By Father Joseph Breighner
Sanctity knows no time limits. If you would journey with me back into the 1950s, to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Essex, you would notice something very unusual.
Now, remember these were the days when 1,000 children attended the parish grade school. We began each day at Mass. There was a constant clattering as children put their book bags and lunch boxes on the floor in front of each pew.
Sisters were posted where each class was supposed to be seated. The large number of religious women and students was a familiar sight in many schools at that time, sort of a “golden age” for the Catholic Church in the United States.
Seated up front in the church, however, on the left side, sat an old man, with a wide circle of empty pews around him. The reason for the empty spaces is that this particular man didn’t smell very good.
He would come to the earliest Mass each weekday and stay on through the children’s Mass. Father Francis Wagner, everybody’s favorite priest at the time, nicknamed him “St. Stink.”
Father Wagner named him that because the man, well, stunk. Often Father Wagner would drive the man home. He lived in an old shack near Back River. Situated near a Waste Water Treatment plant that bears its name, Back River doesn’t always smell so good today. It could have been even worse in those days.
Every morning, nonetheless, St. Stink would take the 23 Transit Bus to Our Lady of Mount Carmel for his daily spiritual and social ritual.
No doubt those hours in church were the best hours of his day. Seated in the presence of God and of God’s children, this man found grace and socialization.
Father Wagner himself was a character. He had been a chaplain with the paratroopers in World War II and never lost the common touch.
In those days, of course, we had to make our weekly confession. I would always try to enter Father Wagner’s confessional box, and just as frequently try to disguise my voice so he wouldn’t recognize me.
Inevitably, when I was finished, he would say something such as: “Joe, I’ve got a wedding tomorrow afternoon. Will you be available to serve?” Of course I would say yes. Sometimes altar boys would get a “tip” at weddings. We didn’t get any tips serving funerals, but we did get a chance to miss some school.
As I said, Father Wagner was a character. As a young priest, I remember being with him at Forty Hours celebrations. After the service, there was usually time for socialization. I remember hearing him leave one such gathering and saying: “I’ll have one for the road. One for Harford Road. One for Belair Road. One for …. ” If a wife was denied a priest, a drink was not.
Those days of packed schools and churches, and three or four priests per parish, seem long ago and far away. Wonderful sisters, laity and priests, however, are still around. Schools and parishes are still open. Who can predict the future? As I often say: “We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know Who holds the future.”
We still believe in the power of prayer. October is the month of the rosary, and November is the month to pray for the faithful departed. And if we pray well, we too will pass through purgatory’s waiting room and enter eternal joy.
And as you enter Heaven, do not be alarmed if you smell something bad. You haven’t gone the wrong direction. You’ve simply found a place next to St. Stink. And the odor of sanctity has gone with him into eternity.
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