Sunday, November 28, 2010

Homily for 1st Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of AdventNov. 28, 2010
Matt 24: 37-44
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“It is the hour now for your to awake from sleep,” St. Paul alerts the Romans (13:11). He probably wasn’t talking about getting up in time for meditation, or not drowsing off after you get to chapel. As he makes clear in what follows, he’s talking about living out the conversion of life that we undertook at Baptism. He’s talking about “staying awake” as if in vigil for the Lord’s return, as Jesus says. As you know, this 1st Sunday of Advent looks to his 2d coming, not his 1st.

The words of Jesus today have given rise in some Protestant sects to a whole theology of the Rapture: “one will be taken, and one will be left” (Matt 24:40-41). In advance of the 2d Coming of Christ, God will “catch up” and “whisk away to heaven” those who are to be saved, and leave behind those who don’t belong to Christ, to face horrific calamities. That theology spawned a best-selling series of novels called Left Behind. They tried making movies of the books, and let’s say they weren’t Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. I saw one, and that was quite enuf.

But there’s a serious message here, a message of expecting the Master’s return, of being prepared. When he comes, Jesus says, it’ll be sudden, “as in the days of Noah” (24:37). If you haven’t already built your ark, it’ll be too late when the clouds gather and burst open. When the Son of Man comes, it’ll be decisive: “one will be taken, and one will be left”—not left behind in an evil word, as Rapture theology would have it, but left out of the kingdom, counted among the goats at the Judge’s left hand (cf. Matt 25:31-46). Our opening prayer this morning asked that “Christ…call us to his side in the kingdom,” counting us among his sheep.

I think I may safely assume that I needn’t repeat Paul’s entire warning to the Ursulines. I doubt the convent is secretly a college frat house.

So what is Jesus telling us today when he tells us, whether out tilling the fields or at the threshold grinding meal, to stay awake and be ready for the Lord?

Two things, both of which we learned—or they tried to teach us—in the novitiate: age quod agis, go about your regular duties attentively and wholeheartedly; and live in the presence of God.

When Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake, he doesn’t place them at prayer in the synagog or in the family room, gathered and waiting (as some sects have done when some misguided prophet has convinced them that the Last Day is at hand). Jesus, rather, places his disciples at their daily tasks: a man in the fields, a woman at her home millstone. My favorite story of St. Aloysius Gonzaga (which I’ve probably shared with you before) concerns how he and his young Jesuit companions were at recreation one day—doing whatever novices and scholastics did in the late 16th century for recreation—and one fellow asked Aloysius what he’d do if he knew that he was to die in the next half hour. Apparently this comrade expected Aloysius to say he’d go to church to pray, or seek out his confessor, or some such thing. Instead, Aloysius answered that he’d keep right on playing, because that was what God expected him to be doing at that time.

And God expects us to stay awake in expectation of his coming by going about our daily duties, attentively and wholeheartedly: praying, cleaning, letter writing, cooking, engaging in conversation, reading, driving someone to the doctor, assisting the sick, the aged, the needy, whatever the day, the moment, the person before us calls for. If our mind or our heart is elsewhere—whether taken up in heavenly thoughts and prayer, or more earthbound by what we’d rather be doing or with whom we’d rather be talking just then—then we won’t do well what we’re supposed to be doing just then or won’t be serving well the person who’s right in front of us just then. Age quod agis, in the Lord.

2d, as we go about our daily work, relaxation, conversation, and prayer, we try to be conscious of God’s presence—conscious according to the circumstances, of course. While we’re driving, we’d better be more attentive to the road than to the Lord! While speaking with someone, we’d better be attending to what she’s saying and not thinking about Mary visiting Elizabeth or Jesus dying on the cross. But we have many moments when we can whisper at least mentally that we’re speaking, moving, thinking, even breathing in the Lord’s name, offering our all to the Father thru our Savior. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God,” Paul urges the Corinthians (I, 10:31). “Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus,” he commands the Thessalonians (I, 5:17-18). As we undertake our daily chores, our daily routine, our meetings, our physical exercise, whatever we do, we consciously or unconsciously—but better consciously —offer them to the Father in Christ. We do them for him, and from time to time we try to make that explicit. We invite Jesus to accompany us in our conversation, our walking, our working, our reading, even our resting, and to present all this to the Father as our humble prayers of praise and gratitude.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving in New Rochelle

Thanksgiving in New Rochelle

"So, what are you doing for the holiday?"

I get asked that a lot, whether the holiday is Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, or one of the lesser American "festivals" like Labor Day or July 4. The usual answer is that we're celebrating it together. "We" is the local SDB community--often enuf, both local SDB communities (provincial house and high school). These are family occasions for most Americans, and we SDBs are family to one another.

So it was today. Of our provincial house community of 18, 16 were home for the occasion, and 4 of the high school's 6 confreres joined us for dinner. (Bro. Don Caldwell's mom died in Pittsburgh earlier this week; he's been with her thru most of her illness, and Fr. Pat went out there the other day. The 4 men still home will leave tomorrow a.m. for the wake and funeral.)

