Tuesday, April 16, 2013


 I spent last week on the central coast of California, with my friends Tensie and Dennis from the Guadalupe Catholic Worker.

Tuesday morning Dennis [Apel] was kind enough to take a long walk with me, out near the Oso Flaco Dunes. I turned on the tape recorder and asked him to tell his story.

The transcript runs to 31 single-spaced pages. And I'm just gonna run the whole thing, in as many segments as it takes.

Because it's my damn blog and I can do what I want!

No, really, because I think it's an important story. Whoever you are, whatever your station in life, my hope is that you'll find something that inspires and challenges you as well.

Why don't you talk a little bit of how you came to be a Catholic Worker.

All right.

You know, your former life.

Well I could go on forever, so just stop me, but…you know I lived a lot of my life unhappy.

Oh well I actually didn’t know that. How old are you now?

I’m 62.

What happened was when I was in first grade I decided I was going to be a Franciscan priest and I made that clear all the way through grammar school, and I went off to high school, seminary.

You went to Catholic school, cradle Catholic.

Yup, and I went to a seminary in high school, Franciscans, and then one year of seminary, and then I decided I didn’t want to be a priest. But that’s all I had wanted to be for so long, I didn’t know what to do with myself after that.

Okay let me ask you what drew you to Christ and to the priesthood?

What happened was number one, I was Catholic, so my parents went to Mass every Sunday and we said the rosary multiple times a week in my house. All of our friends were Catholic, my parents with in the Couples Club which was all Catholics, so I was very immersed in that.

You grew up in Downey, California.

Yes. And one of my parents’ friends had a son who had become a Franciscan priest. We met him and I knew him and I was very taken by his decision. Because of all the things I’d been exposed to, of course, one of them was St. Francis. It was the mythical St. Francis, but still, it was St. Francis. This idea of service and voluntary poverty and being with the outcast, that attracted me. So that’s what I’d wanted to do. So when I left the seminary, I didn’t know what to do with myself.

And how old were you at that point?

It was after my first year of college, so 19.

Okay, so then what?

Well, then I wandered through my life until I was 36.

[Laughs]. It’s been a long desert.

I will say, you know what, Heather, I left the seminary and I left the Church, only out of boredom, it wasn’t like I hated the Church or had some philosophical difference with religion.

Didn’t the seminary, without going into it too much, kind of…some substandard?…

No, the seminary was great. Though I was sexually abused there [laughs].

Yeah. Okay, that’s what I was getting at.

But the truth is the implication of that never hit me till much later.


And I wasn’t…it wasn’t horrible sexual abuse. The seminary was a good experience and I have lots of fond memories of it. But when I left I didn’t know what to do and I can’t remember how I met some people who were going to the Religious Education Congress, that huge gathering that takes place in Anaheim every year.

They said Why don’t you come, and I just went because they were friends and--I'm going to give you the precipitating event here. And I looked down the list of workshops and I saw one on Death and Dying. And I don’t know why I was attracted to it, but I was. It was a couple from Seattle. So I went and they were very moving, and they talked about how people had terminal illnesses were very lonely and it’s such a difficult time because people don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything.


They just don’t go. They don’t show up because they don’t know what to say. And they’re afraid of it. So I was moved by that. Something archetypal, something moved in me. So I went back to my church, which I hadn’t been going to, and I knocked at the rectory door. And the priest that showed up there, I’d never met him, I just knocked and said I’ve just been to the conference, and if you ever have someone who’s dying and has no-one, I would like to do that. I would like to just go and be with them.

And he said Thank you very much, and he took my name and phone number and it was about three days later he called and he said, Okay, I got someone for you. And it was a guy in a nursing home who was dying of cancer and had no-one. And the priest said, But you gotta take him Communion. I said, Well I don’t know how to do that, and he said Come on by. So he takes me to the sacristy and he says, Here’s the key to the tabernacle. He says, Here’s some pyxes right here, just put a Host in the pyx and go and take it. That was the sum total of my…


My training!

What city were you in now at this point?

In Downey. So I asked the priest, Well what do I say to the guy, and the priest says, I dunno, say an Our Father or something. That was it.


So I went to see the guy, his name was Gerald I remember, and the first day I went to see him, from here to that stand of trees [sixty feet or more], that’s how far away I could smell him. He had a cancer that had opened up, he was literally decomposing, and he looked horrible, and he couldn’t speak any more, and I’m thinking, I’m supposed to sit with someone and I don’t even know what to say and they can’t talk to you…anyway, I did, I began to visit with him regularly. He died, but he had someone to come to see him, and I felt good about that.

