Not long ago, I joined some friends at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens to pray by the grave of Msgr. Walter Murphy, a diocesan priest who had passed away in April. Someone nearby observed, “All the priests of the diocese of Brooklyn are buried here.” My eyes scanned the plain bronze plaques in row upon row on the ground, searching for one name in particular. In two minutes, I was standing beside the grave of my childhood pastor, Father John Callahan, for the first time since the morning of his funeral over 20 years ago.
Tears welled up behind my glasses, falling in big drops as the rosary was being said. When the last prayer was over, I turned to my daughters, “Look girls, Father Callahan is buried here.” Not one of them needed to ask, “Who is Father Callahan?” They knew the name well. Father Callahan is a major character in my childhood stories, and I am one of those mothers who likes to tell a tale.
There was of course the time Father Callahan told my mother he was worried about my ailing grandmother. Although it was bitter cold outside and my mother assured him Grandma was fine, he insisted on coming to see her. He walked all the way (a good two miles) to give the anointing of the sick, not even stopping for a cup of tea before trudging all the way back. My grandmother died that night, and to this day I still wonder what told him to come.
My mother spent six months sewing stage draperies for the basement chapel in St. Mary’s, Woodside, and became well acquainted with the inner workings of the parish. One day, she came home and announced to my father and me, “I can give you Father Callahan’s life in a nutshell. A parishioner will come to him and make a request — can you move that statue from one side of the church to the other? The squeaky wheel will persist, until Father finally talks to the maintenance man. After a good deal of coaxing, the maintenance man will move the statue, grumbling all the while. The next day, a second parishioner will come to Father crying and screaming that the statue never should have been moved. He can’t win!”
If he could not win, you would not have known it. He raised himself to hero status in my eyes the day I turned up late for school. “Tardy” students needed to enter through the principal’s office, and I proceeded up the front steps in mortal dread. Yet, joy of joys, there beside the principal stood gallant Father Callahan. Just as she made ready to pounce, Father smiled and declared in true Bells-of-St.-Mary’s style, “Alice has my permission to be a few minutes late.” I darted off to class, grateful to have made it through the valley of the shadow of death unscathed.
There was only one time Father Callahan disappointed me. I had just read “Sixty Saints for Girls” and was on fire to start converting others to the faith. With nothing else to do on a Saturday afternoon, my friend Mary and I brought our only non-Catholic friend, Laurene, to church. We began with a lesson in the proper use of holy water and the art of genuflecting, before pooling our slim resources to light a candle. Just as I was expounding upon the meaning of one of the stained glass windows, Father Callahan happened upon the scene. This was perfect, I thought. Surely, he would baptize her on the spot, as the pope had done for the companions of St. Ursula. He listened intently, with a pleasant crinkle in the corner of his eye, as we told him the noble purpose of our visit, then asked, “What do Laurene’s parents think about this?” Come to think of it, they did not know. “Well, you will need to get their permission,” he said, “and, if that does not work, come again when you are eighteen.” Thus, my career as a great converter of souls was put to an end. Yet Laurene grew up to become a Catholic, so I guess Father knew what he was doing.
A week after stumbling upon his grave by chance, our family returned to pray and leave flowers by the simple slab that marks the final resting place of good Father Callahan, a spiritual father who will never be forgotten.