Several of the confreres "conspired" to prepare dinner, and others did the decorating. So we had an outstanding feast of thanks and fellowship--as usual.

Need I mention that Mass was part of the celebration earlier in the day? No Salesian feast is complete without giving thanks to the Lord.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fr. Jack Trisolini, SDB

Fr. Jack Trisolini, SDB (1937-2010)
Missionary to Korea

Bro. Hilario Seo, SDB, a Korean who is the Congregation’s Webmaster, composed a notice in Rome of Fr. Jack’s death in Seoul today, to which your blogger has added material from his own communications with Fr. Jack in the last three years.
The Salesian Constitutions include this statement: “When it happens that a Salesian dies working for souls, the Congregation has won a great triumph” (art. 54). We have, then, a story of triumph, coming today from the Korean Province. On November 22 at about 5:00 p.m., Fr. John F. Trisolini was called by the Lord to Don Bosco’s garden in Paradise, while at work in his office at the Workers Center of the Seoul Archdiocese, where he had spent more than 20 years.

Fr. Jack Trisolini, seated, at the provincial house in New Rochelle in July 2007, with Fr. Ed Cappelletti, who was by then retired after serving as director of Salesian Missions in New Rochelle for almost 50 years. Fr. Jack was already suffering from cancer.
Fr. John F. (Jack) Trisolini was born in Hoboken, N.J., March 2, 1937, and raised in Jersey City (St. Anne’s Parish). Professed as a Salesian on Sept. 8, 1958, he graduated from Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., in June 1959 and was sent to Korea in December 1959 to continue his training as a teacher at Salesian High School in Kwangju. Fr. Trisolini studied theology in Rome and Turin (1962-1964) and Lyons (1964-1967); he was ordained in Lyons on April 15, 1967. He took an additional course in pastoral theology in Lyons in 1967-1968 with an emphasis on Catholic Action and youth groups (especially the Young Christian Workers).

Prior to his 50th anniversary of profession, he wrote of his time in France: “Fr. Francis Desramaut is quite a character. Whenever I visited Lyons, he would open the door for me and give me a big welcome—three clunks forehead-to-forehead, French style. I loved my three-plus years at Fontainières. After two years at the Pontificio Ateneo Salesiano, Fontainières was open, cosmopolitan, bright, erudite, and willing to accept that the New World wasn’t just an intellectual desert.

“The staff was top notch: Fr. Andre Barucq, a translator of the Jerusalem Bible and part of the team that wrote L’Introduction a la Bible; Fr. Joseph Aubry, who later did great work under the Rector Major—his courses were given with a Bishop Sheen-like enthusiasm and plenty of subject matter; Fr. André Guebey in canon law—he had joke for every canon so that you wouldn’t forget them. We took some courses at the Institut Catholique de Lyon and had people like de Lubac, Abbé Pierre, the Economie et Humanisme team of Père Lebret, OP (ghost writer of Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris) come in for special lectures. The Economie et Humanisme team and another team from the Sorbonne each stayed for month-long seminars.”

Returning to Korea in 1968, he did parish work in Seoul for two years and became very active in youth ministry among young workers in the Archdiocese of Seoul. In 1970 he became treasurer at Don Bosco Youth Center in Seoul. He was especially involved in assisting the Young Catholic Workers-Korea during the period of military dictatorship, in which he had to suffer so much to protect young workers’ rights from the brutal military government.

In 1976 he was transferred to the provincial house in Seoul as community treasurer; he had become province treasurer the year before, a position he filled for six years. Also in 1976 he was named head of the province’s formation program and national delegate of the Salesian Cooperators. From 1984 to 1990 he served as director of the Dae Rim Dong (Seoul) community.

In 1971 Cardinal Stephen Kim appointed Fr. Trisolini chairman of the newly formed Labor Pastoral Commission of the archdiocese of Seoul—a post he held until 1999. From 1990 he worked full time with the Seoul Archdiocesan Labor Pastoral Commission—as director of the Labor Pastoral Center since 2001. In 2002 pastoral care of migrant workers in the archdiocese was added to his responsibilities. The influence of Fr. Trisolini’s ministry extended beyond Korea to other parts of East Asia. We should say that really his life is the authentic testimony and history of the youth-worker ministry in the Korean Church. He was mourned as the “godfather of the Korean labor movement.”

Recently Fr. Jack suffered from lung and kidney cancer, which forced him to undergo dialysis twice a week, including this morning (Nov. 22). After he came back to his office, he was looking very tired and was anxious to prepare for the 40th anniversary of his office, the Workers Center of Seoul Archdiocese. At 5:00 p.m. he was found dead, seated on his chair in front of the computer monitor on which appeared a part of the draft of his new book on worker ministry history, which will be published for the 40th anniversary.

