They say that you choose your friends but not your family. But in some cases, friends choose each other to become family. Such is the case with “Father George.” Usually you only see priests in genealogy pages if they were a beloved uncle or brother. In this case, I refer to Fr. George as my adopted grandfather. Whether I adopted him or he adopted me is questionable! This week marked the 19th anniversary of his death. Because the parish he founded, Our Lady of Calvary in Philadelphia, is celebrating its 50th Jubilee this year, his life was celebrated in full that evening. Here is my tribute to my adopted “grandfather,” a great man who served God, country, and all men and women.
After other assignments as a hospital chaplain and a pastor, Fr. George was asked to become pastor of a brand new parish in Philadelphia in 1958 – Our Lady of Calvary. The “far northeast” area of the city of Philadelphia was still undeveloped in 1958 and looked much more like farmland than a cityscape. As more Philadelphians began to move north out of the congested city streets, entire neighborhoods were developed. Our Lady of Calvary parish, or OLC, filled the needs of many Catholics who moved into this “new” area. As a pastor in the 1960s and 1970s, Fr. George was a forward-thinker and instituted ideas that are modern by today’s standards. He believed that every child deserved a good education, and OLC was the only Catholic school for many years that did not charge tuition, depending rather on the generosity of the parents based on their own financial conditions.
Fr. George was a very imposing figure to the school children – probably because he still walked with a military bearing, straight and tall. Younger children assumed he was God Himself! But he was far from stern, as I learned when I began to work at the rectory as a teenager. Fr. George treated “his girls” in the rectory and “his boys” working as sacristans very well, and he was always concerned with how we were doing in school and in life. How many other priests would get visited by teenagers on their way to proms, just so they could show off their pretty dresses and fancy tuxedos? He would smile, laugh, and send us on our way. He’d often pass us envelopes with “book money” for school, asking that we kept it confidential so other kids wouldn’t feel left out. I don’t think there were any kids to be left out though, because years later I found out that he bestowed these gifts to many of us.
Fr. George died on January 31, 1989, but his presence is still strong both in the church he founded and in the people whose lives he touched. I wish that I had known him as an adult rather than as a teenager, because there are many things that I would like to ask him now. But the one lesson he taught me was – don’t take yourself too seriously. Know that you are where God wants you to be – Love God, live your life, and have fun doing it. Thanks, Father George!