RIP Fr. Stan Piwowar, a priest forever

After 57 years as a priest, Fr. Stan Piwowar has died. He was 92 years old.

He confirmed me, officiated at our wedding, baptized two of our children, and served his parish and his savior faithfully, day in and day out, as the pastor of St. Joseph’s parish in Claremont, NH from 1965 to 2008.

I never met someone who cared less what people thought of him. In the summer (before he had air conditioning installed installed) he could celebrate Mass wearing his lightest vestments and a white terrycloth sweatband around his head.

You have to imagine a short, stout, Hobbit-like man, with bowed legs, thick glasses, and fantastically bushy eyebrows, with a permanent, benevolent smile on his lips and in his eyes. So every June or so, he would come stumping out of the sacristy with this terrycloth sweatband on his bald head.

“I’m not trying to look mod,” he would carefully explain every year. He just didn’t want the sweat from his head to get in his eyes. Then he would make the sign of the cross, and then we would know summer had officially started.

He had other quirks, acquired over decades and decades of saying the same things over and over again. The “Hail Mary” always came out “Blessed art thou th’amongst women,” for some reason; and the phrase “And now, my dear friends, we’re on page [whatever number]” made its way into the Mass so often, it felt like an established part of the liturgy. He wanted to make sure no one got left behind, so he always told his dear friends what page to go to.

He used to wink and wave and nod and grin at babies and children who made noise during the Mass. He could be reading the most bloody, heart-wrenching passage from Job or Jeremiah, and it was still time for a mid-sentence wink and a little wave from the pulpit.

As fairly new Catholics, my family was a tiny bit scandalized by this jolly informality. Surely he could wait until after Mass was over. Then we heard that, years ago, someone in his congregation had given a young mother a hard time about her fussy baby, and the woman left the church and didn’t come back. Fr. Stan then gave one of his almost unheard-of fire and brimstone sermons and charged his congregation never to let such a thing happen ever again. And to my knowledge, it never did.

If anything ever surprised him, he never showed it. I once turned up at the rectory in the middle of the night, hysterical with some teenage problem or other. I had been out walking in the dark, feeling worse and worse, and I found myself passing by the rose bushes that surrounded his front porch. There was a light on, so I pounded on the door and he let me in right away. Put me in a rocking chair, gave me some tissues, heard my confession, and gave me a “Footprints in the Sand” plaque.

And Tootsie Rolls. He handed them out to babies and grandmothers, mourners and wedding guests, in and out of season, through Lent, on the street, anywhere, any time. I used to think Fr. Stan got his Tootsie Rolls from the post office, where there was always a ready supply for customers. Turns out (or so I heard) that it was the other way around: They got their Tootsie Rolls from Father Stan. If someone told me that all the Tootsie Rolls in the world originally came from Fr. Stan, I’d believe it.

It was impossible to insult him. His parish was alway seemed to be running a financial surplus, because no one knew how to say no to him. He would hold annual appreciation banquets for volunteers. If you didn’t want to go, no problem; he’d present you with a gift certificate for a restaurant, so you could go have dinner on your own. And some more Tootsie Rolls.

It was impossible to correct him. He was so intensely loyal, and so intensely stubborn, as only a Pole can be, it was absolutely no use to tell him anything. Even the bishop left him alone, and he did what he liked. What he liked was serving the Church and serving Christ, but he did what he liked.

His sermons were usually basic catechesis. Sometimes, apparently suddenly realizing he had a captive audience, he would expand more than anyone was bargaining for. I remember one warm Sunday, he had already preached for about ten minutes, and then casually mentioned, “And now, my dear friends, we’ll just go through a brief synopsis of the Ten Commandments . . . ” And so he did, one by one. And we sat there, staring up at the dusty Polish crystal chandelier, squinting our eyes at heavily crowned statues and the faded mural of the death of St. Joseph, who, dying as he was, could see the light at the end of the tunnel, unlike us. But at least there would be Tootsie Rolls.

After Mass, he’d transition seamlessly into Benediction with Eucharistic adoration. He knew people would be less likely to slink away if he didn’t give them a chance, and he really wanted us to have a blessing, and so he’d say, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace AND NOW MY DEAR FRIENDS, we’ll have benediction, it’ll take only about five minutes!” and then he’d start briskly spooning incense into the censer.

He treated everyone exactly the same, with the same sincere geniality, the same implacable good will. It’s impossible to imagine him sucking up to anyone, talking down to anyone, trying to drive anyone away, or giving anyone special treatment.  He was utterly tireless, utterly reliable, always moving, always serving, always turning up where he was needed, nobody’s fool, always smiling and giving out blessings. And Tootsie Rolls.

Once, we accidentally called him “Uncle Stan.” But he was a Father to the core.

There was a banner on the wall in the sanctuary of St. Joseph’s. When I was little, I craned my neck to read it, wondering why it was hung in such an awkward spot. Finally I realized it wasn’t for the congregation: It was for the priest to see, as he made his way to the altar. It said, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

God rest the soul of Fr. Stan, a good and faithful servant, a happy man, a priest forever.