The funeral Mass will celebrated on November 25 in the cathedral of Seoul, and his body, according to his own wish, will be donated for medical study, destined for the Catholic Medical University in Seoul, without interment. According to Fr. Henry Bonetti, another American missionary to Korea, this is the general practice of the Salesians there. After about a month they’ll cremate the body and send the ashes to the provincial house, where they’ll be put into a niche prepared for the confreres in a room reserved for that purpose.

Please remember him in your prayers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

N.R. Province Holds Mini-Congress on Bl. Michael Rua

New Rochelle Province
Holds Mini-Congress
To Celebrate Blessed Michael Rua

The centennial year of Blessed Michael Rua ( closed in the New Rochelle Province with a mini-congress on Saturday afternoon, November 13, at the Don Bosco Retreat Center in Haverstraw. In addition to members of the provincial chapter, which was meeting in the same place all that week, the mini-congress was open to the whole Salesian Family.

After the showing of a DVD on Fr. Rua prepared in Turin for the centennial year, there were presentations by three confreres who had taken part in the international Rua congresses in Italy in 2009-2010. Your humble blogger gave a detailed history of Fr. Rua’s involvement in the development of Salesian work in the Eastern U.S., followed by a question-and-answer period.

Fr. John Puntino used a PowerPoint presentation to ask, and answer, “Who was Fr. Rua?” He showed Fr. Rua as another Don Bosco, but not identical to our Founder; as leader of the Salesian Family; as promoter of the missions—all in the context of his times.

Fr. Romeo Trottier presented Fr. Rua’s spirituality and holiness, based on the research of Fr. Aldo Giraudo into witnesses’ testimony at the diocesan process for Fr. Rua’s beatification. Another question-and-answer period followed the last presentation.

Catholic Press Association Holds Regional Meeting

Catholic Press Association
Holds Regional Meeting in Baltimore
Every spring the Catholic Press Association and the Catholic Academy for Communication Arts Professionals hold a big convention—the Catholic Media Convention.

Last year, at the request of many members, the CPA revived a custom of holding annual regional meetings in the fall. In 2009 the Northeast Region met in Metuchen, and earlier this month (Nov. 4-5) we met in Baltimore.

About 40 journalists—editors, ad men, reporters, photographers, and CPA officers—attended the meeting at the Brookshire Suites downtown, a short walk from the Inner Harbor. Most of the attendees were Baltimore and Washington locals, but others were from New York, Rockville Centre, Philadelphia, Trenton, Metuchen, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and even the non-northeastern venues of Atlanta and Edmonton!

On Thursday morning, the 4th, we heard a keynote from Karen Ristau, president of the NCEA, on the challenges facing Catholic education today, before breaking into separate tracks for the editors-reporters and the advertising folks for most of the rest of the meeting. After an introduction that showed a certain continuity of concerns in Catholic education over the last 40 years (vocations shortage, financing, declining enrollment, effective religious education), Mrs. Ristau noted that 174 schools closed or merged in 2009-10, but 24 new ones opened. This is happening in a context in which our big cities also are closing public schools. She cited articles opining that Catholic schools will survive only if they stress the values that make them different, respond to the diverse backgrounds of the population (students in our schools are 30% minorities and 15% non-Catholic), and share a sense of ownership among parish, faculty, and parents. Archbishop Dolan’s recent essay in America urged the obligation of all Catholics (not just local parishioners) to support our schools. Three challenges that Catholic schools face are (1) to find way to acknowledge the good things going on in our schools, (2) to define problems accurately and find ways to address them, and (3) to preserve or restore a sense of civility. Our “top story” should be how much good Catholic schools are doing for their students.

Dr. Owen Phelps from Rockford, Ill., gave two presentations on management issues (time and people).

Helen Osman, the USCCB secretary for communications (and a past president of the CPA), spoke about social media; in particular, she presented brand-new guidelines from the bishops conference (“Social Media: Best Practices and Guidelines”). Mrs. Osman said that social media are a different way of delivering a message—in our case, the Gospel—to a new generation. That generation is the one whom Benedict XVI has called “the digital continent.” In particular, she said, young Latinos are adapting to new media even faster than other young people. We in the media business should be asking ourselves: (1) Who is our target audience? (2) What media are they using? (3) Who can help us use new media to reach them?

Late in the afternoon a bus transferred us to Baltimore’s original cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—which is also the original cathedral church of the entire U.S. It was begun by Bishop John Carroll in 1805, designed by Benjamin Latrobe (the architect of the U.S. Capitol), completed in 1821, and completely renovated a few years ago (a few details of renovation remain to be done). It’s a magnificent piece of neo-classical architecture; Carroll chose that form over a more traditional Gothic design that Latrobe also offered, to demonstrate that American Catholics belonged to this new country and the forms of life and government it was adopting. Set on what was at the time the highest hill in Baltimore, it also rivaled in size and grandeur even the Capitol (as it was in 1805), proudly broadcasting the religious freedom of American Catholics.

