Back to Basics

200px-Saint_Elizabeth_Ann_Seton_(1774_-_1821)Did Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, open the first Catholic school in America? The answer is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no. There were Catholic schools prior to the opening of Seton’s school in 1809, but they were private, retaining the right to select their students and were funded in whole or in part by charging their students tuition. What made St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School Catholic was that it was ministry, and therefore tuition was not paid by those who attended. This school laid the foundation for the Catholic parochial school system in the United States.

Two hundred years later this system has become privatized, and in most places, struggles to exist. Many in Catholic education believe that to make parochial schools great again we need to get back to the basics of teaching so that our students perform better on standardized test than their public or private school counterparts. Perhaps this is true for private Catholic schools, but for Catholic parochial schools, I think St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s first step in getting back to basics would be to offer ministry without cost.


The Search

Mom was looking for a hoe. She called it a half-hoe, not because the handle was short, but because the blade was. She knew there was such a hoe because she had seen Dad using it. It had has always been by his side as he cared for his gardens. It was the rose garden she was concerned about now. In their first summer of bloom after Dad’s passing the roses were a disappointment when compared with her memories. Although cognizant of the late spring hailstorm that had stripped plants of all leaves and blooms leaving the landscape looking like a desolate war zone, she still had a gnawing guilt that she was not doing all she could to keep the garden looking its best. “If I had that hoe I could get under the rose bushes to loosen the soil and allow the water to get to the roots,” she reasoned to herself.

She had already searched through all of the sheds on the home place to no avail, so she now found herself in a local hardware store looking at hoes. There was a man in his mid-forties standing beside her and she decided to strike up a conversation, “I’m looking for a hoe, but I can’t seem to find the kind I want.”

“Oh yeah, I’m needing a hoe too.”

“The blades on these hoes are too big. I want one with a narrow blade that I can get under rose bushes easily with.”

“I think I’ve seen one of those hoes before. I know from experience that working around rose bushes is tricky.”

“Oh, do you work with rose bushes much?”

“Well sort of. I do landscaping for the community college, and there’s a large rose garden on campus.”

“Well maybe you can help me. I’m disappointed with the way my rose garden is looking this year. Any advice?”

“You know mam, when I took this job some years back I didn’t know anything about growing roses, but I happened upon a class being offered, “Gardening with the Masters” is what I think they called it, and there was this guy who taught me everything I know. Perhaps they’ll offer that class again…Now that I’m thinking about it, that gentleman who taught the class had one of those hoes you’re looking for!”


A Tale of Two Marriages

Adam was nineteen years old when he married a twenty-six year old woman. Eighteen years and two children later he divorced this wife to marry a Catholic woman with whom he was having an affair. During this time Adam converted to Catholicism. Twelve years later,  at the age of forty-nine he began a six year affair with twenty-six year old Eve, who was a life-long Catholic. He then divorced his second wife to marry Eve. Soon after this marriage Adam’s first wife died, and he sought and attained an annulment of his second marriage because she had been previously married. Because the Catholic Church recognizes his marriage, Adam can and does present himself for Communion at Mass on a daily basis even though his conscience tells him that both of his previous marriages were valid.

Maria, a life long Catholic was nineteen years old when she married a twenty-six year old nominal Catholic in a Catholic church. Four years and two children later she moved out with the children when he refused to end his affair with another nineteen year old. Two years later she moved in with Jose, and together they raise her two children. Maria recognizes the sinfulness of this arrangement and desires to do what is right and live in a brother/ sister relationship with Jose, but she is in effect under duress because he would leave her to raise the children on her own if she refused him sexual relations. Because her conscience tells her first marriage is valid, and she would return to her husband if he ended the affair, Maria will not seek an annulment. Since the Catholic Church does not recognize her current arrangement as marriage, Maria attends Mass on a daily basis, but does not present herself for Communion.

