Why an Irish Catholic Priest was in an Anglican Church

[in the photo – L to R – Great Grandpa and GrandmaC, in behind them my GrandpaD, Aunt Jo, Uncle Burt and Aunt Lex (the bride and groom), GrandmD of course front and centre, no idea who that is over grandmaD’s shoulder, but beside him is Uncle Jack, and the next are also unknown, but I assume the guy with the collar was the minister]

The area where my grandmaD grew up was primarily all protestant, as is much of southern Ontario. Early settlement in Oxford County back then was predominantly Anglican, Presbyterian, and a healthy dose of Baptist. Many of those early settlers in the decades following the early 1800’s, were from Northern Ireland, some Scottish, and of course the English. My grandfather was Catholic, but it was rarer in the rural areas.

At grandma’s funeral, held at the local Anglican church, afterwards a reception was held in the basement of the church. Chairs and tables were spread throughout the room, sandwiches and punch, with pickles and cheese trays being served by the church ladies, (I know they have a proper name, but I can not recall what it is…ladies auxiliary? )

All three of us, my sister, Mom and I, are all standing in the middle of the room looking like 3 lost kittens. Well…then down the stairs and across the room marches this jolly soul, dressed in dark tweed jacket, with a white collar at his neck. Mom whispers in my ear his name, she said he grew up with grandma, they were the only Irish Catholic family in the area.

So he comes over and gives us each a hug, and say’s to Mom “do ya think they’d mind if I smoke? I swear I’m dying for one”. Mom laughs and asks one of the church ladies to bring an ashtray, and my god if she didn’t come back with one…I guess one of the old Anglican Priests used to enjoy a cigar or two…this was 1983 or so remember.

At a sisters wedding
GrandpaD is on the far left, grandmaD is of course front and centre.

He proceeds to tell us the most amazing things, about how kind and welcoming my grandma’s family had always been. He told us how great grandmaC (grandma’s Mom) would come over on a Saturday with a heaping platter of food…with a casual “dear me, I made way to much this afternoon for lunch, I imagine with your large crew it won’t go to waste“. He said, what could his Mom do? Refuse her and have it all go to waste? It allowed his Mom, he said, to keep her dignity and since  she didn’t have a suitable refusal, she had to accept the generous spirit in which it was intended. No one was lording over anyone else, since when they had extra apples or whatnot they too would share the wealth. It was not charity, he said, it was instead about community and mutual respect. As he said, “one should never let your prejudices get in the way of being kind to one another”.

His family was large, and they didn’t have very much. But he said that the worst was that so many other’s looked down their noses at his family, but he said that we never did. I say we, because these are values grandmaD instilled in us from an early age, never judge, never think yourself to be above another, because you ARE NOT.

The “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1993) proclaimed the Golden Rule (“We must treat others as we wish others to treat us”) as the common principle for many religions. The Initial Declaration was signed by 143 respected leaders from all of the world’s major faiths, including Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian. In the folklore of several cultures the Golden Rule is depicted by the allegory of the long spoons.

This was a pivotal moment for me, as I remember how enchanted by him I was…a living, breathing, Irish Catholic Priest, right there reminiscing with Mom over all the funny stories he had of our family…of all 5 sisters and there different personalities, and poor old Uncle Jack, tormented by them. They controlled him and the Priest jokingly proclaimed it was unfortunate he wasn’t Catholic, he may have been better off a Priest.

His light and his joy, and his honest love of life, and the stories he told of my Grandma lightened all 3 of us. We had been so overcome by sorrow, and his soul just exuded this natural, healing spirit – he was well suited to his vocation. As I stood there listening to these wonderful stories, I couldn’t help but think how blessed we were to have this woman in our life. He said grandma was a great lady, from a good and kind family. They played together as children, and I often think maybe that’s why grandma married grandpa…who’s family were also Irish Catholic.

Today it seems odd to think how the Irish were seen in the last century, and how still today that prejudice is still a constant reminder of our differences. Within this brief, yet powerful exchange, I saw how much more there was to life than the grief of death…as we had all spent the previous 3 days in tears and disbelief. Strange how in his way, this gentle, yet powerful old priest engaged our souls in such a way as to lift them up, if only briefly. Thru laughter and stories, I suppose is the only route out of profound loss.

It’s not like there really is alot of diversity in southern Ontario, as most immigrants often first come to the cities, and gradually work their way out to the more rural areas. It’s a pattern that dates back to early settlement of much of this region. Many families starting off in cities, then migrate out to the surrounding countryside as land opens up. This can creat tensions, and often old squabbles linger, sometimes new squabbles are created out of mere prejudice against that which is different.

This Priests presence at grandma’s funeral was as much out-of-place, as it was fitting that he be there to honour her. For she was woman far ahead of her time, with many an out-of-place philosophy. And with that keen open mind, she and her family touched people because of their acceptance,  respect and kindness. I wondered though, later on after we had gone home, if there had been more to the story then he told. If maybe those shiny eyes of sadness I saw, was love of a different sort then friendship. As acceptance often goes only so far. And so it goes. Or maybe it was just my over active imagination.

It is astonishing though, when you think that sometimes mere kindness can be such a rare thing. That being respectful towards your fellow human, should be something that somehow gets lost in our sprint towards “progress”. We may move faster, more accurately, and be able to communicate at farther distances and at greater speeds, yet if those interactions are without thought for others, than what sort of people are we?

Someday, perhaps, we will forget why it was unusual for that man to be there at the funeral. While eyes stared and whispers rang around the room, the four of us laughed and Mom and him puffed away on their cylinders of sin, and for those brief moments it all seemed completely as it should be.

.. story true, inspiration for telling it from The Daily Prompt: Back to the Future

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