At 72, Priest Toils Alone to Serve a Growing Parish

By David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH]
April 20, 2003

The two-bedroom ranch house looks as if Father Thomas Dunphy's old pal will be home any minute.

The Rev. John Kraker's bedroom is just as he left it, from the handmade sign that says "Father John's room" to pictures on the wall of his father and the framed, yellowed newspaper clipping announcing the priest's birth.

Dunphy has scattered a few Irish artifacts around the retreat he and Kraker built in 1966 overlooking what is now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. But busts of Milton and Shakespeare and sculptures and paintings of lions from C.S. Lewis' fictional land of Narnia dominate the home's decor, reflecting Kraker's literary interests.

Two leather easy chairs are lined up in front of a big-screen TV in the den. The two men had developed a routine on their day off: a little work around the house, dinner and then a video.

But only one chair is filled tonight. Kraker died three years ago, a painful death from brain cancer.

Dunphy still rents a movie most Mondays. This week, he stops to buy a three-DVD set of "The Chronicles of Narnia." That night, he turns it off after a few minutes. Watching alone is too much.

When Kraker died, his friends and siblings say, something died within Dunphy. It was more than the end of the dream the two men shared of retiring at 70 to travel and play golf.

"It broke his heart," says his sister, Elaine Osborne.

What remains for the 72-year-old priest is his commitment to the families of St. Martin of Tours in Valley City, where he has served for the past 18 years. He is a one-man clerical band at the Medina County church. Dunphy celebrates every Mass and all the funerals, baptisms and weddings. He is the chief administrator of the growing rural parish, which recently dedicated a new $5 million building.

It is a brutal schedule for a man of any age, but a burden that is increasingly falling on the oldest and least physically able among Catholic clergy in the United States. With seminary enrollment shrinking, more than a quarter of all diocesan priests are 70 or older.

The 16-hour workdays, due to a shortage of priests, are stressful. But the lack of personal human contact outside their role as pastor can be the most damaging.

For the older guys - the guys who grew up together in full seminaries and rectories where you could share the burdens of priesthood with small talk and a beer - the loneliness can be overwhelming.

This was not the church Dunphy grew up with.

The church he knew at St. Martha in Akron in the 1930s had three associates and a pastor who encouraged the young guys to have their friends over for card games. It was a priestly fraternity that suited the gregarious, freckled, red-haired Tommy Dunphy.

When he was 9, he would take a fancy glass from his mother's cupboard, draw a cross in red crayon on a white sheet, drape it over himself and pretend to celebrate Mass in Latin for the kids in the neighborhood. When the family cat died, Dunphy led a funeral procession of 8- to 12-year-olds and said prayers before they buried the animal in the back yard.

Few were surprised when he entered the seminary after ninth grade. The altar boy from St. Martha became one in a long line of some 50 kids who went into the priesthood from the church in Akron's North Hill section.

It was a big adjustment for Dunphy to leave the two-block cocoon of church, home and neighborhood to get on an airplane for the first time and go to the high school seminary in Baltimore. But a kid who grew up sharing one bedroom and two bunk beds with three brothers took right away to the fraternal life of a seminarian with 400 other young men.

It was a great time.

He spent his summers as a counselor at Camp Santa Maria near Akron. There, Dunphy was the ringleader, encouraging his seminary buddies to bend the rules and sneak out at night. They often ended up at his mother's or sister's house for a home-cooked meal and a place to play poker and have a couple of seven-and-sevens.

But that was so long ago.

On this Monday night, as he putters around the empty house, he finds himself carrying on a conversation with his old friend. But the only voice he hears is his own, kidding him as Kraker would about not taking care of his car.

When Dunphy returns Tuesday afternoon to the rectory, an older, wooden farmhouse, no one greets him. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound round mound of wit and bluster, an Irish storyteller to the core, recounts with sadness in his eyes how half his old priest friends have died.

And in Valley City, some 25 miles from Cleveland and Akron, he feels isolated from his friends who are still alive and living in the cities.

"People call these 'The Golden Years,' " Dunphy says more than once on his visitation rounds to the old and infirm.

"What a joke."

At 72, DUNPHY drives with a teenager's abandon, careening his 1998 Buick LeSabre around the roads of Valley City on Wednesday to make house calls on his parishioners.