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez did not die today.

Instead, it was his illegitimate grand nephew, Gabriel Garcia Garcia Marquez, who was eerily like him, except where the one was merely careless, the other was cruel — or is it the other way around, in the end?

Marquez (the other one), who was born at some point when the sky wept and was simultaneously full of turtledoves doing something unusual, spoke three languages by the time he was eleven days old, and had the penis of a forty-year-old gypsy. Nobody was sure what to do about this, but the nuns thought it was hilarious.

His wet nurse, a jungle woman, used to pass the steamy hours cracking nuts with her toes and teaching him mystical acrostics, until his overbearing father caught wind of it and sent the tyke off to the village priest to be instructed in Latin, brutality, and alchemy; but somehow, at age fifteen, he came home instead a man, a man in sweltering pants who knew how to dance in a way that made women’s hair grow long and savage at the mere sight of him.

Only one woman was immune to his charms, and this made him hunger after her with an unreasoning hunger. He thought only of her, in and out of days, through through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are, and also a shitload of prostitutes and barely pubescent girls that he banged and sometimes even loved, but honest to goodness, the whole time, he was only thinking of her. Those sweltering pants.

On the day he didn’t die, the crows wept. The tobacco leaves shivered in the windless field. The bells tolled at midnight, and no one knew why, but when they tolled, they smelled like jasmine. Ai, did they smell like jasmine. The woman smelled it through her veil, and she knew it was time to open that letter at last. A letter more stamp than envelope, having travelled swelteringly around six continents and back in search of her, who was living in his woodshed the whole time.

For she! She was that jungle woman. And now he had been dead, and it was too late, and had been for some time.

If he had died on this day, the children, all of whom were named “Gabo” or “Marky Mark” would have playfully mutilated his once powerful now impotent corpse. Instead, he died back in 2014, but people on Facebook think it just happened and are sad about it all over again. Which is just how he would have wanted it.

Marquez and his illegitimate grand nephew Marquez are survived by their mutual half-brother, who has the same name, but a different mustache.

***

Garbriel Garcia Marquez photo by Ver en vivo En Directo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Dr. Louise Cowan: A Heart that Sees

Although she smiled warmly and spoke gently (and, if I remember rightly, barely cleared five feet in height!), I was somewhat abashed, not only by her chic southern elegance, but by the dark sunglasses she wore at all times. Dr. Louise suffered from a thyroid disorder which left her nearly blind, and after a series of surgeries, her eyeballs protruded and were discolored, and her face was scarred.

Another student went into her office after me. For several reasons, this girl was on the outs with the community in our small school, and she was difficult to live with.  What private sufferings she endured, I don’t know, and never cared to consider at the time. The young woman said that Dr. Louise talked with her for a while, and then took her sunglasses off, exposing the part of her that she hid from most of the world. I don’t know if they talked about literature at all, or just about life, but the girl came out radiating peace. Dr. Louise did not, I believe, acknowledge such a thing as an “outsider.”

Read the rest at the Register.

Suzanne Bercier

Earlier this week, my dear friend Suzanne Bercier died. She had cancer, which is never fair, but Suzanne especially was so beautiful and so good.  We were college roommates.

She was from rural Louisiana, and everything you’ve heard about gracious, mellow Southerners was true in Suzanne. She had a merry eye, and thick, glossy hair; she was tall and slender, and when you sat down at her table, she made you feel like she’d been waiting all day for that moment.

She had an unshakable faith in the power of the Holy Name. When her room filled up with chatty, catty girls who veered into gossip and viciousness, she would whisper the name of Jesus and wait for the conversation to right itself.  She always invited, never pushed. The cafeteria was right next to the chapel, and when it was late afternoon, I met Suzanne hundreds of times:  she was heading to the bright chapel for daily Mass, I was fleeing to my smelly room for evening despair. And she would smile and invite, invite, invite. Want to come to Mass? Want to join us for a rosary? Okay, see you at dinner!

One clattering drawer of her dresser was full of bottles and powders, and every afternoon she would wince her way through a tall, clotted glass of some kind of chlorophyll drink.  Maybe she would have been sicker without all those handfuls of vitamins, I don’t know.  She endured so many colds and coughs, but holy cow, she worked, and worked, and worked. The idea of leaving an assignment undone was unthinkable to her, and she muscled her way through every dense text and incomprehensible passage. She chose Wallace Stevens for her junior project, because she was always looking for beauty.

In four years, I never heard her say an unkind word. She would laugh at herself, but never at anyone else.  She was a fountain of generosity. When we came back to school our sophomore year, I saw her in the parking lot, she held out her hands to me, and for a moment, we danced. It was strange, and I broke away laughing, but that is how she was: she was glad to see you, and held out her hands.

God rest the soul of Suzanne Therese Bercier, and God comfort the family that she loved so much and missed so much when she was away. And one more time, here is the song that could always get her to sing along: