While in Pittsburgh last February, I spent a single memorable night, courtesy of Fr. Joe Sedley, at the St. Paul Monastery, Church and Retreat House in South Pittsburgh.
The men at St. Paul are Passionist priests. They serve the neighborhood as well as their retreatants. Their charism is hospitality.
Fr. Joe, who is 77, had e-mailed me when he read I was coming his way. “Love to meet up if you have time,” he said. He acted like I was doing him a favor instead of the other way around.
The Saturday afternoon we'd arranged for him to pick me up, he was leading a retreat and drove across town on his break. His 2004 Ford Focus looked like it had made many such trips; I imagined him fetching anawim of various stripes from near and far as we made our way to St. Paul's.
At the monastery, Father helped me with my bags to the retreat house office, and introduced me to Dottie, a volunteer with a slight limp who welcomed me warmly and allowed that she was scheduled for knee surgery in two days.
Then Father showed me around--the dining hall, the chapel, the sacristy to the old neighborhood church. Here we came upon Loretta Diehl, a petite redhead who was bent over an ironing board with “just a stack of altar cloths!”
“Loretta about runs this place,” Fr. Joe chuckled.
“How long as she been here?” I asked as we toured the sanctuary. In a niche to the side, statues of St. Gemma Galgani. St. Gabriel, and St. Theresa of Avila were bathed in an otherworldly green light.
“Loretta?” Father mused. “Let’s see, she’s been volunteering her services now for over 40 years or so.”
|SIDE CHAPEL IN MONASTERY AREA|
I slept like a lamb.
Some of the women had taken shifts, or been up all night, before the Blessed Sacrament. Like the worker who came late to the vineyard, I appeared in the chapel at 6:30 a.m., half an hour before the Eucharist was to be reposed. The first person I saw, sitting quietly to the right, was a freshly-shaven Fr. Joe.
After morning prayer, he introduced me to Fr. Mike Salvagna, who promptly lent me to keys to the crypt. “Bring ‘em back to me at breakfast,” said Fr. Mike. Never seen me before. Total trust.
|FROM THE CRYPT|
IF MEMORY SERVES, RIGHT HAND SIDE, SECOND UP FROM BOTTOM
IS HORSEHAIR SHIRT AND SCARY BARBED IRON PENITENTIAL ITEM
A priest I hadn’t met was looking out the window and gathering himself. He probably could have done without a stranger traipsing through his sacristy before Mass, but if so, he didn’t betray that by the slightest sound or movement or body language. He neither acknowledged me nor ignored me. He included me. He incorporated me. His face is stamped on my memory. Not the features, but the quality of the gaze.
After Mass, I got to sit in on Fr. Joe’s last talk. He was a wonderful speaker: funny, deep, and with a delivery all his own. I was spellbound and could have listened to him for hours. Instead, true to form, he turned the podium over to me for 15 minutes. I got up and basically cried, after which several dear women, I’m sure inspired entirely by Fr. Joe’s home-spun holiness, bought my book.
It may not seem like much, that humble monastery. We left its walls and returned to the “real” world. But back in L.A., assaulted by the usual news of abused children, torture victims, the bombs built by a pair of brothers, my mind has returned again and again to those homely scenes:
Fr. Joe, praying before the Blessed Sacrament.
Dottie, welcoming the stranger.
Fr. Mike, trusting the resident alien.
Loretta, head bent to the endless work of pressing and folding and stacking altar cloths.
An anonymous priest, his weary face raised to the light.
Upon this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.