The call

Monday 26 March 2018 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Monday of Holy Week

The call came in at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 22. It was a nurse at the Catholic Memorial Home, Fall River, gently informing me of the death of my old friend Father Francis Xavier Wallace.

I had seen Father Wallace just two days before. He, who had been so athletic all his life (football, sailing, swimming, racquet ball),  no longer had the strength to sit up in bed. His body was skeletal. He, who was willing to engage in conversation at the drop of a hat, could no longer speak. There was a question about whether or not he, who had heard countless battlefield Confessions, could now hear a single word. There was even a question about whether or not he, who had carefully followed the latest news in the Church and in politics for decades, could now comprehend reality. 

I bent over the bed and spoke to him anyway. He had already received the Sacrament of the Sick. There was no need to repeat it. I did something that has never, I’m quite sure, been part of any course on the pastoral care of the dying. I put my fingers around my eyes to simulate spy glasses and said, “Frank, I’ve got my eye on you.” 

Back when he was still living here at the rectory, I purposely did not oil the squeaky wheels of his walker. Father Wallace (due to his hearing impairment) had no idea his walker was so noisy. The squeaking made such a racket that I knew exactly where he was in the building at all times. Sometimes, I would hear him coming and duck around a corner. When he approached, I would pop out and say “Frank, I’ve got my eye on you!” “Stop stalking me!” Frank would laugh.” It became a joke between us.

I bent over Frank now and said loudly, “I’ve got my eye on you, Frank Wallace!” He smiled. He realized I was there. And I realized he was “there.” His health attendant, understandably, thought I had gone completely bonkers.

So, the call came informing me of his death, and, quite frankly, I was caught off guard. Intellectually, the notification of his death was not unexpected. After all, who dies unexpectedly at the age of 96? But still.

It was my task to assist the undertaker in preparing his body for burial. I choose violet Mass vestments because it was Passiontide. Father Wallace had just experienced his own passion in a long process of dying.

Father Wallace was always a man with a plan. He had already chosen the casket he preferred, so I didn’t have to concern myself with that. 

The choice of the Scripture readings for the Funeral Mass was up to me. I made my choices.

I delegated the hymn selection to the parish music director, Barbara Leighton.

The parish administrative assistant, Peg Frederick, prepared a memorial display of documents, photographs, and memorabilia for the church lobby. As it turned out, people lingered there to tell stories about how Father Wallace had impacted their lives. There were many stories to be shared.

Gary Parsons, the parish facilities manager, went to our cemetery and scrubbed Father Wallace’s headstone until it looked pristine. (Years before, Father Wallace had selected his own grave marker and chosen its location. Hint: It’s not in the Father Wallace section of the cemetery). 

The wake for Father Wallace was held in the church. It lasted five hours. There was a steady stream of visitors — people from all stations in life.

The Mass of Christian Burial was as well-attended as any Sunday Mass — not bad for the funeral of a 96-year-old on a workday. Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha presided, with Bishop Emeritus George Coleman as a vested concelebrant. There were some 20 priests concelebrating and eight deacons in attendance.

Father Wallace had designated me to deliver the homily. He intended this to be payback for having written about him in The Anchor. How could I sum up such an unusual priestly ministry? I could hear Frank laughing. 

Always planning ahead, Father Wallace had handed me several copies of homilies that he himself had preached on the occasion of the death of a priest. The homilies were pages long. They were filled with dates, names, places and all sorts of minutiae. How can I put this delicately? Among Father Wallace’s many priestly gifts, preaching was not one of them. I set aside his sample homilies. 

Instead, I told a few stories to try to capture the personality of the man. His life clearly underscored the fact that there are so many ways to be a priest in this world of ours. In the end, all I could really say was that he was a priest, nothing less and nothing more. 

Pray for those who have already been called to the priesthood and pray for those prayerfully discerning the possibility of such a calling. 

May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. 

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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