We got a good guided tour that pointed out such features as the old galleries for slaves and free blacks and for cloistered sisters, the extension of the sanctuary necessitated by Latrobe’s too-small original (a non-Catholic, he had no concept of Catholic liturgy), the paintings imported from France, the cathedra used by all the archbishops of Baltimore up to 1959 (when a new cathedral was built) and two Popes, and the tombs of Archbishop Carroll, Cardinal Gibbons, and other archbishops. We heard about great moments in Catholic history that occurred there, including the funeral of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the only Catholic), the ordination of Fr. Michael McGivney, who went on to found the Knights of Columbus, visits from Mother Teresa and various civil dignitaries, and the three plenary councils of the American bishops (the third of which, in 1884, decreed that every parish should have an elementary school, set up the Catholic University of America, and commissioned the famous Baltimore Catechism).

After the tour, I concelebrated Mass for our group with the rector of the cathedral in the cozy basement chapel.

A lavish dinner at a very upscale Brazilian restaurant followed, courtesy of Pentecost Tours.

Friday’s agenda for the editorial track opened with a panel consisting of three experts from the USCCB, who discussed the policy implications of the elections earlier in the week. The panel included John Carr, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development; Maria Odom, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network; and Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities (for more about this, see
They were followed by a presentation on new media from Chris Gunty of the Catholic Review of Baltimore: what media are new, and how they can work for Catholic journalists.

After lunch the whole group of us got another new media presentation from communications guru David Bell, chairman emeritus of Interpublic Group and former CEO of True North Communications. He told us that our organizations can’t afford not to develop a high quality Web site as well as to establish a presence at YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The Internet has been through two waves, the first about access, the second about the platform. The third wave will be about content, including data, aesthetics, the personalization of everything, ad formats, and of course quality. He cited as models the sites of ESPN, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and And he laid out several principles: (1) Catholic media have to work together; therein lies huge strength. (2) The Internet isn’t like print; it’s an experience. (3) Edited and curated content has its proper place. (4) Relevance is key amid the slews and slews of information and data that are available. (5) The Internet loves personalities. (6) Strong content brands will survive. Finally, Mr. Bell said, publishing requires a new age journalist at the top, and passionate, savvy youngsters on the staff. “Good news,” he said, “comes to those who are willing to kiss change on the lips.”

For the editors and journalists, the conference concluded with “Photography for Reporters—Managing Two Jobs in One,” led by Ann Augherton of the Arlington Catholic Herald with ample sharing from the floor.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Homily for 33d Sunday of Ordinary Time

for the 33d Sunday
of Ordinary TimeNov. 14, 2010
Luke 21: 5-19
Mal 3:19-20
2 Thess 3: 7-12
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“By your perseverance you will secure your lives” (Luke 21: 19).

Yesterday “perseverance” came up in the parable of the widow and the corrupt judge, and in the life of Mother Cabrini. Today it comes up with a different meaning: not perseverance in prayer or in the pursuit of a vocation or in the building of an apostolic enterprise, but in faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ thru the “toil and drudgery” of daily life, thru earthly travails, thru persecution (2 Thess 3:8) until the end of our individual lives or until that “day comes blazing like an oven,” the Last Day (cf. Mal 3:19).

After Jesus’ journey up to Jerusalem with his disciples, today we find them in the temple, the center of the Jewish world, gawking like tourists in Times Square. Jesus brings them down by predicting the temple’s destruction, which in turn leads to their questioning him about what will lead up to such a terrible event. Jesus speaks of false messiahs, wars and insurrections, natural disasters, omens, and persecutions—such things as in fact preceded the Roman army’s capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. His “forecast,” tho, seems to be open-ended, which is how Luke would have seen it, writing well after 70. The temple’s ruin wasn’t the end of the world; Christians would have to continue waiting for Jesus’ return, would have to persevere thru the various trials of ordinary life, thru the extraordinary trials of life, thru ongoing betrayals and persecutions.

Those who persevere to the end will secure their lives, i.e., will be saved when the Lord does return. There will finally be a day of reckoning. Both the anonymous prophet Malachi (the name means simply “Messenger”) and Psalm 98 speak of the coming of the Lord with justice: “He will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity” (98:9). There’s precious little justice in this world; we wait for God to straighten everything out, put everything in proper order.

Malachi implies that the Lord, when he comes on “the day that is coming” (3:19), will separate the just from the unjust, will use fire and heat to punish the latter and reward the former. Fire as punishment for the wicked is a common biblical image, used by the prophets, by John the Baptist, and by Jesus. That day, “blazing like an oven,” will burn evildoers like stubble, like the refuse burned as fuel after the harvest.

We all know how welcome a fire is on a chilly evening—or on a Scout camping trip! We know how the snowbirds fly to Florida and Arizona for the winter, seeking a warm and sunny climate. For the just, “you who fear my name,” fire—“the sun of justice”—will bring healing warmth and light. On a cold spring nite, we light a great fire to signal that Christ, light of the world, is risen for our salvation—and we burst into an Exsultet and then into a Gloria: “with trumpets and the sound of the horn, [we] sing joyfully before the King, the Lord” (98:6).

