Life After…Go figure

A Narrative of Life Outside The Box

Final Sermon, Thematic Preaching Class, December 2012: Lumzo speaking in memory of Grandpa

It is important to add this: Time has been tinkered with. Generalizations have been made. I’ve ordained myself three years in advance, and altered my grandfather’s timeline. Our assignment was to preach on a death in the community. I needed the experience, because the last funeral I spoke at or about was my husband’s. I couldn’t just make somebody’s death up, or invent a tragedy or natural disaster. And I never had the grace of being able to mourn my grandfather outwardly, much, when he died. The town does exist, as does our family history there, and grandpa’s family did build as much of it as I relate, although the interfaith chapel was far away, and never became a UU church.

For a man that so many of us loved, so very much, the day has broken and the shadows have fled away. Philip Edgar Fitzpatrick died on December 3, and his funeral service was last week at the Catholic Church of Saint John downtown. I was able to attend the service. Many in our congregation were able to go as well. Some of our number had obligations that would not keep, work, family, the ties of conviction, the demands of health. And in one of those moments of grace, the path of my own heart, and the wishes of many of our congregation followed the same road. Therefore, we are gathered here to remember Philip together, in all our community. And this is the story of how we begin to remember.

For someone who was a proud and devoted follower of another faith, a lot of us knew him here as well as any official congregation member. He was easy to find, at six foot two, even when he sat in our midst during services. He always wore a blazer, tie and trousers.   The gleam in his bright blue eyes, large and deep set, never really went away. He was the gentle giant of whatever row he sat in, whatever corner of our gathering room he occupied. Whether he sat at home in his chair by the windows overlooking the broad Lake Champlain, or here, he held himself like an ancient clan chief of Ireland. But it was his genuine sweetness and calm that bore all his dignity and authority outwards.  Philip died in fealty to his own church, one that he revered all his life. Yet his other faith, his other lodestones were love and conscience, and it is his unconditional love that brought him into the life of this community.

After his wife Carolin underwent eye surgery, Philip came on his own more often. He could always be counted on to escort ladies to empty chairs, bring coffee to anyone using a wheelchair or cane. After we lost Carolin, after that first wave of grieving, he still came. He would still tell jokes with his soft, dignified voice that left us surprised almost as hard as we laughed. And, Philip never hesitated to explain why he attended so many services, so many events, even as a devout Catholic. “Oh my wife and I always have enjoyed it very much. And our granddaughter—Laura, our youngest, is the minister here.”

Philip was born in 1908, the middle son of Francis and Mary Fitzpatrick, on Hamilton street, in a house Frank and grandfather John J, the contractor, had built. John’s brother, Simon and his wife lived next door and Frank’s brother, George lived nearby in town. The Fitzpatricks had sailed from Kilmessin Ireland in 1822, landed in Canada and walked across the border to New York State and our town of Plattsburgh. John J, and Francis Fitzpatrick after him  ran a building, contracting and dredging business. By Philip’s childhood, every street in town had “John J Fitzpatrick and Sons” stamped on regular intervals—because his family had laid them down. In his teens, Philip and his brothers, father and uncles helped to build, the Plattsburgh Municipal offices, Saint John’s Elementary School, most of Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Church in town…and our Church. Or, our church building—it was Congregational at first and then we moved in, in 1985.

Philip’s father broke ground on this church, actually, the year something extraordinary happened in the family. Between 1927 and 1928, Philip completed his freshman year at Dartmouth College. His oldest brother Fitzpatrick finished junior year at Williams, and his youngest brother James enrolled at Yale—we can forgive the lack of Fitzpatrick women in college for the era because Philip had no living sisters. All three boys were the first generation of their family to attend College. All three of them were in school on Academic scholarships. Fitz entered Law School, James as well and Philip, upon graduating, began medical school in New York City, also on scholarship, because he had always dreamt of becoming a doctor.

And then the Great Depression hit. The business of John J Fitzpatrick and Sons Contracting shattered into bankruptcy. Fitz and James were barely able to hang on as law clerks. Philip waited tables and worked extra jobs, but his scholarships could not meet his needs to continue in Medical School, and he had to withdraw. He never became a doctor. Instead, he returned home, helped the fragments of his family’s business take whatever construction jobs they could find. In 1932, at a football game, he met the daughter of an Episcopalian and a Jew, Carolin Howell.

