Recently I found myself really enjoying catching up on developments in the Columban world. I realized I had not been contributing anything about what I have been doing since finishing my last term as regional director here in the United States in November of 2021. I admit it. I am feeling some guilt but that motivated me to sit down at the computer and pound out a few paragraphs for our Columban publication.
As avid readers may know, I was the U.S. regional director from 2001, then was a Councilor in the late Fr. Tommy Murphy’s administration in Hong Kong. I was vice director in the U.S. when Fr. Tim Mulroy was our regional director here. When Fr. Tim became the Society leader, I again became regional director for three more years. In November, 2021, my term ended the same week I turned 75, and I took that as a sign that the time was right to say “enough” to administration work.
I mentioned this to a Sister who taught me in elementary school with whom I have been in contact, off and on, over the years. She mentioned to me that her community, Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), were looking for a chaplain for Camilla Hall. Camilla is an assisted living facility, a nursing home and a memory care facility all in one. Across the back drive, is Pacis Hall, a residence for Sisters who are on staff. Camilla has 200 beds and there are 36 Sisters living in Pacis Hall. In other words, it is about the size of a couple of the parishes I was in Japan. Of course, all 236 are practicing Catholics!
On the same campus is the Sisters’ flagship, Immaculata University, and across the road is the Motherhouse, and a grade school named Villa Maria. This is in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, about an hour’s drive from Independence Hall. It is the site of a Revolutionary war battle, the Battle of the Clouds. We sometimes have thick fogs here.
The Columbans first came to this area in the 1950’s to minister to farm workers who spoke Spanish. We then received permission to open a house near West Chester. These days, I pass that big old stone house often. I have not found documentation for it, but I believe the first superior of the house, Fr. Peadar Garahy who died in 1960, was cared for in the Sisters’ infirmary in West Chester. Camilla Hall opened that year and one of the early chaplains was Columban Fr. John Kerr, an old China hand who died here and is buried in the Sisters’ cemetery.
Some Sisters remember Columbans saying Masses and giving talks during their formation. Columban Fr. Bill Carney it seems is particularly well remembered, although Those who journeyed doesn’t mention him having been in West Chester. Columban Fr. Barney Toal gave a retreat here. The Sisters remember even more vividly being dispatched to the Columban house for housecleaning; I am not sure what that says about our cleaning habits!
The IHM community was founded in 1845 to teach the children of immigrants. And their charism has been focused on education ever since. They have had a presence in Peru for the last 100 years and also had a school in Chile. Most of the residents here spent 40-plus years in grade school classrooms from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Miami, Florida, and many went on the have second careers teaching English as a second language to adults, or working as parish directors of religious education or various pastoral care roles. You are liable to be passed by in one of the hallways by a former college president in an electric wheelchair. Some Sisters who are from Latin America are also being cared for here. Columban Fr. Leo Donnelly is the Columban whose name comes up most frequently at table conversations about Peru.
And the ministry of a chaplain here? There are daily Masses, of course. And I have the distinct impression the Sisters like short but insightful homilies. Besides the expected anointing and confession times, there are occasional presentations on whatever I feel I have to share. I feel appreciated and shamelessly receive positive feedback multiple times a day. Along with one of the Sisters, I am leading a program called “Seasons of Hope” for those who are experiencing loss. We have has many deaths since I have arrived here. I am on a first-name basis with the undertaker. And he has memorized all the words of “Salve Regina” which is sung at the cemetery. Sometimes the Sisters have their own priest relatives or friends, but I still compose a lot of funeral homilies. And the congregation always includes a majority of the same people, and they listen well and with a critical ear. Therefore, I cannot just repeat one I have given before.
The Sisters have been hard workers all their lives and even in retirement here are looking to contribute by doing something useful. Having a “charge” is really important to them. They are a constant source of inspiration to me.
Columban Fr. John Burger is living and working in Pennsylvania.