By Christopher Gunty
Mourners said a final goodbye Aug. 11 to a Baltimore City pastor who served the poor and worked to bring peace to the city. Monsignor Damien G. Nalepa died Aug. 4 at age 70.
Archbishop William E. Lori celebrated the funeral Mass Aug. 11 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Baltimore’s current, former and retired auxiliary bishops as concelebrants, as well as Passionist Father Richard Nalepa, Monsignor Nalepa’s brother, and several archdiocesan priests. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, a Baltimore native who is the now retired Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome, also attended.
Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and a longtime friend of Monsignor Nalepa, recounted in his homily their first meeting when then-Father Madden came to live at St. Martin Parish, where “Father Damien,” as he was known to many, met him and helped him get his bags to his third-floor room. At the time, Father Damien was a Capuchin Franciscan, and the parish was staffed by five Franciscans, a Benedictine and two archdiocesan priests.
Bishop Madden, who had just finished studies in clinical psychology and would live in residence at St. Martin’s during an internship at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said he was impressed by the young Franciscan’s boundless energy and positive attitude. “I remember thinking that he was just one of the nicest persons anyone could meet,” the bishop said in his homily.
“Of course, being raised in the Bronx and studying too much psychology, I also thought, ‘No one can be that nice.’ For 39 years he proved me wrong.”
He said sometimes people wondered whether Monsignor Nalepa lived in a small row house on Smallwood Street to make a statement about living simply, but he noted that Father Damien would never have said, “I want to give witness” because such thoughts were foreign to him. He merely was where he wanted and needed to be.
Bishop Madden recalled the words of John’s Gospel in which John the Baptist’s disciples follow Jesus to ask where he lives. “Come and see,” says the Lord, and the disciples went and saw where he was living and stayed with him that day (Jn 1:35-39).
“Jesus lived with the Father, Jesus lived with God; that’s where he lives,” Bishop Madden said. “If you ask with sincerity and if you follow this teacher, you will see where he lives. And if you examine Damien’s life, you will see not a small row house on Smallwood but you will see where he really lived – he lived with the Father, he lived with God. This was the joy of his life; this was his habitat.”
The bishop called his friend a man of integrity and virtue, “not perfect in every way, but consistently good.”
“Damien came to know that Jesus and his message were the only way for him to live. … It was because of this, I believe, that he so enjoyed life, why he was so joyful in his work.”
He was also steadfast in his love for and protection of his community in West Baltimore, the bishop said. With the parishioners at St. Gregory the Great, he organized a campaign to distribute 1,500 baskets of food, clothing and gifts for those in need at Thanksgiving and Christmas. He also organized a gun turn-in program to get weapons off the city streets.
“There was a part of him that wanted to protect everyone he knew and cared for, and that was just about everyone in the area,” Bishop Madden said, recalling the many occasions when he would be driving with Monsignor Nalepa and they would come upon suspected drug dealers making or about to make a deal. “He would stop the car, roll down the window and shout, ‘Get out of here. We don’t need your business here. You’re not welcome with all your drugs.’” And he would persist until the problem people moved on. When Bishop Madden expressed to him concern that one of these times, they would get shot at, he shrugged it off, saying, “They won’t do anything.”
“This man of slight build was a giant when it came to courage and service of his people,” the bishop said.
He read a letter from a 30-year friend of Father Damien’s who originally met the priest when she worked in the Baltimore City Jail system, recounting “a friendship so special it transformed my life. … I last spoke with Father Damien on Friday, a day before his death. I sensed his weariness and was deeply concerned about him. He assured me he was fine.
“What he gave, what he was, what he consecrated his life in was love, kindness, humility and honor,” the woman wrote.
The number of lives Monsignor Nalepa touched was evidenced by the full basilica, and the wide variety of people who came to pay their respects, including members of the Muslim community, and a man wearing a yarmulke, who said he had only met the priest two months earlier, when he was working on the estate of a parishioner who is leaving part of his estate to St. Gregory Parish. J. Allan Cohen called the priest an unbelievable man, and an amazing man. “I’m sad I didn’t get to know him better,” he said.
In remarks at the end of Mass, Father Richard Nalepa thanked all those present on behalf of his family, including his sister and her husband and another brother and his wife.
“He bloomed here,” he said of his brother, Damien. “He bloomed by making the Kingdom of God present in the city of Baltimore and in the archdiocese.”
He especially thanked the community of St. Gregory, many of whose members were present, and whose choir provided uplifting hymns during the Mass, noting their love of Father Damien, “calling him father and brother and friend and teacher, pastor and priest. He loved you very much.”
Archbishop Lori also acknowledged the parishioners, noting that he had hoped to meet the community, with its pastor, under different circumstances. He also thanked the Nalepa family “for sharing Damien with us for so many years.”
He noted that it was poignant and somehow appropriate that the one-time Franciscan turned archdiocesan priest died on the feast of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, and he was buried on the feast of St. Clare, one of the most prominent Franciscan saints.
Copyright (c) Aug. 13, 2012 CatholicReview.org