Everywhere he goes, Dunphy takes the time to sit in an easy chair in the living rooms or around kitchen tables. You would never know he runs a $500,000-a-year operation, one that he needs to increase by $3,000 a week in the Sunday offering to pay the mortgage on the new building.

He is a pastor and an old friend to the widow on what would have been her 55th wedding anniversary and to the invalid hooked up to a respiratory machine who is alone all but three hours a day.

He pulls into the driveway of Pat and Tom Haury's ranch house, just as they arrive home from the hospital.

A week earlier, he was in the hospital room when the couple learned that Pat's cancer had come back, and little could be done. Dunphy held them as they talked about how all their plans for the future - centered on enjoying their grandchildren as a retired couple - were gone.

Now meeting each other in the driveway, they silently share their suffering. Dunphy, who usually starts his pastoral visits with a joke, has a plaintive, serious look on his face. Tom Haury forces a grin. His wife leads them into the house with a strained, almost vacant countenance.

Inside the Haurys' small living room, where Golden Books and plastic children's toys occupy a prominent space, Dunphy fills them in on parish life. When the words do not come easily, Dunphy gets up and places his hands on Pat's forehead, praying that God will comfort her. Tom bows his head, and prays with them.

If there is a theme to his ministry, it is that no one person will be left behind.

That evening, Dunphy presides over a two-hour healing Mass at St. Martin, where a parade of the sufferers come to have him lay his hands on their foreheads and pray over them.

At the height of the service, standing in the middle of a group of parishioners and administering the sacrament of the sick, Dunphy notices a couple heading toward the door. He leaves the altar and rushes down the aisle to catch them before they leave.

It is a couple who have been trying for years to have a child and were too shy to come forward. So Dunphy puts his arms around them at the back of the church and prays privately with them. They leave laughing at one of the priest's jokes.

An odor of cleaning fluids overwhelms the Life Care Center of Medina on Thursday morning.

It's better than it used to be. When Father Dunphy first was a priest visiting nursing homes, the stench of urine was so great that the smell would cling to his clothes for the rest of the day.

"Dee, da, dee . . . dee-dee-dee, da, da, dee-dee-dee." Dunphy announces his presence in the nondescript one-story brick building by singing a tune known only to him. The words may be nonsensical, but it is a lilting Irish lullaby to the residents pushed in their manual wheelchairs.

An older woman sitting alone in her wheelchair comes to life as Dunphy approaches her.

"There's Stella. This lady is a very holy woman," Dunphy says.

"I love to see you, Father," says Stella, beaming at the recognition. "We love to see you, too, Stella," Dunphy says.

During Mass, he keeps up a constant patter with residents, trying to maintain their attention. During the exchange of peace, Dunphy touches everyone in the room. He puts his arm around a man who has spent the Mass rocking back and forth in his wheelchair and gives him a big hug: "Peace, peace of Jesus, Michael." The rocking quickens in response.

Everyone who wants Communion receives it, those like Stella who can understand what they are receiving and Alzheimer's patients who understand only that it is something good. No one is asked if they are Catholic. "What would Jesus do? Would Jesus turn them away?" is Dunphy's motto.

No one is turned away in Dunphy's world.

The public face of Dunphy is a priest of boundless energy, a full-bellied leprechaun who takes time to make everyone he meets smile with a joke or a punch in the arm and who is comfortable the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day singing "Galway Bay" a cappella to the parish.

Parishioners did not see the anxiety he had when he faced skin cancer, or the pain he endures today with shingles. "He never lets anybody know he's in pain, or he's tired, or he's completely exhausted," says youth minister Judy Rundle.

Like Pope John Paul II, Dunphy picks his times to rally. Other times, he will rest his head and allow the lines of age and great responsibility to show in his face and posture.

On this Friday afternoon, as the church goes through its weekly commemoration of the crucifixion of Christ, Dunphy has to get away. He drives an hour away to the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse in Richfield.

In the wintry pastoral setting, Dunphy joins two other priests in a basement chapel to pray and reinvigorate themselves. For 90 minutes, the room is so silent you can hear the ticking of a clock as the men spread out in private areas and read the Bible. Dunphy sprawls out on a couch in the back of the room.

When one priest signals for them to gather, they kid themselves over who took a snooze. They talk about the Bible, and pray for the people in their parishes. And they pray for each other and give each other encouragement.

One priest complains about being criticized by a church member. Dunphy offers support. "When someone pokes you in the eye, it hurts," he says.