Despite the formidable prejudices many Catholics held, all of which the Church reinforced, Philip proposed marriage to Carolin before she had even converted to his faith. They had to be married in the Air Force base Chapel because it was forbidden to hold a Mass at Saint John’s—despite the number of stained glass windows, corner stones and the communion rail with the name of his family on their surfaces. Carolin’s father helped Philip find a job at the bank in town, and Carolin converted to Catholicism, agreeing to raise her children in her husband’s religion as well. Philip grew up, fell in love and married long before his family had heard the word “Interfaith.” But he was friends with Baptists, Episcopalians, Jews and Armenian Christians. He was a loving, affectionate and devoted son to his mother in law. He was the caretaker of the Jewish Cemetery in town for decades. And when a nun told his seven year old daughter that her mother was bound for hell, because she was Jewish, Philip was willing to stand by his wife and daughter in love and respect. –Of course, because all four feet and eleven inches of my grandmother marched down to the school and filleted the Sister in question without any difficulty, Grandpa was more of a reserve strategy.

Having said all this, Philip was not only a devout Catholic, he was a conservative Catholic and a deeply conservative man. He mourned the end of the Latin Mass. He was deeply concerned to see lay teachers out numbering religious orders in parochial schools. He was a committed Republican. One year at a “new” Catholic Easter service, the Easter Bunny came hopping up the aisle, just before the consecration of the Communion bread. All six feet and two inches of Philip Fitzpatrick, aged 72, stood up in slow, deeply raging fury, his face pale, his nostrils flared, his eyes burning enough to blast a highway from granite, and walked out of that particular church….never to return!

When I was seventeen, and announced that I could not be a Catholic because I would no longer accept the beliefs about Communion or the Pope’s (occasional) infallibility, my family, Philip’s clan, reacted mostly in one or two speeds: dismissal and derision. My grandfather, the unnamed clan chief, our patriarch, was “grandpa” to me, but I feared his reaction. Still when he asked me sternly but gently about it, he stood implacably by me my decision to refuse confirmation and leave the church. When I began to embrace Pagan traditions, I was sure it would be going too far for my aging and slowly dying grandfather to accept in peace. I decided not to tell him. A member of our family, angry at the world and, somewhat removed, me, went at full speed to him and told him I was a witch. I know what they fully expected—and I think grandpa did too. They expected to be able to run back to me with the gleeful news of his tears, rage and upset, and strong condemnation.

Grandpa looked the woman in the eye and said “If Laura is sincere, and devout and conscientious in the choices she makes about religion, I do not object.”

When I began to embrace Unitarian Universalism, I would, when pressed talk to my family about my reconciliation with all our sources and principles, including Christ and the Goddess, humanism and Conscience. My mother remained somewhat upset. My grandmother was very disappointed, although she embraced neither cruelty nor rejection. Grandpa listened, time and again. He read my letters and asked me questions and then listened some more. Finally, one day, he sighed, a mountain gently settling into its foundation. And he said then, and again and again on other days, at other times, “I’m proud of you, Lumzo.” And I cannot remember any instance of hearing it, or him saying it, when our eyes were dry.

And here is why. Here is why it was so important to me, reasons so simple and full of grace, and beyond the “big stuff” of faith and intellect and choices in life. Grandpa nicknamed me “Lumzo” when I was four. Nobody knew why. I loved it. He called me “Lumzo” all my life. I loved it, I loved that he read me fairy tales. That he gave each egg in the refrigerator an obscure saint’s name, let me pick one, then soft-boiled them for me on his home baked bread. That he sought to bring me up in the strongest fidelity to our family traditions, love, good humor, compassion, truth and thoughtfulness. My grandfather loved me. He cared for me, listened to me, and worked so hard to teach me about the Christ he loved and followed.

Grandpa had a stroke shortly before my ordination, and was too frail to attend. He moved into the Vilas home, here in town, for his last year of medical care. He got quieter, and weaker, and very unhappy with his physical condition. But, he never failed to send me his love. He never failed in his letters to members of our congregation, lunch dates with anyone who could make it to the cafeteria, donations to our “guest at the table” and habitat for humanity congregations. And the gentle jokes never flagged.

The stories I and all of us remember from before we lost my grandfather, Philip Fitzpatrick, are something else now. They are one. This one, this all-encompassing span, this is the story of how we begin to remember. This one vast story is about Philip, and his family, my family, and our town, even, and our congregation as well, because he gave himself to us, here, in every way he could. Because of love, I didn’t lose my grandfather when I set out on the path to ministry. Because of love, we had Philip with us, all of us. And we always will.

 

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