Tag Archives: Bayonne

Immigration, Now and Then

Immigration is a hot political topic today. It’s not just an issue here in America; it’s a world issue. Millions of people all over the world are on the move today because of wars, violence and because they can’t make a living on lands affected by climate change.

Our first reading today at Mass is about Abraham, the “wandering Aramean” whom God blessed as he went from place to place. May God bless those wandering from place to place today.

Today also is St. Patrick’s day. This was a big day in the place where I was born and raised, Bayonne, NJ, a city of immigrants, many from Ireland. The Irish went to church today to thank God for the faith brought to them by St. Patrick and for being able to live in a country where they could make a living and bring up their families, hoping for a better life.

Years ago, I visited the place where some of my relatives came from in Donegal, in northern Ireland. I saw the little abandoned farm house, with no roof, where some of them lived. An old man in the neighborhood remembered the day they left for America, three young people carrying away their simple belongings. It was all they had. There was no work for them there anymore.

When they came to America they took whatever jobs they could get. It had to be hard for them making their way in a new land and another way of living. But they helped one another, and that’s one of the things I remember about that immigrant generation. They helped one another.

I took a picture of that abandoned house in Donegal and gave it to my relatives. I see it’s still hung proudly in their house when I visit. We have to remember where we come from. We’re children of Abraham, on our way to a place that’s still before us. We have to stick together.

Mary White O’Donnell

I gave this funeral homily at a church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where my cousin was buried today……….

The Catholic Church ended the first phase of its Synod on the Family a few months ago, and now Pope Francis wants to hear from the church throughout the world how marriage and family life can be strengthened and understood. If Mary and Bill O’Donnell were alive today I would have suggested to Pope Francis to talk to them, because I thought they knew more about family life than any priest or bishop or (forgive me if this seems irreverent) even the pope himself.

Mary and Bill didn’t write books or give lectures, they weren’t self-proclaimed experts, but they were living books on marriage and the family. If you watched them you learned a lot.

Whenever I visited 5 Farmhouse Lane, I often spent a few minutes looking at the big wall of pictures that Mary created in the room where she and Bill would sit in their later years, watching television, waiting for the phone to ring or the door to open. Some were old pictures of the White and O’Donnell families, lots of wedding pictures, pictures of baptisms and plenty of pictures of kids. The pictures stretched through generations, the latest usually were stuck on the refrigerator in the kitchen or near the telephone.

For Mary those pictures represented the treasures of her life. They were what she loved and gave her life to. She had a story for each of them, and she was a wonderful story-teller. The pictures summed up her life as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, a friend. They were gifts from God and Mary loved them all.

Most of you who were pictured most prominently on that wall are here in church today–her children, their husbands and wives, her grandchildren. I know you wont forget how she lived and how she loved you.

We bring her body to church to remember our ties with her, but more importantly to offer her to God though Jesus Christ, his Son, for the next phase of her life. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus told his disciples before he died. We listen to his words as if they were spoken to us.

“I go to prepare a place for you,” a place with many rooms. What a beautiful, concrete description that is of that unknown place we’re all called to, the new life we’re promised by Jesus Christ. A place of many rooms. What does that mean except, perhaps, that we’ll be gathered there together, with the ones we loved and we’ll see them again.

So is that a promise that Jesus makes only to his disciples then? No, it’s a promise he makes to us now.

Later in our prayers at Mass we’ll say:

“Remember Mary whom you have called today from his world to yourself. Grant that she who was united to your Son in a death like his may also be one with him in his resurrection.”

That’s true, isn’t it? This last year or so, particularly, Mary shared in the Passion of Christ at home and then at St. Mary’s Home in Cherry Hill, NJ, where she died. Many of you stood by her. The Lord was with her then as he is now.

Our prayer goes on:

“Give Mary, with all the others, kind admittance to your kingdom. There we hope to enjoy forever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For seeing you, our God, we shall be like you for all ages, and praise you without end through Christ through whom you bestow on the world all that is good. “

So where is Mary now? Her tears are being wiped away, I think, and she’s in one of those rooms that Jesus speaks of, with those who went before her, with her husband Bill and her family. I think too, she’s hanging up the pictures, waiting to see us again.



Memories of a Baptism

I was celebrant at the funeral Mass for Jack Olsen last Saturday morning in Sacred Heart Church in Bay Head, NJ.

My memories of Jack go way back to when the Olsens lived in the house on the corner of Lord Avenue and 3rd Street in Bayonne, NJ. My mother was a friend of Jack’s mother and when we were young she took my sister and me regularly to see the Olsens. We played with their 9 kids. Just down the street from their house was a football field where some of the best local teams played. During the 2nd World War Italian prisoners of war were held in barracks there and many Bayonne Italians went down to talk to them and pass them food. It put a human face to war.

