The original Our Lady of Mercy church was on Main Street.

By Bruce Mastracchio

Growing up Catholic is quite an experience at any rate. I make fun of my Episcopal friends and friends of other religious persuasions, along with my Catholic experiences, but, when you really study it, growing up on the knee of Mother Church is an experience beyond experiences. If she gets you before age seven, she has you for life. Even if you quit going to Mass it seems that something from those Catechism days pops up in your life again and again.

Most Catholics who have varying opinions of this experience, do, though, have one thing in common. They usually hold a mental picture, or a real one, of their favorite priest. Usually it is someone like Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” or Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town.”

Recently, though, the Church and its priests have come under attack and the memories of current day Catholics and some from parishes with a darker side in their past, may not be so good. They should have let priests marry and that would have gone part way to solving some of the problems. That subject gave root to one of my greatest lines and will be revisited later in this piece.

We were lucky in East Greenwich in those mockingbird years of the mid-fifties. We had Father Joe and The Barn!

Neither will ever be forgotten, even though they are now gone from our midst, but not our minds or memories. They will always have an apartment there to be visited from time to time. The visits will always be good.

This column is dedicated to The Barn Gang: To Lu and Flute, Deacon and Bubba Joe, Big Hop & Lil’ Hop, Young Gun and Bird and especially to Karen & Gail, Linda, Elaine, Claire and Sandy, so that they may never forget. . . . 

Father Joe came on the scene in 1955. He was your not so typical, typical Irish-Catholic priest, stepping in at over 6 feet and 260 lbs. He was imposing, to say the least, and had an impact immediately, if not sooner. He got our attention and he got it fast. He also gave us memories. Memories that still last.

There are all kinds of priests. In those days, it seemed, most of them were content to do their jobs. Some were overly religious. Some were more like regular guys. Some were teetotalers. Some liked their booze, uh, holy wine. And some were bean counters. Most stuck to the dogma of our religion, and those bothered me the most. They would stick by the book. Even when the book was wrong.

In general, they were all looked at as stern, unbending, and not really in touch with the people. Especially, the pastors.

When Father Joe came on the scene all that changed. He touched our lives, and us, in more ways then one. But, NO, not THAT one!

He was a People’s Priest, the likes of which we have not seen since.

The Mass became his particular vehicle. We had never seen a priest stop in the middle of the mystical Latin service and threaten parishioners who were trying to leave Mass early so they could get a head start on the coffee and donuts down at the local cafe, or get early tee time at their country club.

He also left the pulpit and roamed the aisles giving us the gospel, or what for, or whatever, or whatever was needed. A little of that old, good-time, roll up your sleeves religion.

He seemed to be everywhere. He showed up at people’s houses to visit the sick, or just visit, or maybe to sample some of Mom’s coffee and apple pie. He came to the ball games and even played softball in the local town league. He went to wakes and funerals and dinners. You might look up from reading a magazine at the local variety store, and he’s be standing there. He was everywhere. That magazine had better have been about sports or Norman Rockwell or else!

It was awesome as kids to watch him play softball, He played for OLM in the local league. To some of the parishioners, this was sacrilegious. But we kids loved it. We had never seen a Catholic priest play softball before, and this guy not only played, he knocked the stuffing out of the ball.

Ironically, many of his home runs landed across the street outside the ballpark and ended up in the Protestant cemetery. One time, in winning a bet from us kids, he  got down on his knees at the Little League Park and knocked balls over the flagpole.

Sort of ” praying home runs ” so to speak.

He was a hands on priest, even if that meant putting hands on Deacon and TabCat, who had the audacity (and stupidity) to get into a fistfight during the middle of our CYO meeting one Monday evening.

He rolled up his sleeves and gave us a practical look at religion. One we have never seen, before or since. Whether it was a physical lesson, like the one Deacon and TabCat got, or a practical one in the form of a lecture, or just an old fashioned talk, Father Joe usually got the job done and in a way that stuck in your mind, your soul or your body!

“Don’t get the Big Guy mad” sort of became our password.

Yet, we knew he cared. In more ways than one. Today, when priests go on vacation, be it normal or the “collars off” type, they usually go alone, with another priest or with family, or maybe someone else. When Father Joe went, he took us!

