By: Rev. Patrick J. O’Malley and Casey Gauntt
A couple of weeks after I put up the story of my grandfather Vern Case on Write Me Something Beautiful, I received this comment from someone far back in my past.
Rev. Patrick O’Malley September 24, 2011 at 3:00 pm
I am the brother of John O’Malley and a retired Catholic priest. I worked for Case Foundation in the summer of 1955 on the Cabrini-Green project in Chicago. John was on our crew as well. My brother, Tom, was foreman and a man who must have inherited some of Vern’s drive. We worked 12 hours a day (6 to 6) and were paid handsomely ($2.50 an hour!). It was the last time I worked on a formal construction job since I was ordained a priest in 1957. My brother, Tom, used to say that it was the last time I did any useful work at all. I think he was kidding!
Tom used to give me a half hour each morning at 8 AM to go across the street to St. Joseph’s church for Mass. I don’t think he told anyone about that little “sabbatical” each morning. The work was exciting because we didn’t have a lot to work with and we had to make-do with wood supports, etc. My brothers always had great respect and no little awe for Vern, whom I never met. They talked of him often and were grateful for his generosity on many occasions.
I cherished the opportunity that I had to work for Case. I still have a shirt and jacket with the Case logo. Thanks for giving us Vern’s story. It’s a good one and you did a fine job.
It had been more than forty-four years since the first and only time I’d spoken with Father Pat O’Malley. I knew his brothers, Tom and John, as a kid growing up in Chicago working all those summers for my grandfather’s Case Foundation Company. In 1963 as a thirteen year old I worked for Tom O’Malley as a laborer on a job repairing the foundations of an apartment complex in Elmwood Park. Tom was a few years older than John, a man’s man, ruggedly handsome and just as tough to work for as my father and Vern Case. John is fifteen years my senior, worked for Case for 53 years and the last twenty as President. The brothers’ father was also a hand miner and worked for Case. Pat went on to seminary school and became a Catholic priest in 1957. He ran a parish, St. Jarlath, in the rough and tough South Side of Chicago for many years.
I met Father Pat that one time in 1967. I was a senior at Lake Park High School. With John’s help, my classmate Ernie Smersky and I went to interview him for a report we were doing on the civil rights movement and the race riots raging in Chicago all around Father Pat’s parish. Father Pat walked us through the neighborhood and told us first hand what was going on. Ernie and I were wide-eyed and more than a little frightened. Father Pat spent a couple of hours with us, made lunch, invited a couple of drunks inside to eat with us, and sent us on our way with his valuable insights and the unforgettable impression that we had just met one extraordinarily tough man and humanitarian. A few months later I was off to West Virginia to work on Case’s shaft job in Coalwood.
John was one of the first guys to call me after our son, Jimmy, died. I hadn’t spoken to him in over 20 years. My Uncle Stan Case, also a Case Foundation veteran, called John with the news and John asked for my number. He’s that kind of guy. I was deeply moved by his courage and caring enough to reach out to me when he did–it’s obviously a quality that permeates throughout their entire family. The O’Malleys are a big family of big hearts, but unfortunately they are not immune from disease.
I had sent John the Vern Case story, and he shared it with brother Pat. John called to tell me they talked about their old boss Vern Case at the hospital bedside of John’s son, Johnny, who was battling congestive heart failure. They didn’t know at the time if Johny would make it. Tom O’Malley died too young many years earlier of heart disease and Father Pat also had a bad ticker. He posted his comment to the story and thus began our exchange of letters over the next four months.
I next sent to Father Pat the story of The Letter and received this comment the next day.
You write very well. The story of The Letter is captivating. I watch my brother, John, and his family as they wait for news about John’s son, Johnny. Right now, the news is good and we are hopeful. I see the love my brother has for his family. That love is what keeps us going these days. I’m passing on your story to my brother, and I know he will appreciate it greatly.
Carl Jung used to say that there are no coincidences. He used to call what you experienced synchronistic – I always take that to mean that some force, some power is at work in our lives in a way we can hardly imagine. (I have my own name for that power, of course.) Quantum physics speaks of the connection between all things. Again, I recall the words of Jesus: “The Kingdom is here!”
I think you experienced it in a very profound way, and you sure know how to articulate it well.
God bless and stay well.
