By Mary Lynn Murphy
One of the most memorable characters who shaped my Catholic childhood was the pastor of our South Minneapolis parish in the mid-1950s.
He was a heavy-set, bald-headed, ham-fisted, red-faced, gravelly voiced, hot-tempered Irishman who seemed particularly tired on Sunday mornings, and who intimidated almost everyone except my dear petite mother who adored him. He was much like her deceased father – gruff, but tender with underdogs. He knew her voice in the confessional where he addressed her by name, forgave her repeated failures, and comforted her fellow Irish heart. He enjoyed her unfailing loyalty, despite his utter intransigence regarding the practice of birth control (“No excuses, no exceptions!”), and the wrath it incurred in my father and most of the parish men, as families grew larger and intimacies grew fewer.
He was kind and encouraging with well-behaved students, but tough as nails on those “sly little urchins” he distrusted. He could smell a liar a mile away, and there was hell to pay when he caught one red-handed. He batted them around, shouted in their faces, and publicly recited their succession of Ds and Fs to the entire class at report card time! His most despised target was beautiful Johnathon, a cunning, blue-eyed, black haired Irish kid we all steered clear of – and who, true to Father’s instincts, spent much of his life in jail.
Father had no mercy for "second rate givers." In the church vestibule, he published the names of all weekly donors, and the exact amounts contributed. If the sum total was too paltry, BACK went the thermostat on even the coldest Sundays - just to motivate more "enthusiastic" giving among his shivering parishioners!
Father could have doubled as a union boss or a 5th Ward Chicago alderman. The Sisters of St. Joseph cowered in his presence, catered to his whims, and cringed (like all of us) at the approaching sound of his heavy footfalls, flapping robes, and rattling rosary beads before unannounced classroom visits. Just to please him on “Paddy’s Day,” the Sisters staged an enormous Irish variety show each year. Every kid in the school practiced his/her brains out for weeks. We could sing “Hail, Glorious St. Patrick” backwards in our sleep, and our dance steps could put the ROC-KETS to shame! Even our mothers feverishly sewed green costumes and designed props, and virtually everyone participated in the audacious annual show presented on the gymnasium stage to a raucously applauding audience of . . . ONE!! . . . The Most Reverend Father!