Between now and “that day,” how are we to wait for the Lord? What are we to do? Paul’s friends in Thessalonica struggled with that question. It may be that some of them, believing the Lord’s return was imminent, sat on their hands waiting. Why engage “in toil and drudgery, night and day” (3:8) if Jesus will return at any moment to complete our redemption? Thruout the Christian ages there have been groups who thought the 2d Coming was imminent, sold their belongings, and gathered to wait…and wait…and wait. Their waiting has always been disappointed. Paul explains that life must go on, including toil and earning one livelihood. Anything else is a disorder, an imposition upon the community. Furthermore, those who don’t work wind up as nuisances, or worse, among the community, “not keeping busy but minding the business of others” (3:11)—at best, distracting and interfering in the work of others, worse yet gossiping. (What would Paul have said in the age of texting, blogging, and tweeting?)

No, Paul tells us, we have to keep on working, day by day, carrying out our duties, “working quietly” (3:12). The Christian lives in the world, contributes to this world, is “faithful in serving” the Father (Collect) until the Lord comes again or until the Lord calls her home.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Out of Brandon

Out of Brandon

On October 30 I received an e-mail informing me: “Nativity is celebrating the Golden Jubilee, 50 years of being a canonical Parish. Are you the same Mike Mendl [a friend] mentioned? I found you on the internet and the numbers match but nowhere do you mention Brandon. I am working on the book to celebrate this occasion and would appreciate any thoughts you might offer regarding Nativity on your ‘Journey of Faith.’” So, over the course of a couple of weeks, I composed what follows.

Brandon, Florida, 1957
My family—John and Cecilia and three small kids—moved to Brandon in June 1957, relocating from Tampa's Palma Ceia section and Christ the King Parish. I was the oldest sibling, not yet 9 and fresh out of third grade at CK; Chris was 7, Rita about to turn 6.

Tampa was really not much of a city in 1957, certainly not nearly what it has become. Brandon was positively country, acres and acres of citrus groves and pasture. Hwy. 60 had only 2 lanes from 301 to Vero Beach, and Parsons Ave. had the only stop light between 301 and Bartow.

“Downtown” Brandon didn’t have much besides the post office, some gas stations, Frenchy’s tavern at the southwest corner of Bryan Rd. and Hwy. 60, and Scogin’s department store. For groceries, serious shopping, banking, or Dad’s building supplies and hardware you went into Tampa. Likewise if you needed a hospital. We had 2 doctors in town, a young Dr. Greenwell and the veteran Dr. Ted Grabel. The post office was a tiny place on the north side of Hwy. 60 (I don’t remember exactly where) where most residents kept a box (ours was 194). If the person writing to you couldn’t remember your address, that was all right: your name and “Brandon, Fla.” sufficed to secure delivery. It was a big deal, by the way, when 1st-class postage rose to 4¢. There was also a tiny library of about one room in what had been someone’s house.

It was somewhat exciting when a strip mall came to town, and then the big shopping center, ca. 1960. And then a bank. But as best I can remember, we still had only one traffic light! And we still had too many cows and horses to count, and uncounted acres of orange and grapefruit trees. Around 1960, South Oakwood got paved, and then the old oat field across the street became a subdivision. I earned a few bucks cutting lawns in there when I was about 12.

Dad, a contractor, had built us a house at 309 South Oakwood, a couple of blocks from Hwy. 60, on land that not long before had been part of Mr. Fietz’s goat farm—the Dew Bloom Dairy. Oakwood Ave. was a one-lane dirt road with a house here and there on the east side, on the other side only trees and what had been the goat farm’s oat field. Most of what lay east of Oakwood was just woods and pasture, great spaces for roaming. About where the swim club is now there was a humongous old live oak tree that we called Monkey Island on account of its great low-lying limbs that invited hours of scrambling up, over, and through.

As a builder, Dad was doing his small part to turn Brandon into one of Tampa’s bedroom communities. At first he was an independent builder, but eventually he went to work for Jerry Lane, and later for Mr. Ragsdale (whose 1st name I don’t recall). Mr. Ragsdale built all over the area, not just in Brandon.

But in 1957 the goats were still down the road, and in the little, shaded ravines where they wandered was a kid’s paradise for playing cowboys and Indians or Yanks and Rebs. (There weren’t a whole lot of goats, and Mr. Fietz was a friendly old fellow. One event that stands in my mind is his inviting all the neighborhood kids—through our parents—to come one day and watch a nanny give birth.) I also learned the hard way that it was great soil for contracting hookworm, and more than once Mom had to cart me to Dr. Greenwell for a treatment of ethyl chloride to freeze the little vermin into oblivion. No more running barefoot, as we’d loved doing in Tampa.

There weren’t many kids in the neighborhood. In fact, there were only the Mendls and a passel of Labadies—I don’t remember exactly how many, maybe 6 or 7, all boys except 1 girl. They lived in what’s now Nativity’s rectory, the corner of their large backyard touching a corner of ours.