Fr. Pat O’Malley
The Kingdom is here! We spent Thanksgiving of 2008 on Kailua Beach, Oahu. Our daughter Brittany and her husband of a little over a year, Ryan, were with us. It was only three months after Jimmy’s death and we were in the depths of our grief. This was our first “holiday” without him — spending it at home was more than we could bear. It had only been two weeks since I received the letter from Dad—the one he wrote in 1968—the letter arriving on Jimmy’s 25th birthday. On Thanksgiving Day I sat on the beautiful white sand beach in front of our rented bungalow and wrote a nine page letter to my Dad in the journal I began to keep shortly after the accident. I wanted—needed—to write him back and thank him for his letter and for coming to help me when he did—and let him know how much I respected, admired and loved him. It had been 42 years since I had thought this much about my father without shutting down with anger and fear. The journal wasn’t new—the first ten pages were filled with notes I had made of our glorious family trip to the South Island of New Zealand in March 2005.
The following morning Hilary and I were in the middle of one of our long walks along Kailua Beach, the sun warming our bare shoulders, dancing off the pastel of blues and turquoises of the calm ocean bay, reflecting brightly, blindingly, off the white sands. We were surrounded by only beautiful things as we struggled desperately to climb for a moment out of our darkness. I looked up the beach and gazed upon a woman walking towards us. She was shimmering in the waves of glare and heat rising from the sand. As she approached I could see she was an older woman, in her early 80s, tan and fit. There was a glow around her—more than the natural elements—and as we came close our eyes met—hers were blue and deeper than the ocean. Her soft smile reached deep into my heart—all knowing—and speaking loudly without uttering a word she said, ‘It will be alright.’ We didn’t stop—we both kept walking, I looked back, she didn’t—but I knew—it was unmistakably clear to me right then, amidst the hell of the last three months, that there is heaven here on earth. That spot, that moment, with that woman, was a piece of heaven. Receiving the letter from my father on Jimmy’s birthday—that was another sliver of heaven—another glimpse. Heaven and hell co-exist right here, right now, all around us—at least around me.
The Kingdom is here! Father Pat’s words had resonated deeply with me.
I had previously shared the story of The Letter with another Irish priest, Monsignor Clement Connolly of the Holy Family Church in the Los Angeles suburb of South Pasadena. He presided over the funeral of one of my fraternity brothers, Bill Driscoll, who died of a heart attack in 2009. He also presided over the funeral of Ludie and Bill’s son, Brian, in 2001. Brian had a heart replacement when he was twelve—five years later it gave out on him. More broken hearts. Monsignor Connolly sent me a letter with this observation:
Thank you for sharing with me a precious part of your life. I have read with great care and interest the story of The Letter and the letter from your father. We both agree that mysteries are to be shared not solved, and yet they are significantly instructive. There is a depth of wisdom here which is beyond the ordinary and in some mystical providence is meant to inform the present day. The story and the letter are a gospel– good news. A grateful prayer to you for sharing this with me.
A few days later I sent Father Pat the story of my father’s life as a young man through World War II Grover Cleveland Gauntt, Jr.–The Early Years. My father celebrated his 25th birthday on Bougainville, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, as a recently promoted Captain in the United States Army fighting the Japanese—surrounded by death. Father Pat got right back to me with this comment on October 5, 2011.
I was just kid in the 1940s but intensely interested in the progress of the war. It seemed so dramatic, exciting, but we never fully realized what those young men and women had experienced. Your story fills in the gap. Your Dad was obviously a real hero and I understand your pride in him. It’s easy to see how those young people must have suffered when the war was over and they returned to “normal” living.
As for young Johnny, he’s out of ICU and slowly recovering. Still serious, but better than before. He’ll be in cardiac rehab for a while, but that’s a whole lot better than the alternative.
Thanks for the exciting story, Casey. You have a real talent for writing.
I know the irony of our circumstances was lost on neither of us. I was sending him stories of the deaths of my father and son and my glimpse—and hope—that there is something more after death—as he prayed for the survival of his grandson, knowing full well there is more after death—and having his Johnny here—alive—is a whole lot better than the alternative. I couldn’t agree more.
A few weeks later, Father Pat added Hilary and me to the distribution list of his weekly Scripture Perspectives—one page nuggets of simple, straight forward analysis of passages from the Bible tied to the trials and tribulations of our present day lives. One of the first he sent to us was titled Third Sunday of Advent and involved Isaiah 61/1-11, 1 Thesalonians 5/16-24, and John 1/6-8, 19-28:
“Who are you?” It was a provoking question addressed to John the Baptist by the reigning religious authorities. They wanted to know his credentials for speaking up and for acting out as he was doing. John initially responded by telling the inquirers who he was not. Not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet. Quoting Isaiah (40/3) he admitted he was just a voice crying in the wilderness; his message was simply that the people should make straight the way of the Lord.