And did you talk to him?

Yeah. I talked to him. And he could nod his head, he could squeeze my hand…These are white pelicans, that you don’t see very often.

Really. Oh wow.

Yeah, they’re migratory, the white ones. We have brown pelicans on our coast.

I didn’t know pelicans would fly that high.

Oh, you know what, I saw some in the Eastern Sierras, I would say they were so high they were almost little specks.

Really! Cause on land they seem sort of…ungainly, almost. They just seem kind of heavy. And would you just say, cause I’ve thought of going to nursing homes and just saying Do you need someone to…just sit with people for an hour.

Nursing homes are depressing. I remember going to see Gerald, it was Mother’s Day, walking to his room and here’s this little gray-haired woman in a wheelchair, her head all bent over, and right when I walked by, she looked up and sort of snarled, Arentcha gonna say Happy Mother’s Day?

So much for the docile Lamb of God. Well my mother died in a nursing home so I saw…well, anyway…what kind of stuff would you say to him?

Oh my family, my work. I was a salesman at the time so I’d talk about my clients and where we’d been. I’d take em to the theater, we’d see Phantom of the Opera for the fiftieth time, stuff like that.

You were a salesman.

I worked for a trucking company. People had to ship things….this is a cinnamon teal over here.

Gol-ly! There’s just tons of em, hunh.

Let’s see if we can see a good ruddy duck. See this duck with the white face over here?

I see…little heads all out there.

You look real close, he’s got a blue bill.

Oh wow. Get OUT!

It’s powder blue, it’s so cute.

Oh it’s interesting, you look at the reeds and at first you don’t see anything, and then when you look closely, you see Oh, there’s just a whole bunch…there are a whole bunch of fowl everywhere…

Okay, take these [handing me the binoculars]. See these two ducks here, look at the one that’s closest to the reeds and when he turns his head this way you’ll see he’s got a beautiful blue bill.

Oh gosh! I see it! Isn’t God something…Can you imagine?

Yeah. It’s like that cause it’s breeding season.

Oh, so it won’t be like that all the time.

No, it’ll be more like…look at those white pelicans. Those are pretty rare here.

Man, this is just a paradise of birds. Crazy. Oh look…those are white pelicans? Oh, man.

Yeah, they’re almost never here. Usually, they’re more skittish.

How often do you come out here?

Not very often. Isn’t that terrible? After my heart attack [Dennis suffered a major heart attack a few years ago], I said, I’m gonna take every Friday afternoon off and come out here. And I did, for about a year. And then on the one-year anniversary of my heart attack I was out here, looking at the birds, and…what is that? I thought. And by the time I got back to the car, I was throwing up, I was doubled over, the pain was horrible. I’d dislodged a kidney stone…look, they’re flying. They have this incredible blue on their wings, I don’t know how to describe it…

So there’s cinnamon teal and ruddy teal?

It’s cinnamon teal and a ruddy duck. Look, the while pelicans are dipping in simultaneously.

So wait, you dislodged a kidney stone.

Yeah, and it was…I ended up in the hospital.

Oh Dennis. Look at them! Now wait, one of them has a big bulge on its bill, right?

I don’t know what that is. It seems like more than one of them has the bulge. [consulting his Sibley’s bird guide]. This doesn’t show a bulge.

Just spectacular. Look at that wing span.
Okay, so anyway, you’re a salesman, you’re bringing him Communion…and you’re married.

Yeah, I’m married. And I’m working as a salesman. And I had this good experience with Gerald so I continued on. They’d call me for various people, mostly people who needed Communion, not necessarily dying.

You were a lay Eucharistic minister, kind of.

Yeah, then one day I went to see Fr. Don. Fr. Don was the chaplain at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, which was a rehab hospital…

Yeah, see this one has a bump on its bill.

Right, and that one has a bump, and that one over there has a huge bump. I wonder if…

Is that where they carry their eggs? [laughing] That’s how much I know about biology…
Oh shoot, the battery on my camera’s low.

That’s a mystery to me.

Maybe when we get home we can google pelican beak bump…where’s the pouch?

Underneath. It’s like a big expandable bag. Look, so now there’s six of them.

That’s wild. Um…okay, so you went to visit this priest who was at the rehab hospital...



