Most Catholic families and the majority of children who attended our local Catholic school in the parish where I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s knew our pastor, Father Sammon, and he knew us – our names, our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers. But the family in which I grew up had a special relationship with a priest. We called him Father Basil. He had been Dad’s best friend in high school, and Dad suggested to him that they both join the Jesuit order together. When Basil said he was going to become a diocesan priest instead, Dad went on to law school, and Basil was eventually ordained.
Father Basil was unusual in that he was not assigned to parish duties but sent to Europe for a master’s degree in history, and became a professor of history at the university in Cleveland, where he was made a monsignor. We knew this, but were fairly unimpressed. We did learn rather quickly that if we began some statement at school with “Father Basil says,” we inevitably won the argument and the nuns never tried to disagree with us. (Although we knew that Father Basil was a trump card, to our credit, we rarely, if ever, tried appropriating statements to Father Basil which he had not actually made. )
But the Father Basil we really knew came to our house on most Saturday afternoons and took us for hikes or swimming or ice skating or occasionally to plays put on by a visiting theatre troupe. On rainy days he sometimes joined my brothers in an innovative game which seems to have been a blend of “Cowboys and Indians” and “Hide and Seek.” I never learned the advanced rules, but it involved air guns that shot off ping pong balls, and his hiding his huge frame behind the basement door from where he aimed to get a better shot at “the other side.” The footsteps that ran across the length of our living room ceiling were also put there on another rainy afternoon while Mom was busy in the kitchen. I remember the strategy meeting among Father Basil and my brothers which proceeded as follows: one of the younger (and therefore smaller) brothers took off his shoes, put his feet into water, and then walked around until his feet were sufficiently dirty to accomplish the task. Father Basil then hoisted him upsidedown and “walked” him across the ceiling. The footsteps were still there when Mom died.
Father Basil always joined us for Saturday dinners around the large kitchen table and inevitably he and Dad would discuss some issue of the day – the treatment of the Jews during World War II, or of the Blacks (or Negroes as they were still called when I was very young) in our own country, the legitimacy or not of using the atomic bomb to bring Japan to the peace table on unconditional grounds, the pros and cons of Communism, what “natural law” really involved, birth control, divorce or occasionally the convolutions of some local case of crime or scandal. It was, for me, like listening to a weekly seminar, and it was where I learned to be fascinated by the process of thinking.
I have appreciated for many years the importance of these dinner table discussions for my own intellectual development and confidence. But I have only lately appreciated the sheer authenticity of the priest Father Basil was. I took it for granted that he told the truth, that he was not a womanizer, that he loved my mother and father and each of us. He did not boast, though he was confident and generous and clearly a leader, and we could trust absolutely that if he gave us his word he would keep it.
After Mom died, Dad’s second wife made him unwelcome in the house. I don’t know exactly what happened – I remember her saying something about a ring she’d given him as a donation to charity which was insufficiently appreciated. In any case, she never forgave him for something or other, and resolutely nursed for a lifetime what she believed to be justified and presumably unforgivable insult. It destroyed the deepest and longest friendship my Dad ever had, and by the time my father died, they had not spoken in years.
After Mom died, instead of stopping by on Saturday afternoons as he had done for years, Father Basil drove past and went on to “Tillie’s house” down the road. My brother Larry was now living there with our aunt in the house on our land where my grandparents had moved when my parents first bought the farm. I was in the convent by then, but Tillie’s house became the place where my younger brothers and sisters living at home went. It was safe for them there, where they did not feel rejected for being too much like the boisterous children who had lost their mother. Father Basil was a refuge. He was in a tricky position, not wanting to undermine my father’s second marriage, perhaps appreciating more than we did how much my father needed a wife. But he knew that the children needed some adult who would stand by them without melting into debilitating pity, who believed that they were strong enough to come through the conflicted family into which they had so unexpectedly been plummeted. I believe he saved several of my sibs from out and out nervous breakdowns.
We loved him all his life. He was our special friend who happened to be a priest. In retrospect, I think we perhaps enriched his life as much as he did ours. But as children we didn’t know that, which is as it should be. I thought, as a priest, he was the norm. But he wasn’t.
He was much closer to the ideal.