Faith, Father Mack and the Church That Wouldn't Close
Fr. William "Mack" McCallion
John Kennedy Toole writes of a bakery – "The Germans" – in the opening paragraphs of A Confederacy of Dunces, his 1981 novel set in New Orleans (that won the Pulitzer Prize). On many mornings, Ignatius Reilly, Toole’s bizarre, hilarious protagonist, made a run to the Germans for jelly donuts for his equally eccentric mother. On the way home, Ignatius would suck the jelly out of the donuts and throw the "empties" back into the bag.
"The Germans" was, in actuality, Schwab's Baker, a small family business, set along busy Magazine Street in a working-class Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.
Around the corner from Schwab’s was the distinctly German St. Henry’s Church and School, on erstwhile “Berlin Street" (renamed “Gen. Pershing Street” after World War I).
As elementary school students at St. Henry’s, four miscreant students (myself being one of them) perfected a “path of escape” each morning. As the rest of the class headed for daily Mass, the four of us would sidestep into an alley and close the gate behind us. We had this routine down to a mathematical precision. When the class had filed into church, we would make our way through a maze of alleys that led to Magazine Street where we crossed over to Schwab’s to buy powdered jelly donuts and half-pint cartons of chocolate milk. We stood in doorways along Magazine Street, consuming our donuts and milk on those cold mornings, eating and chatting away 45 minutes. With our timing down pat, we’d dust the confectionary sugar from the fronts of our shirts and reverse our earlier paths into a stealthy route back into the lines heading for class.
Nobody was the wiser.
On one of those numbingly cold mornings as we stood stomping our feet to stay warm, our mouths filled with donuts, jelly and chocolate milk and the fronts of our shirts covered with white powdery donut sugar, a look of terror crossed the face of one of our Mass-skipping gang.
We all turned to see Father William McCallion, a young priest from Brooklyn who was in his first year at St. Henry’s and the first non-German anything to cross the threshold of St. Henry’s church or school. Father “Mack’s” cassock was blowing every which way in the hard wind as he rubbed his hands together and strode up to us.
“You know, it’s a helluva lot warmer in church than it is out here!” Father Mack said to the four of us as a group, but seemingly to each of us personally.
With that, the young priest simply turned and walked off. He never threatened us or berated us and he never showed even a hint of anger.
The logic of Father Mack’s statement accomplished more than any harsh words or yelling could ever have accomplished. None of us ever missed daily weekday Mass again. And after Mass when Father Mack strode into our classrooms for a surprise visit as he sometimes did, he spoke often of the importance of faith in our lives and how when we have faith, all things are indeed possible, no matter what we say … or don’t say … or even do! This “faith” Father Mack spoke of didn’t have any religious connection; he never tied it in to our Catholicism. It was one of those “ya gotta believe” football-coach rah-rah type of things. In time we all connected this “faith lesson” to that cold day on Magazine Street and what Father Mack did - or didn’t - say to us that morning or during his classroom visits or on the playground.
Of course, we all moved on our separate ways and years later when I was a young newspaper reporter, I ran into Father Mack, who was then the chaplain at the hellish Angola State Penitentiary in the rattlesnake-infested Tunica Hills of Louisiana. We had lunch together several times during my stay at the prison and we fished on Lake Killarney on the sprawling prison grounds. We spoke of that cold morning so many years earlier and of his calm demeanor and piercing logic and how it all had affected each of us to that very day.
We told “St. Henry stories," like the time I was bum rapped for putting a snake on the stage during a minstrel show back in the mid-1950s, or the time Father Mack drove home a new car – a fire-engine-red job – and Father Himmrich, our old German pastor, hit the ceiling and admonished Father Mack: “Priests must not drive flashy red cars. You need to drive something the Blessed Mother would be happy to ride in.” That same day, Father Mack exchanged the red job for a sedate powder-blue Plymouth Belvedere. He drove it to the front of the rectory, blew the horn and yelled to Father Himmrich, “If the Blessed Mother’s in there, ask her to come out! I know she’d love to take a ride in my new car!”
In addition to being a faith-filled man, Father Mack had a marvelous sense of humor and laughed easily at himself and life’s foibles.
In 2008, New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes closed several churches; St. Henry’s was one of them, ostensibly for economic reasons. The “remnants of Hurricane Katrina in 2005," we were told.
Some of us with St. Henry’s connections formed an organization – “Save St. Henry’s” – replete with T-shirts and posters. The Save St. Henry’s brain trust, knowing that no church can ever be closed when two or more people are inside worshipping, laid out a schedule insuring that two or more worshippers would indeed remain inside the church 24/7.
My son Hans Wilhelm Gűrtner and I chose Fridays, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., for our prayer/sleep vigil. During those interminably long Friday nights, the pews in the old church creaked eerily as the cold wind whistled in the lonely night outside. During those times, I relayed many anecdotes of my decidedly misguided youthful years at St. Henry’s School and Church to my son. Hans and I laughed often during those times together (without fear of my being smacked from behind as Sister Gabriel had done many times in those same pews) as we fought a determined, faith-filled battle to save something that was more than just bricks and mortar and stained glass and that had played a vital role in my youth.
At one point, Hans offhandedly mentioned how cold it must be outside and without thinking, I thought or maybe even said aloud, “You know, it’s a helluva lot warmer inside this church than it is out there!”
During those nights, just before sleep overtook us, I thought of old Father William Himmrich, our pastor back then. I thought of making my first communion in this very church, and of my confirmation and of my father lying in a coffin only a few feet from the point where my son and I now slept. And I thought of Father “Mack," the brash, funny young priest from Brooklyn. I thought of the great irony of Father Mack leaving Angola for an assignment at St. Gertrude’s Church on a bayou at Des Allemands, La. (Des Allemands means “The Germans.”) Father Mack went to sleep in his bed at St. Gertrude one night and failed to wake up the next morning.
I am glad Father Mack and I were able to spend a week together at Angola, joking and talking and sharing meals and memories.
The young priest had taught me that, if you have faith – unshakable faith – there is indeed great power to move mountains not only by what is said, but even in what is not said. Faith says it all for you.
Early in the summer of 2012, under new Archbishop Gregory Aymond – the first New Orleans native to be named archbishop of his home turf – St. Henry’s Church was re-opened for special services like funerals and Easter vigils at first. Only two weeks ago it was announced that daily Mass would again be celebrated at St. Henrys.
Tomorrow, the Feast of St. Henry Mass and will be celebrated at the old red brick church on Gen. Pershing Street. After Mass, the 23rd Annual “St. Henry’s Reunion” will be held – a block party with beer and food and music by the J. Monque'D Blues Band. It’s a “BYOC” (bring your own chair) gig, everything’s free and all you need to get in “is to be able to spell the name ‘Henry,’” as another former pastor, Father Henry Engelbrecht, once said.
And tomorrow in that crowd of about 1,000, as old veterans of St. Henry’s swig beer and BS the evening away, those of us who knew Father Mack will tell tales of him, toast him and swear that his spirit is among us, guzzling a brew, telling jokes, laughing and reminding us the reason we’re all here today, celebrating memories of our blue-collar upbringing in the church that would not remain closed, is that we all had faith.