Now and then I’d be taken to Valrico to play baseball with some friends I’d made. When Brandon got a Little League in 1961 (that had to be the year, because I was 12 and only got to play for one year), I was an eager participant, playing the outfield and catching for a team sponsored by Everina Homes. Our team finished in 1st place. The next summer I played a little, with less success, in some kind of a summer league.

The Church of the Nativity, Late 1950s
Nativity had 5 mostly empty acres on the south side of Hwy. 60 (an orange grove was on the north side), stretching from Oakwood to Bryan Rd. The only building on it was the little mission church—less than half the present social hall (which it has become, after various additions). I don’t know what the seating capacity was—maybe 200. I’m not sure when the little wooden outbuilding outside the front door was added; that was the religious articles store, which Mom looked after diligently for quite a few years.

Eventually the parish leaders—Fr. John Lima and I don’t know which men and women—decided the church needed a social hall. Someone arranged for the parish to buy an old barracks from MacDill, and the men converted it into a hall down about where the drainage pond is now.

Nativity was a mission of St. Clement in Plant City, where Fr. Lima lived by himself. With no resident priest, the Blessed Sacrament couldn’t be kept in church after the second, and last, Sunday Mass. So after the sermon (there were few homilies in those days before Vatican II) Fr. Lima or the “Sunday supply” priest had to count who intended to receive Communion and put that many hosts into the ciborium; any that were left over had to be consumed at the end of Mass. Of course, with only 100 or 150 people in attendance, getting a reasonably accurate count must not have been too much of a challenge.

Sunday supply came mainly from the Salesians at Mary Help of Christians School, but occasionally from the Redemptorists at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) in Ybor City or even as far away as the Benedictines of St. Leo’s Abbey. Every other Sunday, one of these visitors would be in Brandon while Fr. Lima said the Masses in Plant City. The next Sunday they’d switch. Our family became friendly with most of these visitors, often inviting them to lunch after the 2nd Mass, which was convenient since we were only a couple of hundred yards down the street. We had Fr. Lima over often, as well, and his old friend from his Maryknoll days, Fr. William Fletcher, when the latter would come south on a vacation. The only parishioners who were closer to the church were the Savoies (Frenchy, of the tavern) and the Labadies.

I don’t remember when I decided I wanted to become an altar boy; probably in 5th grade, ca. 1958. I was soon a dependable regular, along with the Walden boys, Kenneth Davis, Steve Brannigan, the Martins, and a little later, the Grabels and my brother. We were happy and proud to serve at the altar, to master the arcane movements of the missal and the bows and the ringing of the bells (in fact, for a long time we didn’t have bells at the altar, but a small chimes set—bong! bong! bong!), and of course all the Latin responses. Fr. Lima treated us well, and so did his eventual successors, Fr. John Linnehan and Fr. David Cronin. When I had a Sunday “off,” I was always on the lookout to see whether one of the assigned boys had failed to show, so that I could fill in for him. (Need I say that there were no altar girls way back then? Totally unthought of.) Whenever our family traveled, I’d do the same thing, and so I wound up serving Masses in a church in Atlanta once and even in the lower church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C.

Catholics in Brandon were few and far between, certainly in contrast with parts of Tampa. In 1957 some of the locals may not have been certain that we didn’t have tails and horns. Not only was Nativity a fairly new establishment, and not a parish, but of course there wasn’t a parochial school.

Going to School
In fact, Brandon, which registered only 5,000 people in the 1960 census, had only 2 schools, period: the elementary school, Walter S. Yates, and the high school (now the McLane Middle School). Horace Mann Junior High opened, at the site of what’s now the high school, the same year we came to town. With no Catholic school option, we 3 Mendls went to Yates, where Frances Studstill was my 4th grade teacher, and a very fine one whom I remember very fondly. Rita had Frances Gunn in 1st grade, likewise an excellent teacher who also became a family friend—because her husband Donald ran the gas station that we patronized, and her sister, Evelyn Clites, eventually became my grandmother’s landlady in Limona. (I have no recollection of who Chris’s 2nd grade teacher was.)

Most days I think Mom took us to school by car. What is it from South Oakwood to Yates? Maybe a mile? And most days we had to walk home, down Morgan St. to North Oakwood, which also was just a dirt track, thru the orange grove, and across Hwy. 60. Hard to imagine a 4th grader doing something like that nowadays! Of course, Hwy. 60 also is a LOT harder to cross now than it was in 1957-58.

There was a big old farmhouse at the end of North Oakwood, amid the orange grove. I think the family who lived there was named Mays. I became friendly with one of the boys, and sometimes we played together. It was a sad day, I’m not sure when, when their house burned down.

How rare were Catholics in Brandon? As I remember it, there was only one other in my class, Mike Potter. But there was still a religious feel to public education in the ’50s. Every day began with a Bible reading, and the students, at least in Mrs. Studstill’s class, took turns saying grace before lunch. Despite all that, we got a great education!