He had a farmhouse at his disposal in New Hampshire near Echo Lake. He would fill his station wagon with gas and food, and then with the altar boys, basketball team or the baseball team. Then off we’d go for a week of fun at a place that was like our own private camp.

As I said the farm was near Echo Lake, The Flume, The Tramway and the Old Man in the Mountain at Franconia Notch. We had a ball and those trips made an indelible impression on many a boy, most of whom had never been out of East Greenwich, never mind Rhode Island.

We had apple fights, milked cows, dared one another to touch the electric fence, swam in freezing cold lakes, met the tenants, who were Hungarian Freedom Fighters who had stared down and shot at the Russians, and at night rolled up in our blankets and sleeping bags filled with a day of adventure and happenings. We slept well and hard.

We lived more of this life that we had come to know and love. It was idyllic. It was fulfilling. It opened our eyes to other ways.

One time Father Joe took six of us down to Philadelphia to appear on American Bandstand with Dick Clark. We had won dance contests at the church-sponsored dance and the trip was our prize. It was his treat to us for winning. We saw things that, once again, were new to us. Guys putting on rouge and lipstick so they would look better on TV. How different the real thing was to what we saw on TV. Grafitti on the records you saw behind Dick Clark’s podium on the show. The smallness of the set.

But, we were up close and personal with Dick Clark. We danced our time away. We had a hell of a time, thanks to a heaven of a priest.

Still, the best thing Father Joe gave us, aside from the present of himself and his time, was The Barn!

It was just an old horse barn located behind OLM when that church was on Main Street. If it were here today it would be approximately where Back to Basics is.

Word had it that the local teenagers needed a place to go in East G. A place to occupy them and keep them off the streets.

Father Joe had an idea and he got John and Jerry and Joe and a bunch of the male parishioners to turn that idea into a reality. The men donated time, tools and physical effort and they made a priest’s vision come to life!

For us it was our own magical, mystical, mystery show.

What had once been an old horse and buggy barn got converted, just like water to wine, from a dusty, cluttered, unused edifice into The Barn, a monument in our memory

What had once been an old horse and buggy barn got converted, just like water to wine, from a dusty, cluttered, unused edifice into The Barn, a monument in our memory!

After the workmen were done with it (all volunteer labor), it held a dance floor with jukebox, a card playing area, a ping pong room, a pool room, a games room and a TV room. Outside there were two basketball courts, one full court and the other half court.

When Father Joe put his mind to it, he got ‘er done, as they say today. A lot of equipment was donated. After all, who could refuse a priest? Especially one, who stood 6 feet and 260 pounds. No one! Kind of like a religious Godfather, if you get my drift.

He made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. And, they didn’t!

He was not Bing Crosby (a dark figure in real life) or Spencer Tracy, or Barry Fitzgerald, but he was a lot more real. We never wailed that plaintive cry, especially the one I heard from my own kids that there was “nothing to do in East Greenwich. It’s so boring!”

We had a lot to do and a place to do it in! If the streets, the cove, the woods or the farm didn’t provide us with diversions, there was always The Barn!

Father Joe left EG in 1962. He, like others, eventually left the priesthood (their loss). He married and is living happily somewhere on the planet. As a priest he knew all the answers (as a marriage counselor). Now he is finding out the questions. He gave me cause to use two of my best, and in one case, prophetic lines:

He wanted me to be a priest. I answered, “Father, if they let priests marry, I’ll be a priest tomorrow.” (Uttered  in 1959.)

On asking me about marriage I told him: “Father, when you were 33 you knew all the answers. Now you don’t even know the questions.” Of course, he loved me for my wit and wisdom. He, and the church, should have listened.

The Barn burned down in 1961. One of the guys bunked school, snuck into the Barn and fell asleep in the TV lounge with a cigarette burning “tween his fingers.”

He survived. The Barn did not.

It was never rebuilt.

Now it only exists in those corners of our mind that are reserved for good memories, good times and good friends. Trips down shadowy mental hallways to those bright spots that bring us joy and pleasure.

Even that is better than never having it at all.

I do hope, good friends, that this tale has helped you to open that doorway that opens on that hallway, that leads to the corners of your mind when the times were good, as were your friends.

With Much Love and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,

Bruce

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