Priests mark 50 years of Christmas memories

Archbishop Francis Patrick Keough headed the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Dwight D. Eisenhower was well into his second term as U.S. president and the Baltimore Colts were the toast of the professional football world.

The year was 1959, when these half-dozen men were ordained archdiocesan priests. On the occasion of their 50th Christmas on the altar, those six graciously shared some of their memories with The Catholic Review.

Monsignor William F. Burke

“I grew up on Park Circle (in northwest Baltimore) and as a boy went to St. Ambrose. A lot of my Jewish friends that I grew up with wanted to come to midnight Mass, which always had a packed house. In those days, the only time you could have a midnight Mass was at Christmas.

“My first Christmas as a priest was at St. Mark in Catonsville. We had 6,000 people coming to church, and that was only 60 percent of the parish. Everything was still in Latin; you (the priest) faced the wall.

“One year when I was at St. Elizabeth (in East Baltimore), I wished a gentleman a merry Christmas. He had stopped by the rectory to drop off a donation. He answered my greeting, and said ‘I’ve already had my Christmas, Father. I’ve talked to my sister. We haven’t talked in 32 years.’ I asked, ‘Does she live far away, perhaps, California?’ ‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘She lives on Luzerne Avenue, just three blocks away!’

“I still like to tell that story at Christmas. Peace on earth, and be reconciled.”

Monsignor Burke, 75, is the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Baltimore.

Father Charles R. Klein

“Christmas is a time for family. I first realized this in a very special way on my first assignment at St. Mary in Hagerstown. I became a part of a great and wonderful group of priests. This included Monsignor Daniel McGrath, Father Robert Passarelli, and Father Charles Harsh. I found a real meaning of our rectory family which worked so well together.

“There was also a much larger parish family, which was so warm and gracious to its priests. I felt a sense of a true Christian family which had concern for each other. It is said history repeats itself. How true – in every parish with which I have been associated, God blessed all those priests and all the people of those parishes.”

Father Klein, 75, retired, resides at Church of the Good Shepherd, Glen Burnie.

Monsignor Paul G. Cook

“The first Christmas that I was ordained was 1959. My first assignment was to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. This was the first Christmas at the new Cathedral. It was only about six weeks after the Cathedral actually opened. It was a very memorable Christmas. We were in the building with a new congregation and staff. Everything about it had the sense that we were doing something very wonderful for the first time.

“I remember the crowds at all of the Masses. I remember in those days, there were no Christmas Eve Masses until midnight, so midnight was jammed. We heard confessions almost all the way through Christmas Eve. Everybody waited to come to confession on Christmas Eve in those days. It was just very exhausting and very inspiring. It was quite the memorable experience.”

Monsignor Cook, 76, is the pastor of St. Joseph in Cockeysville.

Monsignor Richard E. Parks

“I’ve had the most beautiful 50 years anybody could ever have in this world. I’ve enjoyed serving God and God’s people. It’s the greatest life and of course this is a very special Christmas.

“I let the Lord give me (my Christmas message). I’m an extemporaneous speaker. When I get up there, I know what the Lord wants me to say. My message is different every year because I’m different each year. I look at how many people we lost this year, how many we brought into the world and the condition of the world today. I talk about the challenges we face and how Jesus is there for us, and how next Christmas will be just as good because he’ll make it that way.

“I like to celebrate – in a good sense of the word. When I came to Sacred Heart of Mary in Graceland Park with all these Polish people, they really know how to celebrate. These 32 years here were absolutely great.

“It’s been a wonderful journey, and I think you grow every Christmas.”

Monsignor Richard E. Parks, 77, is retired and will celebrate Christmas midnight Mass at St. Rita, Dundalk.

Father Gerald F. West

“Music was always a big part of my life. I sang in the choirs in grammar school and in the seminary. When I was at St. Charles Seminary, people would come to the chapel for midnight Mass, and a small group of us would sing. When I went to St. Mary’s, Paca Street, we seminarians sang televised midnight Mass at the Basilica.

“After ordination, I was an associate at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and directed the parish choir. In 1961, I became involved with students from Kenwood High who were doing “The Sound of Music” and wanted to borrow nun’s outfits from the sisters. I sang with the Kenwood Chorus, along with about 20 Kenwood graduates who lived in the area. The Kenwood students weren’t all Catholic, but very Christian, and they loved the sacred music. We did parts of Handel’s “Messiah,” Haydn’s “Creation,” other major works and the yearly Christmas assembly. We joined the Kenwood High chorus in making a recording of Christmas music. For health reasons, I limit myself to singing at the Sunday liturgy. Once you get involved with singing, you do it as long as you can.”

Father Gerald F. West, 74, is the chaplain at Clare Court Convent.

Monsignor Martin Feild

“Once, when I was associate pastor of St. Joseph in Cockeysville in the 1960s, Christmas Masses were canceled because of a big snowstorm. Drifts that were the problem – they were a few feet deep. One person came to Mass in a Volkswagen. I celebrated Christmas Mass for one person. It was a short Mass.

“When I was first ordained, all the Masses were on Christmas Day except for the midnight Mass. Now, most of the Masses are on Christmas Eve so parents don’t have to get up on Christmas Day.

“At our Christmas Eve Masses at St. Joseph today, we involve the little children. They come up in procession dressed up as angels and shepherds and Mary and Jesus. They are more a part of it, and we have them sit in the sanctuary to make room for everyone else. I try to change my wording in the sermon to put it in a simple way for them, and I try to hit the visuals that would appeal more to them.

“Christmas is always a happy time for people. Parishioners give me all kinds of cookies and candies. I’m starting to get sugar-free candies now. I share them with others on staff.”

Monsignor Feild, 75, is the pastor of St. Joseph in Taneytown.

Gary Gately, George Matysek, Paul McMullen, Matt Palmer, Suzanne Singleton and Jennifer Williams contributed to this article.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.