Despite all Dunphy's efforts and prayers, people still die, their marriages break up, youths leave the church.

What saves him as a priest, and allows him to keep working, is accepting that he cannot save anyone.

"Our work is to serve them and to love them," Dunphy says. "I just have a sense of God saying to me, 'I didn't send you to save anyone. You love them. I'll save them.' "

Dunphy returns to his rectory refreshed Friday night. On Saturday morning, he joins the men of the parish in a church retreat.

Each man gives a quick biography, all centering on family.

When it is Dunphy's turn, he is ready with a smile and a wink: "I am single . . . but I have a whole ton of children."

The Irish raconteur encourages parishioners throughout the day, often telling stories that end with the Dunphyism, "and that's the truth."

The truth about Dunphy, say parishioners at the Saturday retreat, his family and his friends, is that he loves the people at St. Martin and they love him.

"He's so damn genuinely, sincerely, simply wonderful," Rundle says.

Dunphy participates in the retreat until late afternoon, leaving to celebrate Saturday evening Mass.

His enthusiasm for the parish is evident.

"Wow, this is a little bit of heaven. When I die and go to heaven, I won't even know there is a change," he tells the congregation.

The Rev. Joseph Kraker, whose late brother John was Dunphy's best friend, says he does not think Dunphy will ever leave St. Martin. "You get pretty close to a parish," Kraker says. "I'm sure he will stay there as long as his health holds up."

The future is something Dunphy thinks about a lot. The priest likes to put his foot on the windowsill in the passageway between the old and new churches and gaze out at the cemetery behind the church.

His parents are buried in Akron. He has brothers and sisters all over Northeast Ohio. But Dunphy has already made plans to be buried in St. Martin's cemetery. In a real sense, this man who gave up his own hopes of a spouse and children to serve God looks at the people in his parish as his family.

And in those moments when he looks out onto the graveyard, times when he lets his face and body sag in relief from the effort it takes to get through each day, he looks ahead.

"I want a real good spot over there," Dunphy says, pointing out a grassy area nearby. "After we did all this work, at least they could bury me here."

As the only priest in the parish, Dunphy celebrates every Mass. The good thing is that it helps him keep track of who doesn't show up. When regulars miss two or three weeks, particularly older people with health problems, they can expect a call from the pastor.

The tough thing about doing it all himself is that with holidays, weddings and funerals, Dunphy can celebrate up to nine Masses in a weekend.

This Sunday, he celebrates two Masses and follows that up with baptisms. In the evening, he celebrates a special Mass for the teenagers.

As long as he doesn't slow down, he can keep going, he says. "At the end of the day, the steam just runs out."

At the evening Mass, he holds the teens rapt. As he reads the Gospel account of Jesus healing a disciple's mother, he lifts a young woman up out of the pew as Christ might have. A smile lights up the teen's face.

In his homily, Dunphy talks about being a social outcast after not making the Catholic Youth Organization football team, and encourages the kids to seek out those among them who face similar social pressures and to love them.

As they leave the church, each gets an upbeat greeting and, if they are not quick enough, a trademark Dunphy punch in the arm.

Afterward, in the reception at the parish hall, he grabs a hot dog and allows himself to relax. Dunphy jokes with the kids and their parents. Only those closest to him know the terrible loneliness taking a toll on him.

Family members say he keeps the worst emotions inside. He didn't even shed a public tear at the funerals of their parents or three siblings. They cry when they speak of him keeping to an "unbelievable" schedule without the support of longtime friends like John Kraker.

After greeting the last parishioner he encounters on the food line with a wink and quick smile, the exhaustion of a week that began with an 8 a.m. Mass on Monday and is ending at 9 Sunday night begins to show on his face. He takes a seat by himself at one of the long tables, and starts to think about his upcoming vacation.

It is not going to be the kind of vacation he used to look forward to with Kraker and their friends. But he knows he has to get away. He just doesn't know where.

As he did last year, he will pick a direction and just drive by himself until he feels like stopping somewhere.

With no buddies to hang out with, he will come back to the church long before his two weeks are up.

A few minutes after 9, he leaves the teenagers and their parents in the church hall and walks the few yards to his house to watch television by himself.

On Monday, after Mass in the morning, he returns to his forest retreat, planning to watch more of "The Chronicles of Narnia." He never does.


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