Across the street from Yates was Brandon’s one public park, which was a good place to hang during the summer, playing Monopoly or other games in the rec building, or baseball outside. Next to Yates was a well shaded pasture occupied by Dynamite, a donkey who was something of a hero to us kids. He loved to be petted and scratched, and occasionally he’d treat us to a nice bray.

Some of the Catholic parents wanted a Catholic school, however. Fr. Lima was more than willing, but the main obstacle—as hard as it is to imagine today—was finding sisters to staff it. He wrote request after request, and many families had finding sisters in their daily prayer intentions. Ours were addressed to St. Jude!

In the meantime, some of the parents decided to get the kids to Catholic school if a school couldn’t come to Brandon. So the Mouchas and the Mulligans and the Mendls (3M?) arranged a carpool that would haul 8 of us to OLPH every day. I think the Grabels got involved too eventually. I guess we must have used 2 cars; even the proverbial 1950s station wagon would have been a squeeze for 8 children and a parent. But maybe we did squeeze. It seemed like a long ride—yes, even tho we were on our way to school, it seemed long—but it was only about 12 miles, with few stop lights till you got into the city. And that went on for 4 years!

Except that eventually OLPH began to send a bus to Clair-Mel City (a section on the east side of Tampa); that was closer for our carpool than going all the way into Ybor City, so our parents would drop us and pick us up there. That might have been for my 7th and 8th grade years.

At OLPH we had the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who were wonderful. Most of them, anyway. There were a couple who sort of scared us, perhaps unjustifiably. They’d also been the CCD teachers at Nativity back when we were going to Yates, and I suppose they continued to do that ministry after we were no longer involved. (It must have been a challenge to conduct CCD classes all over the church, because that was the only building in 1957-58.) The SSNDs were competent and, mostly, friendly. I had Sr. Mary Timothene for both 7th and 8th grades (not simultaneously!)—it was quite a shock to us when she was “promoted” along with us. For grades 1-6, OLPH has 2 classes at each level. Not so for grades 7-8. So Sr. Timothene got all 70 of us, in one room. And she taught, and we learned!

The Redemptorists at OLPH were an occasional, friendly presence too. One of my classmates, Don Roth, became a Redemptorist and a missionary in South America. Two vocations from the class speaks well for the training we got at school, as well as from our families and our parishes.

By the time I had reached 8th grade, Nativity had found sisters for a parochial school. I’m not sure whether Fr. Lima was still pastor at that point, or had already been succeeded by Fr. Linnehan. In any case, the Trinitarian Sisters had agreed to come and staff a school, and a 6-classroom building was put up behind the church. Before that building was ready, in 1961 the school opened with grades 1-6 in the old barracks, which the men of the parish had divided into classrooms. One grade was added each of the following 2 years. Which meant that Chris and Rita could go to Nativity School, but I couldn’t. So that commute to OLPH via Clair-Mel City continued for some of us.

I completed 8th grade at OLPH in June 1962. What next?

Meeting the Salesians
As I said, our family had become friendly with many of the Sunday supply priests. We became closest to Salesian Fr. John Masiello, who was newly ordained in 1958, young, darkly handsome, and lively. Plus he came from Queens, where Dad had grown up. In fact, much to everyone’s surprise, we discovered that Dad’s older brother had once worked for Fr. John’s dad (before World War II, I guess). On one of our family vacations back to Long Island, the Masiellos had all of us over for a big Italian dinner.

I don’t remember whether Fr. John ever sounded me out, but I was open to the idea of being a priest. (I was also open to being a baseball player and in 7th or 8th grade wrote an essay about that.) But unbeknownst to me, he sent my name in to the Salesians’ vocation office when I was in 7th grade (it could even have been earlier), and soon I was getting promotional literature. It was a big, happy surprise when I even got a hardcover book in the mail, a life of Don Bosco (which had been printed at the school in Tampa, no less!). Such bounty! Such generosity!

So by the middle of the 8th grade, I was giving serious thought to going off to New York for high school seminary, to become a Salesian. My parents let me apply, and I was accepted. I also took the entrance exam for Jesuit High School and was accepted there. But Jesuit was never really in cards; it was too far away, too difficult to get to. I never heard Mom and Dad say anything about the tuition, and I have no idea what it was in 1962. OLPH was an option; they had a parochial high school, one floor above the grammar school’s two floors. But I didn’t want to continue there (Chris and Rita later did go to high school there, until it was closed, and then they finished at Brandon High).

I decided to go to the seminary, Salesian Junior Seminary in Goshen, N.Y. We made grand plans for another northern family vacation in August that would culminate in dropping me there. Of course, as a 13-year-old I wasn’t sure I wanted to be priest. But a good education would do no harm. I said as much to some family friends, and word got back to Dad, who must have had his own doubts all along. About a week before we were to head north, he decided that I was too young to leave home, especially since I wasn’t sure of my vocation. No discussion. Mom cried. I was much disappointed.