Who are we really?…It’s probably true to say that we do not often pose that question to ourselves. We go along doing our thing, living our daily lives without much introspection. One of my roles here at Mundelein Seminary is to provide spiritual direction for those students who choose to come to me. When people ask me what spiritual direction consists of, I tell them that I simply walk along with these men who are asking life questions, seeking God’s will, probing their own conduct and motivations. They seek understanding and they seek to know themselves in relationship with God. That is a life-time journey. My role is supportive, not trying to provide all the answers, but helping them to ask the appropriate questions, especially in light of the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus Christ and the church. I am not doing the “directing;” it is the Spirit of God at work, and I am but an instrument.
Is it helpful to be introspective? Some would say no because they may be afraid to go deeper, fearing what they will find or afraid that they will find nothing. For others, it may a total waste of time. Still, others say they could not live a quality life without taking time to reflect, to pray, to seek understanding. John the Baptist knew exactly who he was and thus he was a perfect person to make straight the way of the Lord, to announce the coming of the Messiah. He spoke the truth: “There is one among you…the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten.” Jesus is coming, and John is preparing the way, but are we ready?
A couple of days later I sent him The Rabbit Hole Letters. I was going deeper and, I guess, I wanted Father Pat to walk beside me as I crawled further down into my own rabbit hole.
Dear Father Pat- I don’t know if you are familiar with the play Rabbit Hole written by David Lindsay-Abaire in 2007 (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), and was recently made into a movie with Nicole Kidman. The play initially centers upon a young couple, in the depths of their grief, whose young son was struck by an automobile and killed eight months earlier. In the second half of the play Abaire focuses on the young man who was driving the car. The play had a profound impact upon Hilary and me—in ways that took some time to manifest themselves.
Attached are four letters which open and close with my correspondence with the playwright. I have only shared these with a few of our friends and family. I’m not entirely sure why I’m sending them to you—I met you one time 43 years ago and we’ve exchanged a few emails. But, I get these nudges now and then—kind of like the nudges (or more like shoves) we got to write the letter to Peter. I can’t really explain it.
Warm regards, Casey
Father Pat sent this letter to me the next day.
Your life seems to be full of coincidences-some of us would call them “God-moments.” Those letters are very moving—from every aspect. Thank you for sharing them with me.
I went to my heart doctor last week and, as often happens, I ended up listening to him talk about his vocation to be a doctor (furthered by his high-school teacher, a Holy Cross priest). He absolutely assured me that there are miracles. He told me of some that he has been privy to.
A young man here at the seminary collapsed in the weight room last April. He was without pulse or vital signs for about ten minutes. That Sunday, the report back here was that the doctors had given up hope. On Monday morning, he woke up, a bit confused, but asking if he would be allowed back in the seminary. He is a full time student here once more. My doctor was one of those who worked on him. He just shakes his head in wonderment.
An interesting side-light. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a Black priest ordained for Chicago-the first of his race. He served admirably despite a great deal of prejudice in and out of our church. He was so renowned for holiness that his cause is presently being prepared for canonization as a “certified” saint. For this cause to go through, there has to be at least one certifiable miracle. The one they are looking into is the recovery of our young seminarian who had demonstrated a special interest in Fr. Augustine Toulton long before the incident. My doctor has received official papers to offer his considered medical opinion about the possible miracle.
I realize there are many who would dismiss all this as hocus-pocus, but your experience around the death of your son, Jimmy, and the subsequent events is right on. Something-Someone-is at work here.
Casey, as I write this, one of our faculty came by and I shared with him, in brief of course, all that you have shared with me about your wife, grandfather, father, son, Peter and the playwrite. He was blown away. He’s a young married guy who is assistant dean of studies—a neat person. All of which indicates that your son, Jimmy, is touching lives all over. Another God-moment.
Thanks again for sharing your tale with me Casey. It makes my day.
God bless and have a wonderful, awe-full Christmas and New Year.
I had sent the Rabbit Hole Letters to Monsignor Connolly in 2010 shortly after they were written and he sent me this perspective:
There is a world beyond our knowing—in rare and sacred moments it is revealed to us. There God dwells. From that place of mystery Jimmy is ever present to us. It takes pensive moments, a convergence of unexpected miracles and then the eyes of faith to see and feel and experience the Gospel according to Jimmy. Thank you for the blessing of your sharing. It is truly inspiring.
