A Cold Reminder

Another fiscal year is coming to an end. Looking back, while the year was fiscally exhausting, I am physically exhausted, too. It has been a full year — and then some. I was handing out more money than Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Boilers in two of the three churches in the parish cluster needed replacing; plaster was flaking off the sanctuary wall in one church to the point a decision was made to paint now or there will be no wall left to paint; the flooring in the second church has had its day, and the parish ponders how far it wants to go with new flooring.

One option would be to cosmetically change the flooring (which means I am punting the bigger decision to a successor). The second option is to bite the bullet, tackle the full project and renovate the whole floor, which has 100 years’ worth of carpet on top of asbestos tile on top of plywood on top of original beams (some of which are rotten). It is tempting to put another layer down and pretend there is nothing wrong with the four layers of floor beneath my feet. Old buildings are like aging people falling apart. People need new hips; church walls needs new plaster. People need new knees; floors needs new beams.

I am not mechanically inclined, nor am I am handy with a hammer and nail. I hated when my father would ask me to help him fix something. I would act as the surgical nurse handing the tools to the doctor. As I feared this upcoming father-son bonding moment (which was anything but), my mother would quickly remind me, “The Phillips screwdriver is the one that looks like a cross at the end.” I discerned it would be easier to be a priest and not worry about these things. I was wrong. I should have paid more attention to my engineer father’s handyman tips.

I have met with more engineers than I’ve ever wanted to. I’ve met with mechanical engineers (again I am not mechanically inclined) who are speaking out of their left brain while I am listening with my right brain. Fortunately, the diocese provides project managers to help interpret and translate for me. The more left-brained the engineer spoke to me, the less I understood him (and the less he understood me). In those moments, I was recalling my father-son not-so-bonding moments. Compound this not understanding with needing to read and sign contracts. The magnitude of these decisions only was surpassed by the number of zeros placed after the numeral and before the decimal point.

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While we think he is testing us, God can smooth over the rough patches in our lives. Shutterstock

It was a hard winter, and there was barely an inch of snow. The freezing temperatures, though, made up for the lack of snow. Just when the insurance company was uninsuring the boilers (one built in 1936, previously a coal-burning boiler switched to oil) the temperatures were dropping into the teens for weeks. There were days on end when the wind chill was in the teens — even the negative teens. I could see my breath and feared kissing the marble altar or drinking from a gold chalice wondering if my lips would stick. There was no heat (except industrial heat blowers), and there were four weddings that weekend, as it was the weekend of New Year’s. The engineering aspect of all this was overwhelming; the pastoral part, explaining to families shivering in a cold church, was embarrassing.

In the midst of it all, there were many warm moments, including how the families responded to it all. All the families understood. The brides and grooms told their attendants to “walk in as if it is warm and cozy, but have your overcoat in the pew and put it on when you get there.” The brides and grooms had their overcoats at their chairs, too, and put them on during the readings and homily and took them off for the vows when pictures would be taken. They had hand warmer packets in their pockets.

The parishioners rose to the occasion as well. Late last summer the parish had a campaign to raise money to paint the sanctuary walls in Holy Cross Church and replace the floor at Good Counsel. It was while still collecting for these when the boilers were laid to rest, so back I went to ask the people for money again. They responded with generosity. One gentleman, out of the blue — I barely knew him — gave $125,000, and another family gave $50,000. Other families gave several thousand, and then the many “widow’s mite” families collectively gave another $50,000 (see Lk 21:1-4). Maybe it was good the boiler died in the coldest winter — people knew this was for real.

Even though there was barely enough money to paint, let alone buy two new boilers, the decision was made to spend the $200,000 and paint the church sanctuary. The freezing church was shut down, Mass was moved to the other church in the cluster whose boiler was replaced, and the painters began painting immediately after the frigid weddings until Palm Sunday.

When it came time, the three men who were about to be ordained priests lay prostrate on the cold cathedral marble floor, and I thought: “Do they have any idea what is to come? Take the nap now on the floor, as there will be many restless nights without sleep when you are going to be bombarded with not one boiler but two boilers in two churches and rotten floor beams in the third church. You are lying still now, but the tossing and turning in years to come can take its toll.”

I typically can deal with many balls in the air at once, but when too many balls have too many unknown variables (boilers, flooring, painting) it is overwhelming. It was a learning experience — not learning about HVAC and how plaster does not dry in freezing weather, but learning about reliance on others, caring for self and trusting in God.

Trusting in God was the easiest. It still is surprising that the staff and I decided to spend the money to paint even while the money was needed to buy the boilers. The staff and I thought, “Let’s do it, the Treasury Department makes millions of dollars every day in Washington; some of it will come to us.” We did what we could to raise the money; maybe God had it be so cold that the freezing parishioners did not mind going to the other church. In the meantime, the church was painted and boiler money was still coming in. The newly painted church reopened for Palm Sunday, and the people excitedly entered the church waving palms to see the renewed sanctuary; and the next week we all sang “alleluia.”

Timing could not have been more perfect — the timeless God knew what he was doing. Remember, only the sanctuary was painted, so the rest of the church is still in dire need (another $300,000 to put a figure to it). Hopefully those “alleluias” help make them joyful givers.

Those beyond-my-knowledge moments reminded me that no one can do this alone. I may be the one signing the check and have the responsibility, but there are many people guiding my hand as I do sign. Parishioners who have the expertise, the diocesan project managers who know which questions to ask and recommend which contractors to contact help lighten the load. During those restless nights, knowing the next invoice for the boiler is due Friday for St. Mary Church and the fourth of seven paint invoices for Holy Cross was arriving on Monday, friends would ask, “How are you holding up?” and making sure all was OK with me, getting away from it all, making sure I am taking care of myself, too.

Those ordinandi, just before lying on the floor, responded to the last question: “I do with the help of God.” It was timely to be reminded of who is in charge.

FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.