... when the storms came into his life, no matter how high the winds, how torrential the rains, or how choppy and dangerous the seas, he always kept his hand firmly on the tiller of the small boat he had chosen to take him on mission in life. He stayed on course. He kept the faith.
My brother Jim and I were Irish twins, born less than a year apart. He arrived on Dec. 9, 1935, and I showed up the following Dec. 9. We were the middle two of four siblings, our sisters Marguerite and Marilyn were the bookends that kept us propped up and in line.
As the older brother he was bigger, stronger, and -- thankfully -- more forgiving than I. Being the little brother, I viewed it as my mission to taunt and pester him at every opportunity, but he always treated me with patience and understanding -- except on those occasions when I overstepped the bounds of common decency, such as by stealing a piece of candy that was rightfully his. When I did incite his rage, I resorted to the one physical attribute at which I excelled; I could run. I knew that if I could avoid his grasp for just a few minutes he would cool down, his forgiving nature would come to the fore, and I would live to pester him another day.
Back then we called him Jimmie, spelled with an "ie" at the end, like Jimmie Foxx, the old ballplayer. I longed for the day when we would both reach full growth and I would be his equal in size and strength. But when that day finally came he remained, and would be forever more, bigger, stronger, and more forgiving.
We both served as altar boys at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Quincy, but he was never a goody-two-shoes kid, not a holier-than-thou type. In fact, he was capable of mischief, in one case at least, serious mischief. One Saturday morning, he and another kid from the neighborhood went behind Merrymount School, where we all attended grammar school, gathered some stones together, and proceeded to break almost every window in the back of the school. They could not be seen from the street, so they thought they were safe from detection. They failed to calculate, though, that there was a big hill abutting the rear of the school property, and on that hill were several houses. When the occupants of those houses heard glass shattering they looked out of their windows and were able to make positive identifications of the guilty parties.
Jimmie paid a steep price for that transgression, and Jim, Sr. paid a steep price for the replacement of all those shattered window panes.
As he progressed through his high school years, Jim heard the calling for a vocation in the priesthood. He was interested in a missionary order; it was not something that he talked about much, but the word got around and soon priests from various orders started to show up at the house. They were like college football coaches on recruiting missions, trying to sell their institutions to a talented quarterback. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate had the inside track, though, and after spending a year at Providence College to be sure of his decision, he was off to the seminary in September of 1955. Just a so-so student in high school, he got his act together and eventually earned a doctor of ministry degree from St. Mary Seminary and University in Baltimore. He was ordained a priest on May 31, 1963.
He spent 40 years of his priesthood serving in parish ministries in places as far-flung as Ashville, North Carolina, Mullins, West Virgina, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and several postings in and around the third world sections of Miami, Florida. We siblings were always aware of where he was and of the work he was doing to spread the Word of God and the gift of faith but we never witnessed it first-hand because he was always hundreds of miles away. Then, on the 40th anniversary of his ordination, his parishioners at Christ the King Church in Miami honored him and we all went there for the occasion. It was eye-opening to see the ease with which he moved in the largely Haitian culture of the parish -- so different from the Irish Catholic ways of Boston which had spawned him -- and to see the genuine affection that his parishioners had for him, and he had for them.
Eventually, his work took him back to Massachusetts, first as the director of St. Joseph the Worker Shrine in Lowell, and then as superior of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Residence in Tewksbury, where he later became a satisfied customer in his retirement.
He used what spare time he had, creatively and productively. As a young priest, he became interested in aviation, took flying lessons, and was for the rest of his days an active pilot. He was an avid skier, an activity he pursued until into his eighties. A gifted writer, he wrote two books on his experiences as a priest and on his observations of the people and the world around him. He was an enthusiastic gardener, and in the spring, he tapped sugar maples on the Oblate property in Tewksbury, boiled down the sap, and made maple syrup that he distributed as gifts to friends and relatives. He even, late in life, learned to ride a unicycle.
That is not to say that his life was free from care and strife. He faced his share of it, including seeing his own reputation and the reputation of every good priest sullied by the sexual abuse scandals of the clergy. But when the storms came into his life, no matter how high the winds, how torrential the rains, or how choppy and dangerous the seas, he always kept his hand firmly on the tiller of the small boat he had chosen to take him on mission in life. He stayed on course. He kept the faith.
This past Labor Day at lunch, he seemed to be his usual good-natured self, but no one at the Oblate residence remembers seeing him later in the day. Perhaps, not feeling well, he had gone to his room. Sometime after midnight, he called the nurse in distress and was rushed to the Lowell General Hospital, too late. In the predawn hours of Sept. 3, he was pronounced dead. He was 83.
He has sailed his small boat safely into port, disembarked, and stepped ashore on the other side. He's no longer with us in a physical sense, but all those of us who loved him and whose lives he touched need do is close our eyes for moment, and there he is and will always be -- big, strong, forgiving, and faithful to his mission to the end.
We love you, Jimmie.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.