  1. Good morning, Heather, from East Texas. Wow! Reading Dennis' responses and hearing his story reminded me of several priests I have met over my 70 years. An encounter with a priest at a retreat made me take a second look at priests. He gave the most wonderful talks at the retreat, he said the most beautiful and sacred Mass, but when it was one-on-one, he was stoic and gave one-word answers. I walked away shocked as I had envisioned being enlightened, but I was sorely disappointed.

    When Dennis went to the rectory and told father he wanted to help, father just gave him a job. But then when Dennis asked what to say, father said, I dunno, say the Our Father or something!! That is just astounding to me! Father's answer begs the question, what would he as a priest have said if he had attended to the dying man? The most precious body of Christ to be given to a dying man and a priest - of all people - says "I dunno". Again, Heather, Wow! And not Wow in a good way. My brother had the same kind of experience with a priest and he was soooo close to coming back to his faith. That priest shut the door for my brother and he never came back to the Catholic Church. On the other side of the coin, there are those wonderful priests who are humble and who care about the dying. My pastor, Fr. Peter (as Irish as they come), is one of those priests.

    My comments about the priesthood take second chair to Dennis' story. How wonderful that you had that time in Central California with Dennis and companions. It is very eye-opening, is it not? Dennis' story is fascinating and the photography and interjections you both made in the text are fabulous! Thanks for sharing. Can't wait for the next installment. Blessing to you.

  2. Michelle, thanks, I hadn't even thought much about that priest, but what a great example of how we are all bridges (I think priest comes from a word meaning "bridge"(?)in the way we can be and that has been given to us. He did hook Dennis up with the dying guy...and yes, I have met priests from very different ends of the interpersonal-skills spectrum. Interestingly, as you say, sometimes the most dynamic, inspiring speakers are the most unable, or unwilling, to hold a simple conversation. Then again, priests probably have to make major boundaries simply in order not to be overwhelmed with peoples' constant cries for help, solace, to bless their new cars...The Church brings together, holds, and gives each of us a way to offer up our "mite"...

  3. Priests who didn't seem to really believe or truly care is what turned me away from the Church when I was a teenager. Took me a very long time to come back and to realize they are just human beings, but ones with a beautiful calling. I figure if they stick it out, they're doing the best they can. For some, it's not a lot. If we're truly lucky, we come across a few of the especially gifted ones.

    Re the word "priest": I thought it derived from "elder" -- ?

  4. I am eager for more of your conversation with Dennis, Heather. And thank you for not eliminating the elements of broken focus from this piece; oh how I love the topical change - Dennis' experiences and the observation of the world about you. Those white pelicans are beautiful, even in their plumpness. How wonderful you were able to see them. I've not ever seen a pelican.

  5. Heather, Happy Easter! I am looking forward to your whole interview with Dennis. I love hearing people's stories about how they ended up doing what they are doing- so many unplanned twists and turns. And I love visualizing what you and Dennis are seeing (bird-wise) as you chat.

    And I get your points about the availability (or not) of our priests. My parish has 14,000+ parishioners, and one of our three priests was just assigned to take over a parish where the pastor became ill. So now there is just our pastor and a recently ordained priest! Plus three deacons and a hard working parish staff, but- it's got to be very hard on them. I don't know how they handles the constant demands. (I think the toughest job in the parish is the head of the parish office. She is the gatekeeper for all the phone calls for EVERYTHING.) Talk about needing the wisdom of Solomon...

    Loving all your recent photos, especially those gorgeous succulents you've posted in the last few weeks.

    (PS- being a native Pennsylvanian, so glad you got to Pittsburgh and had a good visit in my neck of the woods!)

  6. I adore this interview. Such a kind man. I especially love how the conversation goes between birds and Dennis' story. You have the greatest ideas. Most people would edit out the fluttering distractions. But not you. So much fun.

  7. Since you're a good interviewer maybe you should be on the radio or TV.
    [The bulge or ridge on the pelican's beak appears during their breeding season.]

  8. Yes, had looked up the pelican beak and learned it appears during breeding season, thank you.

    To me, what's interesting is the seemingly random way Dennis was moved to attend the Death and Dying seminar, which proved to be the precipitating event of a whole new life. The love of birds, the desire to be with the outcast, the willingness to sit with the leper are all on a par with and undergird the work for peace...

    Dennis was a great and easy interview. And yes, I would love to invite people to tell their stories on television!

    No doubt more succulents to come, Mary Beth.

    Am working on a book proposal, stunned by events in Boston, and out of town this coming weekend--but always buoyed and inspired by your comments.

    So thanks so much to all--and we're only on page 10 of the Dennis interview!...


I WELCOME your comments!!!