Father Pat and Monsignor Connolly weren’t the first to suggest me “someone is at work here” behind the ‘syncronicities’ and ‘convergence of unexpected miracles,’ and that ‘someone’ is Jimmy. Tarra, our medium, who is featured in The Sax Players- A Christmas Story, has been adamant about this. So has my psychologist, Dr. “A,” who I began seeing on a regular basis several weeks after Jimmy died—I still do. I knew something bigger and more powerful than anything we experience in our daily lives was behind this. If my glimpse had stopped with The Letter from my father—if that’s all I got—it was no less a miracle that my dad and Jimmy had come through to grab me, hold me up and bathe me with their love. But The Letter was only the beginning—and the events that continued to unfold were even more intricate and impossible. It was the shear volume of it that finally convinced me.
A few days before Christmas 2011, I sent to Father Pat Impeccable Timing:
Fr. Pat—we’re enjoying your scripture perspectives. You have a very engaging writing style and your voice is so young with a nice bit of wit and humor tossed in.
My brother is flying into San Diego from New York today, December 22. I picked him up one year ago today at Lindbergh Field (San Diego) and 41 years ago today at O’Hare Airport. December 22. I wrote a little story about it which I’ve attached for you. Some more ‘God-moments?’—I like your characterization of these types of events. I truly believe we are surrounded by magical moments but, as you astutely observe, we must work hard, every single day, to keep our minds and hearts open as wide as we possibly can. And if we do, then just maybe we get a glimpse of and maybe even a touch by something really beautiful.
Here’s to more hard work.
He wrote back a few hours later.
Casey, you do write well, and it is wonderful to see how time can put perspective on everything. By the way, I received your letter and check and I have a special charity I will be sending it to. It’s a family from the old neighborhood I have worked with for many years. Thank you so much.
I had lunch yesterday with my brothers, John and Gerald (who of course also worked for Case Foundation at some point); we get together every month or so. I talked to them about your last communiqué and the ‘Rabbit Hole Letters’ story. It sparked some story-telling—heck, we’re Irish. We don’t know how else to communicate!
I wanted to tell you that yesterday, though our skies showed no rainbows, just clouds, I was writing about a future Sunday for the Perspectives. The Old Testament from Genesis reading tells us how God, after the flood, gave Noah the rainbow as a sign of his promise to be with his people always. I’m including the essay here—even though I am not yet finished with it. Another “coincidence!”
God bless and have a wonderful Christmas and New Year.
In early January 2012, I sent Fr. Pat the story of The Fraternity—or at least the part that played out in December of 2010.
Father Pat- There were three things that occurred December 21 and 22 of 2010—at least that I noticed and thought significant enough that I wrote stories about them. I sent to you Impeccable Timing and the Rabbit Hole Letters, and I’m attaching the third piece of the trilogy—The Fraternity. As you will see this story revolves around the Rabbit Hole Letters and Richard Page, also an attorney in San Diego, whose 19 year old son was killed in a car crash in 2001.
It occurs to me that as much as I think I “get”—those moments where I can actually focus upon and appreciate the wonder and timing of some of these things that have happened—there is infinitely more that just blows right past me, unnoticed, unappreciated—hopefully, like with Richard, it will circle back and kick me in the head again—and again—until I wake up!
Here is to a spiritually fulfilled 2012, and more kicks in the head, wonder and beauty.
Best regards, Casey
Father Pat sent me this reply the next day.
Casey— Once again I find your story very compelling. I have a friend whose daughter, 25, was killed in a car accident about 16 years ago. Whenever she sees a cardinal (the winged type!) back come the memories for her. She had lost her husband, 54, back in 1984. She’s a woman of great faith, but had a really tough time for a few years after the daughter’s accident. Her daughter Patty was full of life, living and working as a river guide in Colorado, doing what she loved to do. Anyway, things keep occurring at which time people will say, “Patty is at work here.” It must run in “The Fraternity!”
Recently, a great guy I work with in spiritual direction (which is what I spend a good deal of time on in my retirement) asked me “how do you know when you are making any headway in the spiritual life?” A good question which I had not considered very explicitly before that moment. I came up with an answer that kind of surprised me, but the more I reflect on it, the more accurate I think it is.
When you are a beginner in the spiritual quest, things happen. And it is only on later reflection that you say, “That really was a God-moment.” As you go along, however, you begin to recognize the God-moments ever more readily. Pretty soon, you are almost anticipating them—and they occur in greater numbers than you ever realized. Is that what is happening to you and your friends in The Fraternity? Has the tragedy of lost loved ones moved you to a different plane, with different understandings? Is Jimmy at work?
These are not just rhetorical questions, Casey. Something is happening in your lives that, it seems from your writings, you need to continue to look at.
