair flecked with gray. He was short in stature, but solid and well-built like a running back. At first glance, his visage was stern. He had a five-o-clock shadow worse than Nixon's, and it gave him a slightly sinister look. When he smiled though, it lit up his face and made your misgivings go away. He also relished the ritual of walking around the church blessing the congregation with holy water...he would look you straight in the eye and douse you. I didn't know him well, but recall he always wore the floor length cassock and large crucifix that was the habit of the Fathers of Mercy.

Father McCormick (I believe he was the parish pastor but I'm not sure) was the poster boy for an Irish-Catholic priest. He was tall and slightly overweight, with a pale face topped by wispy white hair. I don't know why I remember this, but to me his mind always seemed to be elsewhere on the few occasions I spoke with him. I couldn't swear to it but I think he was at my confirmation ceremony, and looked nervous in the presence of his boss, Archbishop Molloy, probably fearing (not unreasonably) that one of us would embarrass him somehow.

I know Catholic priests have taken a beating in the past 20 years, as ugly charges of sexual abuse have erupted in the headlines. I find that sad because it taints the real sacrifices made by the vast majority of priests who selflessly dedicated their lives to our spiritual well being. This is how I prefer to remember the priests of Our Lady of Lourdes.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Father lacy was a Yankee fan! He came into my classroom during the World Series of 1955, in Brooklyn, and told the class we had to pray for the Yankees to win! How's that for Irish Chutzpah? Don't forget Father Gonzalez! I thought Father lacy was the pastor? Do you have any other pixs of Lourdes Church? It was the most beautiful place I can ever remember!

Jim Pantaleno said...

I have been searching for pictures of Lourdes but to no avail. I found the shot of the school that I sent you; that was in my old graduation autograph book, but I have been unable to find any shots of the church, either exterior or interior. They might be out there but no luck so far. Do you remember Our Lady of Loretto on Sackman Street? They are sponsoring an East New York reunion in March. Some nice old pictures on their website. Paste this link into your browser for details.