Mr. Bojangles Gonna Bike


Bicycle Bojangles (BB) was the name I immediately pinned on him after spotting a fellow cyclist while pushing my bike over a bridge into a small Texas, Hill Country town. Normally I would have just smiled and waved, but my wobbly back tire indicated a broken spoke.  There was still another 150 miles left to finish the pilgrimage, however the chance of finding a bicycle repair shop in this town was equal to the possibility of completing the journey. BB was in a convenience store parking lot working on a bike of his own with a open-air repair shop strewn around him. Deciding it was worth taking a chance to see if BB could possibly be an bicycle archangel sent to help in the same manner Raphael helped Tobias, I crossed the highway.

The scrutinizing look he gave me as I drew near made me aware that we most likely had different experiences when encountering strangers on the road. Despite this I cautiously approached, smiled and offered a greeting, “Good morning!”

He nodded and looked back down at his work which he had strategically kept between him and me.

“I have a broken spoke. I was hoping you might could help me with it.”

BB quickly looked up with eyes all alight, stepped over his protective barrier and jumped into customer service mode, “Which wheel?”


“Inside or outside?”


“What size?”

“Twenty-seven inch.”

“Oh! I don’t have anything that size. There isn’t a bicycle shop in this town.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“What direction you headin?”


“I’m going west out of here today. Do you go to church?”

Startled at the change of direction in the conversation I managed to reply, “I’m Catholic.”

“I love Pope Francis! Listen, you need to get out there and give him all the help you can!”

BB returned to the job he had in his open air shop while I was thinking to myself, “Pope Francis doesn’t seem to be in need of much help, particularly from the likes of me…”. I muttered a thank you and pushed the bike eastward reflecting on what had just happened.

“Well that wasn’t the archangel encounter I was hoping for. BB turned out to be no help at all …or was he?”







And This is for My Gaffer

20171023_182338[1]“And that’s for my old Gaffer!” is what Samwise Gamgee cried out in the Lord of the Rings movie as he pushed the last of three orcs off a stairway and made his way up a tower to save Frodo. I later discovered that the Gaffer was his father, a gardener who tried to pass his trade on to a son who had his mind on other wonders. This mirrored the relationship I had with my dad, and although I never called him Gaffer while he was here on earth, it has become a term of endearment that I use now to connect with him in spirit. Here is one such story of this relationship.

The sun had not yet risen on a July day that was certain to be intolerably hot and dry in the Texas panhandle. Gaffer had already been up for a while, and the smell of breakfast, a meal which was a daily ritual for him,  wafted down the hall as he came to wake his teenage son. He was looking forward to spending the day with his prodigy on a trip to a nearby county to attain hay for the milk cow. The prodigal was not.

Despite the prodigal’s best efforts to subterfuge the Gaffer’s plan, some hours later they were stacking the last of the rectangular bales on the heavily loaded pickup. Wiping his brow he looked towards a pear orchard a distance away and invited the prodigal to follow. The prodigal reluctantly complied, and soon found himself climbing out toward the edge of a branch in search of fruit. He finally grabbed one, but to his disappointment it was hard as a stone. In his disgust, and as an act of rebellion, the pear was thrown at Gaffer, knocking his glasses off.

The prodigal was still allowed to drive the pickup back home, perhaps because Gaffer’s glasses were broken, but as the prodigal was pulling away from the barn, a post was struck and the side mirror broken. Gaffer walked up to the driver’s side of the pickup, gave the prodigal a tired look and said, “Take it to the house. I’ll walk in.”

Twenty years later in the evening of what had been a hot day in July, Gaffer and the prodigal were strolling around the gardens of the home place. Gaffer had a story for almost every plant that grew. Wiping his brow he motioned toward a pear tree and said, “Isn’t that a fine looking tree?” The prodigal admitted that it was. The Gaffer then winked, patted the prodigal on the shoulder and asked, “You know where it came from, don’t you?” Gaffer walked on, allowing the prodigal to reflect.

Twenty years later on a hot July afternoon the prodigal was gardening the home place alone. He stopped the lawn tractor under his favorite tree, and stood in the seat on his tiptoes in search of fruit. He grabbed one. The pear was soft. The juice ran down his chin as he took a bite, and reflected on Gaffer.