A friend of mine, Joe Burke, told this story in front of the congregation of his parish. He shared the story with a few of us at King’s Gym in Oakland where Joe and I train boxers together. I found the story so moving that I decided to post it on my blog.
James Whitcomb Reilly and Johnnie Hayes
As Part of our Centennial Celebration, Saint Anselm's has formed an outreach program to contact people in the parish for input on how to better move us forward in our spiritual journey in the years ahead. The committee members, like myself, have been tasked as an advance guard to tell a brief story about when they most felt a part of this parish or maybe felt most welcome. This story is about other things as well but you can draw your own conclusions.
My story is about two people: James Whitcomb Reilly, named after the Hoosier poet from Indiana, and a pastor at Saint Anselm’s of many years ago, Father John Hayes. It is also in part about us as a congregation and how we are all in this together in our faith journey to God.
The story begins when I and my wife Patti moved with our first born to San Anselmo in 1960. The move was prompted by our rent reaching the astronomical amount for a two bedroom flat in San Francisco of $115.00 a month. Imagine! We came to join my brother-in-law and sister-in-law Jim and Betty Reilly who had proceeded us with their own growing family.
With the arrival of our third child, we quickly outgrew our first home in San Anselmo, a two-bedroom, on Morningside Drive. In 1964, we moved to Barber Avenue where we still live and where we welcomed three more children. We and the Reillys both topped out with three boys and three girls each. The move’s timing was perfect because my in-laws were in their mid sixties and had been working all their lives since their early teens. They were more than ready to retire and move into our first home on Morningside Drive. My in-laws had good years in San Anselmo with their grandchildren and their son and daughter-in-law and daughter and son-in-law near them.
Then Reilly got terminal cancer. He would be the first of our clan to die. Reilly was first generation, one of nine children born south of the “slot” in San Francisco. He finished grade school with the good nuns. He was blue collar, hard working, and hard drinking. He was not religious and in fact was often quick to put down the church. But some of that early formation with the good sisters and his very Catholic parents stuck. Reilly was more than a little afraid of his impending death. He hadn’t been in a church except for weddings and funerals in sixty years.
Now enters Father Hayes. I thought Father was not unlike the Irish priests I grew up with. They were strict, conservative, not very approachable, preached much about hellfire and damnation, and gave us large doses of guilt.
How Reilly and Father Hayes got together is a miracle in itself, but get together they did. From their first meeting, Reilly was a changed man. The two had much in common. They were from the same era, both very Irish and, both liked a sip of Murphy’s or Jamison if the right occasion called for it. And they both could frequently find that right occasion. Father met Reilly frequently, heard is confession, and gave the last rites. I know the sacrament has a new name that I’ve forgotten.
Well, Reilly with the grace of God and the help of Father Hayes ended his faith journey at peace and with a clean slate. Reilly could give Father Hayes no greater compliment than to say after on one of their visits, “that Johnnie Hayes is a real priest.” Bottom line, he was a real priest.
Was a soul saved? For sure! Did our loving God put Reilly and Johnnie Hayes on the right place at the right time? Most certainly! Did Johnnie Hayes give Reilly a helping hand when he most needed it in his life? For sure he did. And a strong hand it was.
You can well imagine that Johnnie Hayes will always have a soft spot in the hearts of the Burke and Reilly families. It gives me pleasure to share this story with you, to thank our loving God for the putting in motion the events I just related. And though the priest too has been gone for some thirty years it is only fitting to end by saying—God Bless You, Johnnie Hayes.