At a retreat for diocesan priests that I attended a number of years ago, a couple of the younger priests were asked to tell their vocation story. Theirs were odysseys traveling winding roads that, after a detour or two, led them to the seminary and eventually to the priesthood.
The story of my vocation, on the contrary, was like an interstate highway on the Great Plains of the West: smooth, straight and direct.
My parents, maternal grandparents and I lived on Lewis Avenue, a block and a half from St. John the Baptist Church. My mother had enrolled me in the kindergarten of the parochial school, which was staffed by Mother Setons Sisters of Charity. In addition to the normal terrors that beset a child on schools opening day, I was panicked by the thought that I spoke and understood very little English so much so that I ran out of school, crossed Willoughby and Vernon Avenues and arrived home to an astonished mother. Dear mom brought me back and all went relatively well thereafter.
My earliest ambition was to be an altar boy. In his red or black cassock and white surplice, an altar boy was a VIP to me. And so I asked Father John May, who ruled over a squad of 50 or 60, if I could join, even if I was only in the third grade. How badly were my feelings hurt when he laughed and surprise!told me that I was too small.
A happy day indeed when Father William Kreis taught a group of us aspiring servers, to say [the servers opening words of the old Latin Mass]: “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam ”
The first pastor that I remember was Father James Kennedy. We kids looked forward to him celebrating the “High Mass” at 11:00. His singing was so bad that it provided our entertainment for the day.
The legendary Father John OByrne succeeded him as pastor. Every summer he would charter an “el” train from the Broad-way-Myrtle Avenue station to Coney Islands Steeplechase Park as a reward to kids who could prove that they attended Mass every Sunday.
I was edified and impressed by many of the priests at St. Johns, none more than by Father Thomas McDonald, who had been co-founder of the Panama and Alabama missions. His life was in decline then. When he walked out to celebrate Mass, it was clearly a major effort for him. When I got him the Sunday paper he would reward me with a nickel. And in those days I would climb Mt. Everest for a nickel!
By the time I entered St. Johns Prep in 1936, I was an unofficial assistant to the church sexton, work that I enjoyed so very much. A truly exciting day for me was the Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St. Vincent De Paul in April. I was a server at solemnities presided over [at various times] by leading churchmen, like the cardinal-archbishops of New York, Chicago and Boston, a cardinal from Rome, and the Apostolic Delegate.
The confreres in the Prep zealously promoted vocations to the community. It was Father Louis Dodd who was to make the arrangements for me to go to St. Josephs Minor Seminary in Princeton. The then pastor, Father John Keenan, wrote my letter of recommendation. He, unfortunately, would die a bit later in a car crash on the Williamsburg Bridge. Father Edward Walsh, president of St. Johns University, had offered me a scholarship to the college, but I had already decided to go to Princeton.
The only time I ever had doubts about a vocation was my first few months at Princeton. I entered in January 1940 as a class of one. I quickly became the butt of every practical jokester in the place. Much worse for me, however, was the food! It was, naturally, worlds removed from my mothers’ Italian fare. But one thing that I could not understand and accept for the longest time was having milk with one’s meals. What an uncivilized and barbaric custom I thought! You mean that I can’t have my fathers home-produced vino? By the time that I got to the novitiate, however, that crisis had dissipated. Speaking of the novitiate, how blessed we were with Fathers John Mahoney and Walter Dirig as our directors.
Then on to Mary Immaculate, the Vincentian major seminary in Northampton, PA, affectionately known as “Alcatraz,” or “The Rock.” A wonderful community and class spirit guided us through some of the rigors of the time.
As priesthood ordination approached, Father Daniel Leary, the Visitor, interviewed individually all 17 in our Class of 49. He asked each of us what ministry we would like to be engaged in. My strong preference was for parochial work, although Father Dan said he could not promise it. Imagine my huge surprise when on Labor Day of 1949 he called me into his office and assigned me to St. John the Baptist Parish! Oh yes, my parents still lived one block and a half from the church.
Another blessing was having Father Jim Dolan for my pastor. He took me under his wing and taught me some of the basics of being a parish priest. That began my forty-four year career as a parish priest, thirty-one of them as a pastor in Germantown, Philadelphia, and Roseto, Pennsylvania.
My good fortune continues to this day, living in a solid Vincentian atmosphere as a chaplain to the Daughters of Charity here in their Northeast Provincial headquarters in Albany.
Now, Father India lives at Catherine’s Residence on the campus of St. Vincent’s Seminary in Germantown, Puiladelphia.