Just beyond the Olsen’s house was the Kill Van Kull, the busy three mile waterway between Bayonne and Staten Island. Bill Olsen, Jack’s father, was a tugboat captain. As a kid, I couldn’t think of a better job in all the world than pushing and pulling big ships and barges around New York harbor.

My mother told me she met my father when she was washing the dishes after a baptism at the Olsens–maybe it was Jack’s baptism, or Fr. Tom’s, or Rita’s. My father was a friend of Jack’s uncle, Dinny, who probably invited him to the baptismal celebration that day.

“What’s your name?” my father said to her. “Rose O’Donnell,” she replied. “I’m Victor Hoagland,” he said. So my sister and I are here 80 or so years later. How connected our lives are by small things, like washing dishes or going to a baptism.

I mentioned at Jack’s funeral some of the small things that took place at his baptism 86 years ago. He was brought to church and signed with the sign of the Cross. That simple sign meant that he was blessed by the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who would bless him through the course of his life, even the hard months that marked his final sickness.

At his baptism, the priest poured water, the source of life, on his forehead and said (in Latin then) “John, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Life was God’s gift to him, a life that begins at conception and continues beyond the years here on earth.

Jack was a strong believer in God, the Creator, who gives life and Jesus, our Redeemer, who saw life so precious that he gave his life that we might live. He was a firm believer in the Right to Life.

Baptism is a sacrament of family life, which means, first of all, that we’re members of the family we belong to in this world. Jack, a bachelor, played a big part in his large family of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and all their wives and husbands, never missing celebrations, births, deaths and holidays. He was proud of his family and loyal to his own.

Baptism calls us into other families too– the family that’s our neighborhood, our city, our country. Jack was a good neighbor who loved the place where he lived and the people who lived there.

Baptism also calls us into the family of the church. Jack was a true believer; he loved the church. No doubt about his loyalty; the church was his home. He belonged to its societies, like the Holy Name and the Knights of Columbus. He made retreats with the Passionists. The Mass and the sacraments were not formalities, they were real for him. He loved his church in good times and bad.

At Jack’s funeral the other day, it seemed right to remember his baptism. The sacrament is at the heart of our funeral rites, when you think about it. We blessed him with water, the sign of life and made the sign of the cross over him again as his remains were carried into the church and then carried out. A white cloth, a reminder of the white garment he received long ago, was placed over him. The great words of faith were proclaimed: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God.” We heard the account of Jesus’ death and the message of the angel, “He is risen.” We celebrated the mystery of the Bread and Wine, which Jesus said are the food of eternal life.

“Life is changed, not ended,” our prayer said. Rest in peace.

Bill O’Donnell

+January 19, 2014

“He’s your cousin, your first cousin. His name is Bill. He’s my brother Bill’s youngest son. He’s an O’Donnell, and that was my name before I got married.”

I don’t know when my mother told me that. Maybe 70 years ago. But it was important, because I learned I belonged to a family. I was a few years younger than Bill O’Donnell, and we belonged to the same family. We lived in the same house growing up. He and his brother and mother and father lived on the 1st floor at 335 Boulevard in Bayonne, NJ and I lived with my mother and sister and Aunt Mae on the 2nd floor.

We went to the same schools, the same church; we knew the same neighbors and had some of the same friends. We played together on the streets and in the parks as kids. The kids called him “Binker.” I’ve never figured out what the name meant, except that there were so many O’Donnells around they needed a name to distinguish him from the others.

You learn a lot growing up together. We don’t realize how much. Bill taught me how to play Pinochle, one summer, I remember. We learned from the same people and in the same environment. We both owe a lot those who raised us.

Bill’s father was very much like him, maybe a bit quieter. He was a hard worker who often worked the night shift at one of the oil refineries in Bayonne. In the summer before he would go to work I would sometimes sit on the porch with him and we’d talk about the New York Giants (before they left for the coast) and sports. He was an easy man to talk to, a good man to be around. For one thing, I think he taught me how to read the box scores in the paper.

People lived close to each other then: they walked to the store or church, or to see their friends or family. When they walked by our house, Bill’s father knew them all; he talked to them all and they talked to him. You learn from someone like him how to appreciate people and how to talk to them.

Bill was like him. A hard worker, he loved his family, and he had a wonderful gift for appreciating people and knowing how to talk to them.

As I remember, the doors of that house in Bayonne were hardly ever locked. There were always cousins, or neighbors, or sometimes people you didn’t know at all in our house. Everybody was welcome. Priests were always in and out. I suppose Bill’s brother and I got interested in becoming priests meeting them.

