|May 21, 2012 • VOL. 50, NO. 9 • Oakland, CA|
Catholic VOICE FILE photo
Fond memories of Bishop Floyd L. Begin
My first meeting with Bishop Floyd L. Begin took place in August 1965 when I returned from an assignment to Melbourne, Australia (foundation of St. Paul's College). My superiors assigned me for the second time to St. Joseph's in Alameda as chaplain to the Brothers and to the Boys' High School. I had taught there as a Marianist brother from 1955 to 1958.
The visit with Bishop Begin in the Chancery was a "courtesy" visit as a priest newly assigned to his diocese. I was somewhat overwhelmed with his kind demeanor and the time he spent chatting about his years as a student at Cathedral Latin with the Brothers of Mary. Of course the Brothers and priests he remembered were only names to me, but names I was familiar with. After all, he had been a student at Cathedral Latin long before I was born! The bishop introduced me to his vicar general, Msgr. John P. Connolly, and to his Chancellor, Msgr. John S. Cummins. I felt very welcome and at ease.
As the year went on, I became involved in the pastoral work of St Joseph's parish. Msgr. Alvin Wagner (the pastor) had arrived there in 1957 to replace Father Robert O'Connor who had died as the result of an auto accident. I had gotten to know him then when I was first teaching in the high school. It was a friendship that lasted until his death in 1989. When the summer arrived, I asked my superiors for permission to remain in the diocese to take up parish work. An exclaustration was granted for three years after another visit with Bishop Begin. Again, he was most warm and expressed his welcome—this time to serve as a priest of the diocese. In October, he phoned me to send me to St. Isidore's in Danville with Msgr. Julius Bensen. Whenever I saw him at some diocesan function he was always concerned with how I was doing and would always come back to the subject of his time at Cathedral Latin with the Brothers of Mary.
After another year, he phoned me again. "Do me favor, would you?" I said I would be happy to do him a favor. This was a Wednesday at the end of September. "Report tomorrow to St. Anthony's in Oakland. Msgr. Connolly has lost an assistant and needs a replacement." What could I say except "yes?" After another year and a half, he sent for me. No telephone this time. I was somewhat apprehensive.
"Your Superiors have asked to have you back for an assignment in Hawaii." He could see the signs of distress that came over me. In a very fatherly way he reminded me that obedience should dictate my response. He expressed very positive observations about my time in the diocese and he ended "Remember, the door will always be open." He was always kind and supportive.
After preaching two religious retreats, I reported to the house of formation for young student brothers as their chaplain and as a teacher of moral theology in the college. These were the days after Vatican II. The situation was not very good. I wrote to Msgr. Cummins asking about the possibility of returning to Oakland. He was away and the bishop himself responded within a week. "The door is still 'wide open' and "incardination immediately without question." At the end of the semester, I returned to Oakland and was assigned to St. Philip Neri parish in Alameda with Father Patrick O'Brien as pastor.
Sometime in November 1970 I received another phone call from the bishop. "I would like you to report to the Tribunal on Monday morning." He had never said anything about that to me. He said he trusted me to learn what I needed to learn. That lasted 11 years. More phone calls over the next couple years (from his office to mine) assigning me to live "in residence" first at St. Lawrence O'Toole and then to St. Theresa's — both in Oakland. Meanwhile, he entrusted me with other responsibilities — among them, vicar for religious. He was always so trusting. Once he gave me the responsibility for something, he would occasionally ask how it was going and always had some supportive comment.
In January 1972, he called me into his office to inform me that he had decided to make me his secretary and that I should move into 65 Seaview—his residence. That included being master of ceremonies and, often, chauffeur. We had two Sisters (St. Joseph of St. Francis) who took wonderful care of us. He was wonderful to live with. We may have had our "discussions" in the office, but living with him was delightful. He was most generous and put all of us at ease. He shared his friends with us and on special occasions (Christmas in particular) he welcomed my friends for some celebration. They were all well impressed and enjoyed his stories and banter. Each morning we had Mass in the beautiful little chapel. One day he asked me to take my turn regularly as principal celebrant while he concelebrated with me. At first I was uncomfortable with the arrangement, but eventually it became a necessity when his health declined. When we had a Mass for Confirmation or some other function, I would say the Mass for the Sisters. He had season tickets to Raiders games and a pass for a special parking place. The Sisters and the bishop and I enjoyed that—plus the World Series games for the A's. He was most gracious to visiting prelates — Archbishop Jean Jadot (Apostolic delegate in those days) and Archbishop Fulton Sheen who came for a number of years to help raise funds for the School for the Deaf. Bishop Begin had studied in Rome with Archbishop John McGucken and each year on the archbishop's birthday (March 13) he would invite him for dinner along with his own Sister, Sister St. Lawrence, a Notre Dame Sister of Cleveland, and to my great surprise my own grandmother when she was visiting. They all shared the same birthday. Occasionally, members of bishop's family would come to visit from Ohio.