I hope 2012 will be an ongoing year of discovery for you and your family.
– Fr. Pat
I sent this letter to Father Pat and a couple of random stories a few days before my birthday.
Thank you again for sharing your perspectives of my stories. This is very helpful to me. What an unusual and wonderful exchange of correspondence and thoughts we are having. And to think it is all because Ernie Smersky and I interviewed you back in 1967—or maybe it would have happened anyway because of Vern Case. The ‘why’ doesn’t matter—I’m glad we are.
This year my birthday is on a Friday—fitting since I was born on Friday the 13th. Last year on my birthday my wife’s father, Jim Tedrow, Jimmy’s namesake, passed away eight days after his 90th birthday. My 90 year old mother, Barbara, Vern Case’s only daughter and oldest child, is in the hospital recuperating from a fall, a bad heart, and other stuff catching up to her after 74 years of smoking a pack or more a day. I was with her in the emergency room when her heart stopped for seven seconds—created quite the stir among the attending nurses and physicians. I’ve told her that my father-in-law, Jim, already took dibs on my birthday, and our cat Princess, who we put to sleep yesterday, lived to be 147, so I will not permit her to leave here any time soon. I thank God for each day He’s given me with my mother who is as sharp as she was back in 1946 when she married my dad—and much wiser.
Warm regards, Casey
Father Pat did not respond to my email and mine was the last of our letters. I had more than a twinge of regret that I had bombarded him with too many stories and selfishly demanded too much of his time. I didn’t send him any more. I figured—hoped—he could always check the website and read the next chapters of my crazy life—and the lives I was reconnecting with. I did take some comfort from the fact I wasn’t stricken from his list of followers and continued to receive and read his monthly Scripture Perspectives.
In early July 2013, I noticed there was an unusual amount of traffic directed to my website by the search words ‘Father Patrick O’Malley.’ I wondered ‘Is something going on in Chicago?’ The next day his brother John called to let me know Father Pat had died of heart failure on July 5. He was 81 years old.
A couple of weeks later I was in my office scrolling through email. I inadvertently hit a button and Fr. Pat’s email from May 13 popped to the top of the scroll with a red flag pinned to it. Attached to the email was one of his scripture perspectives titled Pentecost Sunday (5/18-19/2013). He closed his perspective with this memory.
A few summers ago, I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for a couple of weeks. After Mass on a lovely Saturday night, I sat out on the deck and watched a widespread electric storm approach up the Yampa Valley. I was simultaneously listening to Gustav Mahler’s 2nd symphony playing in the backround. How’s that for atmosphere!
The scene was magnificent, with traces of lightening jumping across the black clouds which were moving at a crashing pace. There was the calm, cloudless sky overhead in Steamboat and the storm just a few miles away. Both manifestations of God’s creation, both helping me understand the various actions of the Spirit in our lives. But the coming of the Holy Spirit is more than a romantic moment in our religious imaginations. As we said above, God wants it to be life-changing; it was so for the first Christians and it should be for us in this dynamic 21st century. The Holy Spirit graces all of us in a variety of ways; and just how shall we respond?
The Kingdom is here. I envied the music and sights he must be experiencing now sitting at the side of our Lord. Father Pat was still walking with me—he continues to guide me and others with his perspectives and wisdom.
I remembered this perspective and wondered ´Was this the last one he sent to me?’ I dug further into my emails and found the one from Fr. Pat dated June 22, 2013. He had attached two perspectives with this note:
I’M ON A SHORT VACATION
THUS THE TWO ESSAYS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE.
Father Pat had traveled from Chicago to Florida for a few weeks of sun and relaxation. It was there his huge heart came to rest. As so beautifully noted on the program from his memorial service, he was “Born To Eternal Life July 5, 2013.”
Father Pat worked very hard for over 60 years for so many—his parishioners, the priests he mentored, underprivileged kids from Chicago and all over the country, his family and his friends—wanderers like me careening down paths that fortuitously intersected with his. I consider myself privileged and humbled to have been one of his parishioners and mentees. He helped me navigate through very turbulent waters and bring some clarity to the many things swirling around me—the ‘God moments’. His steady hand on the rudder settled me.
Father Pat was my priest although I am not Catholic. I do believe in God and that there is much more awaiting us after death. I will forever cherish my correspondence—those precious moments—with Father Pat and the invaluable wisdom he shared with me.
Father Pat, enjoy your well-deserved vacation and get plenty of refreshing rest. You will need it, because there is much work ahead for you to do. God bless you and the entire O’Malley family.