The O’Donnells believed the bigger the crowd in your house the better. In business terms I guess you would say they believed in mergers and acquisitions. And so when Bill brought Mary White around, they knew they had a good thing. It was the perfect merger and acquisition. Not only did you get Mary, but you got her nine brothers and their wives and all their kids too.

Whenever I visit the O’Donnells now, too infrequently I’m afraid, I feel connected to those old days. Maybe it’s because Mary has every family picture ever taken over the years on the walls of their house. But really, it’s because of the values there– love of family, love of children, love for others. Bill exemplified that love, a love good for any time and place.

He had the art of living; you could say; he loved life. I’m sure his greatest wish would be that his family pass that love on to their children and their children’s children.

But besides the art of living, Bill showed us another art these last months, and that was the art of dying. Today, some of the most difficult issues we face are end of life issues–medical decisions, decisions about health care. But at the heart of these issues is how we face death and how we leave this life.

As his health declined and his strength began to slip away, Bill had to know his life was coming to an end; it was plain to see. His weeks at St. Mary’s Home, for all the wonderful care he received, were not going to bring him home. He was going to another home.

And so he gave himself, with the little strength he had, to giving thanks, to everyone who came to see him, for everything that was done for him, the smallest thing– he gave them thanks. He left this world giving thanks. Giving thanks seems to be a key to the art of dying.

But Bill also left this world with faith, a faith that was underneath the way he lived and was with him in the way he died. Life was changing for him, not ending. What ever we saw as we watched his wasted body, his withdrawal and increasing silence, life was changing for him, not ending. That’s the great statement of faith. “I believe in life everylasting.”

His daughter Nancy told me her father said to Fr. Hart at the nursing home. “Do I have to say all these prayers?” He had one of his cousin’s prayer books on his night table. “No, you don’t have to say all those prayers,” Fr. Hart told him, “ just think about them.”

I’m sure that’s what he did. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Think of it: another world beyond this, another home whose doors are never closed, another family waiting for us, another life that will never end, a Father who loves us all. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said.

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Think about it: Now is the time to give thanks, to give and to love, and do it with all your heart. The hour of death is God’s time, the time to say “your will be done,” to accept God’s call and to go into the beautiful unknown.

Thanks, Bill.

Celebrating in Bayonne

Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Bayonne, NJ celebrated its 150th anniversary Saturday evening, May 14, with Mass presided over by Archbishop Peter Gerety, the retired archbishop of Newark. About 30 priests, 4  like myself raised in the parish, concelebrated the Mass. Msgr. Frank Seymour, the diocesan archivist–also from the parish– preached the homily.

A number of former parishioners came back to celebrate at the Mass and at the dinner that followed in the school hall, along with the present parishioners.  Most Reverend Joseph Younan, Bishop of Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Diocese came to the anniversary. Like so many immigrant groups before, the Syrian Catholics from places like Iraq in the Middle East have found a home in Bayonne. Now they have their cathedral at St. Joseph Church, which formerly belonged to the Slovak community.

The bishop and the wonderful choir from St. Dominic’s Academy that sang latin polyphony at the Mass says that  Bayonne is still a city for immigrants.

Memories flooded into my mind. I arrived early to walk through the church where I grew up and where so many important moments of my life took place. The church I remember so well still bears the stamp of its Irish origins. I counted three statues and windows of St. Patrick and the familiar scenes in the windows of the life of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, bright and fresh as when they were put there.

Baptisms, weddings, funerals, anniversaries took place here. I celebrated my first Mass here; afterwards at the parish meal Msgr. William F. Lawlor, our pastor, fell over and died of a heart attack as he offered some remarks. That event made headlines in The Bayonne Times the next day.

I sat at the banquet after Mass with some of the “living stones” of St. Marys, which we used to call the parish years ago.  One has been a member of the parish council for decades. The others lived there for most of their lives, although now they have moved away. Watching them easily connect with each other , trading stories, reliving memories, singing and dancing with delight, makes you appreciate the deep delight and faith that kept this place alive for 150 years.

I have a treasured picture from 1914 of my mother’s graduation from St. Mary’s School.

She’s  clutching her diploma. Many of these kids were just off the boat or their fathers and mothers were. But they set their worlds on fire.

My mother said her class loved getting together in later years. One of them Msgr. Leo Martin became the popular pastor of St. Marys, his home  parish. Another, whose name I forget, became head of the New York Stock Exchange. (He always footed the bill for the celebration, my mother said).

The “living stones” loved the celebration Saturday evening. I loved being with them.