So I was promptly enrolled at Horace Mann, with school to start in a few days. Word got to Fr. Masiello, who was at the house in a day or two. He offered to get me into Mary Help of Christians, which had grades 5-9 at the time. They took day students (in fact, there was but 1 in 1962-63, out of about 145 students), but if I wanted to board it would be a “training” year for living away from home, yet not very far. Parents and family could visit any Sunday, there were monthly weekends at home—and I’d be in a Salesian environment and could find out more about who these priests and brothers were, what they did, what their lives were like.

It was really a decisive intervention. I went to Mary Help as a boarder, came home many Sundays for a few hours, and on those monthly weekends. My career as a Nativity altar boy continued in these intervals. At Mary Help I became quite close to several of the Salesians besides Fr. John—to native Tampan, former football star, and war hero Fr. Orlando Molina in particular. So did my family. Eventually—after I had really left for the seminary—they became heavily involved in Mary Help and sometimes had all the Salesians over to our house for a pool party and dinner. (Mary Help had no pool at the time, and the students, but not the staff, swam in East Lake.)

And in the spring of 1963, with Dad’s approval, I reapplied to Salesian Junior Seminary. I looked forward to a summer of playing baseball in a local league and was all set for that, when another Mary Help intervention came, an invitation to be an unpaid staff member at the summer camp, continuing to board at the school. I accepted, with mixed feelings (I really did love baseball, and had just earned my way onto a team).

In late August we finally made that trip up to Goshen. From then on, I’d see Brandon and Nativity only for a week of Christmas vacation and three weeks of summer vacation, and once I entered the novitiate in August 1966, even less than that. Fr. Linnehan and then Fr. Cronin were very encouraging of a young seminarian.

Research has shown that religious and priestly vocations generally grow out of the soil of a devout and encouraging family (and the grace of God, of course). It was true in my case. Mom and Dad were churchgoers, and we prayed as a family. They were, moreover, heavily involved in parish life at Nativity in the various social activities. Earlier I mentioned Mom’s running the religious articles store. She was active in the women’s club, and Dad in the men’s club. Both contributed a lot of work for the early parish carnivals, annual affairs that were the forerunners of today’s Novemberfest (although I don’t remember what month they were held in)—with games, rides, food, and a lot of fun for both kids and grown-ups. These usually lasted about three days, I think. After the liturgical renewal of Vatican II, Mom and Dad took on additional roles in the parish: she as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, he as a lector. Dad also served on the parish council. Both were highly respected because of their generosity and practical experience, and my father in particular was more than ready to speak his mind whenever he thought it necessary (sometimes to the chagrin of Fr. Lima or Fr. Lara, as I understand it, but not in a way that violated charity).

Good parishes help too. Nativity has been recognized in print (Paulist Press) as an outstanding parish. I don’t know the exact count, but quite a few vocations have come from there, maybe as many as a dozen. I hope that the parish’s golden jubilee history will have further information.

One story that has always stuck in my mind comes out of the preparations for Nativity School. When the convent was being planned, the pastor of the time invited some of the men who were knowledgeable about buildings to review the blueprints (I don’t know whether women, also, were consulted). Someone—not my father—eventually said something along the lines of, “Father, either the sisters are more angelic than any of us realize—or your architect has forgotten bathrooms.” That got around the parish pretty quickly! A great example of why pastors should always consult lay experts, too.

Around 1960 my widowed grandmother, Rita Hirsch, moved to Brandon from New York. She lived briefly with us, till we found her a place of her own in Limona in a neat little cottage on the property of Raymond and Evelyn Clites (sister of Frances Gunn, as I mentioned above—and both of them were Lumsdens, members of a prominent Brandon family). (Limona used to be a separate hamlet with its own post office.) “Nana Rita” played her own part in the parish’s senior circles, especially contributing her amateur musical talent as a pianist. She was noted for her ability to play almost any popular song (of her era, not of the ’60s!) by ear. She was, in addition, a beloved nanny for the three Clites kids, her memory still very much cherished in the family. She remained a Brandon resident and Nativity parishioner until her death in 1980, although that occurred while she was on an extended visit with my Aunt Felicia up north. Her funeral took place in our family’s former home town of Bellmore, N.Y., and she was buried next to her long deceased husband.

As it turned out, after I made my religious profession (Aug. 15, 1967), I had 2 summer assignments to the camp at Mary Help, in 1968 and 1969. So I saw a bit of Brandon and Nativity still, and got some vacation time with the family, as well. There were further short summer vacations in 1970 and 1971 after I graduated from Don Bosco College. And then Mom and Dad moved to North Carolina. I would seldom see Brandon again—a family trip or two, plus my grandmother’s 75th birthday surprise party in April 1975, another summer camp assignment to Mary Help in 1975, my first Mass in June 1978, thanks to Fr. Lara’s graciousness—until I was assigned to Mary Help as a priest in 2002 and, most happily for me, sent on Sunday supply to Nativity with some regularity until Fr. Provincial called me back north in 2004 to my present ministry of communications and publishing for the province.

For more about "old" Brandon, see (a Tampa Tribune article dated 2/29/12)