Bishop Begin was to retire on May 1, 1977. It would have been the 30th anniversary of his Episcopal consecration. Over the years he had had some serious health issues. He had major surgery in 1972 and all seemed well until an exam in June 1976 where a return of the cancer was discovered. Knowing that he was scheduled for retirement the following year, he wanted to get things in order as the time approached. On May 12, 1976, he called me into his office to sign a document. Often, I served as his canonical notary. The document was the official decree of foundation for the Parish of St. Albert in Alameda. The next day, May 13, he called me over again to notarize another document. As I was handing it back to him, I noticed my name was typed as part of the document. It was my appointment as the founding pastor of the new parish. He was excited for me. He insisted on going with me to locate a residence for a temporary rectory. We stopped to look at a place on Fiji Lane on Bay Farm Island. He went in and looked all around. He explained to the owner why we needed a home. I was amazed at how the bishop had come to life. Signs of his returning illness had already shown themselves. But obviously, he was enjoying this project. We settled on that townhouse. It meant that I would move away from 65 Seaview after 4½ years. He kept me as his secretary. He had another priest who had been secretary before me to take care of the workings at 65 Seaview. I continued with the office work.
In September 1976, he had surgery. His recovery was quite slow. At Christmas his brother LeRoy and his wife Cady came to visit. LeRoy died shortly after the visit. As his condition worsened, Msgr. Connolly asked the Sisters who had taken such good care of him to return temporarily. We had hired Martha Cadigan to replace them. When they returned, she came to me in the rented rectory.
The bishop was looking forward to ordaining five priests as his final ordination for the diocese. The date was set for April 22. His health had really failed, but he insisted he could take care of the ordination. It was decided by one of the Chancery officials to be sure that Bishop John Cummins, at that time auxiliary in Sacramento, would be present for the ordination "just in case." The ordination happened as planned. As the emcee I was going to help with Communion. I whispered to him that I would leave him for a few minutes. He said: "Stay right where you are — I may fall out of this chair!"
The next day, a Saturday, he was put into Providence Hospital. Up to this point, plans were being made to celebrate his 15 years as our Bishop. Tickets were sold for a banquet at the Goldman center in Jack London Square for May 1. The building of the new parish on Bay Farm Island had progressed and a suite of rooms was being built. Bishop Begin had decided to live with me in the new rectory in his retirement.
On Tuesday morning, April 27, the new Archbishop of San Francisco was being installed. Msgr. Jack Connolly and I were going to attend Archbishop John Quinn's Installation but decided to visit our own bishop in Providence. Msgr. Connolly was planning to concelebrate at the installation. I had already said Mass in the parish. Cady and one of her priest-sons (Dan) had come to visit. The Sisters Lydia and Thomasine were also there. As we stood around bishop's bed, he seemed to lose consciousness. I held his hand and asked him to respond if he could hear. He did very gently. Msgr. Connolly decided we should remain with him. He and the Sisters and Father Jerry Kennedy who was also there went to the chapel to say Mass. Cady and I remained with bishop. After a few minutes, there was a slight quiver of his lips and he quietly expired. Dr. Pedemont was in the hallway. I called him into the room. He asked us to step out for a moment. He returned telling us that the bishop had gone home to God. I went to the chapel to tell them that he had died.
We never got to the installation of Archbishop Quinn. The death was announced at the Mass. Arrangements had been prepared for the inevitable. It was my privilege to help prepare him for burial. I also had the privilege of preaching the homily at one of his funeral Masses in the cathedral.
I lost a very dear friend that day. He always trusted me and was kind to me.
That courtesy visit to his office in the summer of 1965 turned into a whole different life. God's providence is a wisdom we do not fathom.
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