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Roxane B. Salonen, Published March 15 2013

Living Faith: Old Irish priest made a huge impact on life

As I stood at the cusp between high school and college, Dad offered me one last piece of advice. “Rock, when you get there look for the Newman Center.”

He didn’t know how my following through would change the course of my life, nor that he was passing the baton of fatherhood onto another who’d lead me deftly forward.

Five hundred miles from my Montana home in Moorhead, Minn., I had nothing to lose. I stepped into the small chapel just off 11th Street South and into the place that would keep me grounded in my faith at a time when many lose touch with God.

Each Sunday morning I’d come to hear the wise old priest with the Irish roots. Gripping his note cards, Father Bill, as we knew him, would abandon the confines of the pulpit to get closer to those who’d arrived thirsty to hear something real.

Some would squirm at what he shared. There was no mincing of words. We were responsible for making the world better and people less hungry, he told us.

Yes, we were “poor” college students, he acknowledged, but not too poor to add what we could to the collection basket for those less fortunate.

I still think of him whenever I hear an ambulance or a baby cry in church; how he’d stop Mass at the sound of sirens to pray for the hurting, and delighted at hearing a child’s voice break through the quiet.

He was serious when it mattered but always finished a lecture with a twinkle in his eye. He judged himself more quickly than anyone else.

Sunday nights I’d join our faith group in the basement of that humble building to eat, sing and learn about the revolutionary teachings of Jesus, every bit as hungry for his words as the homemade casseroles.

Just before assuming his final priestly assignment on the Red Lake Reservation, Father Bill invited us over to his rectory. “Take whatever you want here. I don’t need it and it’s freeing to live with less,” he said.

I’m forever blessed to have been formed by the teachings of this sweet-spirited man; a priest who eventually was named “monsignor,” yet insisted “Father Bill” would do fine.

This past weekend, to celebrate his 90th birthday, a group of the old gang risked treacherous roads to reach his home at an assisted-living facility in Bemidji.

It was worth every mile of snow-packed highway to see our old friend and mentor. Now filled with cancer, he said this likely would be our last visit.

We talked, ate cake, and sang some tunes from the old days. Then he requested another: “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

Afterward, he cleared his throat to offer “a little homily.” Giving us his “I’m dead serious” look, he said, “Just remember, if peace doesn’t begin with me, then peace ain’t gonna happen.”

I pulled my chair near him and asked if he had any thoughts about this last phase.

“Well,” he said after a pause, “I have to say I’m a bit surprised to find I’m at peace. I’ve lived a good life.”

Seems a life poured out in love can’t help but bring a satisfying conclusion, I thought.

I thanked him for all he’d given us; things we’re now passing onto our children as they will theirs. “That’s how love works,” I said. “It grows and becomes eternal.”

“That’s right,” he said, smiling, hearing his own words in mine.

All too quickly it was time to leave. “It looks like they’re kicking us out,” I whispered. “Should we leave and come back later, or is this goodbye?”

“Well,” he said, after another pause, “this was all very nice but I suppose there’s no use in prolonging it.”

A good father is as pragmatic as loving. We gave final hugs and reluctantly pulled ourselves away.

On the return trip, I noticed our driver, Mary, seemed giddy. “I’m joyful,” she said.

I felt it too – gratitude to the brim.

It’s just a goodbye, after all. “No big deal,” as Father Bill would say, secure in the knowledge that another hello is already on its way.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com.