Fr. John ForlIti Farewell
I couldn’t say No to the priest personnel director in late January, 1977. Would I do him a favor and help him out for a few weeks by being temporary administrator at Cabrini? My first official weekend on duty, I flew from Orlando, cross-country to Los Angeles, giving talks at conventions, while the personnel director took the Masses and chided Cabriniites for losing seven priests! That weekend he was introduced to his first non-invited dialogue homily. Someone rose up and asked: “Father, why is it the archdiocese keeps sending us priests who are on the way out?”
February 11th was my introduction to the parish. At 8:00 A.M. I was ready for Mass: vested, nervous, wondering where the altar boys were – even more critical, where was the congregation? Larry was just arriving, thinking of music practice, and a few others trickled in, on time, strangers to the parish I found out later. We got Mass started at 9:25! I wondered how it was that Latin American time had penetrated the North Country so deeply.
Rosemary ran the parish. She was secretary, bookkeeper, housekeeper, sacristan, receptionist, counselor, cook, supervisor, and more. This strange, eccentric, short and long skirted creature, with an Indian-like appearance, and her stiff martyred jaw, unflinchingly loyal, omnipresent, omniscient like God, curiously woven between liturgical dance and her Greek Bible. We would come to know faithfulness, she and I, expressed most solemnly when she came to die. Having decided, she held on until Fr. John arrived at her deathside, to bless and pray and sing, to usher her magnificent soul to her feminine divinity.
Our first confrontation was the mouse, Rosemary’s friend she named “Freddie”, who lived unashamedly in the rectory oven, or “au”ven, as she said it. “It’s either the mouse goes or I go”, I declared with full pastoral authority. Now, confrontations such as this should not be considered lightly. The first responsibility of authority, I learned in the seminary, was to establish itself. Lose this one and where would I be with the Liturgy committee? And Council President George O’Connell?
That first year was baptism by fire. I was still temporary administrator, and on duty a month, when Fred Post shared the cancerous news he was trying to get used to. He would live two more years, and I should know painful crucifixion and the dying Christ in him. Barbara Shallbetter – I had seen pictures of her when she was healthy. But now, a mere shadow, excusing herself from Council meetings to hide from us her pain-racked body, bent over beside the stair handrail, till it would pass. A Palm Sunday death and the banners she made for her children’s procession.
In 1977 the budget was $52,000, and there was $20,000 in the bank. The parish was in good shape, I was told. Good is a relative term. Money in the bank is deceptive. I should have been sprint. That first year the boilerroom and I got to be bosom buddies. Where was all the oil on the floor coming from? The previous pastor said it was from Gopher Oil Company, an old tank leaking its previous fluids, directing them into our basement, almost on purpose. “Bull”, I thought.
And “Bull” it was. That eventful Paschal meal, when the boilerroom smoldered and billowed the ugliest flames ever. The fire chief recorded it as an oil fire. We could be fined $3,000, he said, for polluting the river via the sump pump. Well, the boilerroom saga went on for months, and its details are too many to recount here. Come to next year’s Paschal dinner and surely someone will tell the story. Almost as worthy as the Exodus account itself! An emergency collection that October netted $14,000. No one would have guessed the resources were this bountiful – a conviction the Finance committee hung onto for years. Don’t underestimate the capacity of the people, I maintained, nor their pocketbook. So we fixed the building. A new oil tank and burner, an asphalt driveway, net gutters and energy saving windows, a new concrete floor for the garage, and most importantly, steel pillars to shore up the main beam of the building, which also holds up the garage floor! It was in imminent danger of collapse, said an engineer. I don’t believe it, I thought, as I gingerly backed my car out of imminent danger. Six and a half years have gone by. I leave with lots of memories. Memories ... of beautiful children, not afraid to sit on my lap at Liturgy. … of the nursing home a block away, and especially Steve Martin who adopted me as testator of his will, all @230, and two pairs of mail-order shoes. I was privileged to be alone with him when he died. … of spaghetti dinners, clean-up days, the Chimera, Pentecost, the annual picnic Mass, Council meetings – sign and sacrament of eternal time. … of Frank and an experiment in ministry that worked... of quality staff and breakfast meetings. … of a worship space that cries for renovation. … of the Mississippi river, a friend of a special kind, which I have come to cherish. Memories and memories, some to face with the passage of time, others to become ever more brilliant. Memories, yes, but gratitude more.
I am grateful to you, the Cabrini community, for inviting me into your lives, into your vibrant faith. I leave content, peaceful, like after a really good mean: nourished, knowing that life has been and continues to be sustained.
No one knows what lies ahead, how much of this life is measured out for me as the days and years go by. This I do know. When, at age 41, death’s prospect perched on my shoulder for the first serious time, you were there, with me when only 10% of the blood flow was coursing through clogged coronaries. And three years later, when surgery became inevitable, you were there again. Comforting, assuring, ministering to me, even anointing me. I shall never forget, nor shall I ever fail to be thankful, for your outpouring of love, your overtaking me with your faith and giving me God’s hearing Spirit.
You and the River, whose banks I have trod almost daily the past five years, I take with me. You and the River, full of life, ever moving, gifted with God’s own power.