A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop

A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop

by Rembert G. Weakland

For many people, the name of Archbishop Rembert Weakland brings to mind only connotations of scandal — the titillating tale of a prominent priest disgraced. But that whiff of dishonor barely begins to tell the whole story. / In these pages Archbishop Weakland recounts his life from his childhood in rural Pennsylvania to his retirement from the archbishopric…  See more details below


For many people, the name of Archbishop Rembert Weakland brings to mind only connotations of scandal — the titillating tale of a prominent priest disgraced. But that whiff of dishonor barely begins to tell the whole story. / In these pages Archbishop Weakland recounts his life from his childhood in rural Pennsylvania to his retirement from the archbishopric in 2002 at the age of 75, all in the context of the Church that he long served. Weakland takes readers with him to Rome, where he discovered the splendor of a whole new intellectual world, and then to New York for his extensive musical study at Julliard and Columbia University. From his early days in the priesthood to his struggles with pontiffs, Weakland details how he learned to become a leader and minister to his people and how his famously liberal beliefs affected his ministry. While he presents an honest account of the scandal he is so often recognized for, the complete picture beyond rumor and accusation may come as a surprise to many readers. / Throughout his memoir Weakland describes with poignant honesty his psychological, spiritual, and sexual growth. Candid and engaging, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church offers a fascinating inside look at both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II even as it tells the story of a life fully lived.

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Publishers Weekly

When Weakland resigned as Milwaukee archbishop in 2002 after revelations of a past homosexual relationship and a confidential payout, it was seen as another stunning episode in the unfolding clergy abuse scandal. It was especially painful to liberal Catholics who viewed Weakland as their champion. Weakland was publicly penitent, but other events that year-chief among them the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston-made Weakland's drama a footnote. With this frank and well-told memoir, that's no longer the case. A Benedictine monk, Weakland is up front about his homosexuality in a church that preferred to ignore gays, and about his failures in overseeing pedophile priests. But this is really the poignant journey of a soul, not a mea culpa about sex, with chapters on his hardscrabble boyhood and fascinating, and sometimes sobering, insights into the life of a bishop and the tensions between the American Catholic Church and the Vatican. At points the narrative has more than enough detail on the life of a globe-trotting abbot. But overall this is an invaluable historical record and a moving personal confession. (June)

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A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church

Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop
By Rembert G. Weakland

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2009 Rembert G. Weakland
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6382-9

Chapter One

Inheriting Coal Dust in the Veins

Patton, Pennsylvania (1927-1940)

Father Len dropped me off at my sister Barbara's condo in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, outside of Altoona. From there it would be easy to visit Patton, where I was born and grew up. Nestled in an Appalachian valley, the small town was founded in 1893 as a hub for the offices of the surrounding soft-coal mining companies. And it was a small town: the 1920 census reported 3,628 inhabitants. Yet, Patton boasted a hotel and movie-house - the only ones for many miles around - in addition to its twelve churches and twelve bars. The biggest church was St. Mary's on the hill, the parish that played a special role in my family's life: the Weaklands were all baptized there. I learned my first lesson in ecumenism at St. Mary's when each year the pastor would ask a few altar boys to take candles around to the other churches as a Christmas gift.

Most of our friends and neighbors were Protestant and no one ever said we Catholic kids could not associate with them, although we were not permitted to attend the summer revival meetings held in tents outside the town to hear the famous preachers and gawk at renowned faith-healers, like Katherine Cullman. Nor were we permitted to make fun of any of their religious manifestations, not even the Holy Rollers or the snake handlers. There was one well-liked Jewish family, but the town was essentially white and Christian. The only African-Americans we ever saw were the few young black men who came to suction out the outhouses of homes without indoor plumbing. We kids followed behind in amazement, staring at their black skin beaded with sweat and covered with white lime.

My father and grandfather owned the Palmer House Hotel at the town's main intersection. There my mother gave birth to me on April 2, 1927, and carried me up to St. Mary's Church herself-so she told me-on Sunday, April 10, to be baptized and given the name George Samuel after my maternal and paternal grandfathers. The name Rembert, by which most people know me, was given in 1946 when I pronounced my first vows as a Benedictine monk. I was child number four in a family of six children, preceded by two sisters and a brother, and followed by two more sisters. I was the last born in the hotel since soon after my birth we moved to a normal house. Apparently my mother did not feel that raising kids in a hotel was a good idea.

In 1929, a financial crisis closed the Patton Bank and marked the beginning of the Depression with its catastrophic effects on Patton and all the surrounding towns. That same year a disastrous fire almost totally destroyed the Palmer House Hotel, causing financial ruin for the family and forcing us to move to the Flats, a poorer part of town. The fire took its toll on my father by first killing his spirit. Mom said he spent much time with his friends in the few unheated rooms of the burnt-out hotel, drinking and lamenting. It was a bout with pneumonia that brought him down on April 3, 1932, the day before his thirty-fifth birthday and the day after my fifth, leaving a wife and six children, the oldest nine, the youngest six months.

That fifth birthday is one of my first clear memories. Like any kid, I looked forward to being the center of attention for a few hours that day. Instead, something seemed wrong: no one was around, no one seemed excited about my birthday, no signs of festivities were evident. My mother had deposited my younger sister and me in the home of strangers where, in the evening, she came to hold me a bit and lay me down to sleep. Next day we two were brought back to our own home in the Flats where everyone was upstairs in my parents' bedroom. Despondent and unhappy, I could hear the murmur of soft voices. We two kids were quietly ushered into the room.

Every detail of the events that followed, every aspect of the room, everyone's actions are still vivid in my mind. My father, Basil Francis Weakland, coughing deeply, lay dying, struggling to stay alive. Although the curtains were drawn and it was dark in the room, I remember how every piece of furniture was arranged, how the candles on the bedstand that kept sentinel by the crucifix flickered and cast odd-shaped shadows on the wall, how the priest had withdrawn to the side, how Dr. Cooper kept busy doing something that was not helping. Finally the coughing changed to the dread sound of a death rattle and my mother, sobbing, fell on the body of my dying father.

Later relatives criticized her for permitting the younger kids to witness this scene. Yet the memory of it has caused me no sleepless nights. Although not truly understanding the significance of it all, I was always glad to have been physically present at a moment that was to affect our futures so profoundly.

Although the church services left no traces in my memory, the interment at the cemetery did, perhaps because the burial ceremonies did frighten me. My father was given a military funeral, which was punctuated by deafening bursts of gunfire over the open grave followed by eerie echoes from a distant hill; a bugle near the coffin mournfully sounded Taps and, after an aching pause, the subdued echo came back. All this was so perplexing and strange that I hid behind my mother's skirt till it was finished and a military man came over and stiffly gave her the triangularly folded flag that had covered my father's casket.

* * *

How I wish I had known my father better! In May of 1917, at the age of twenty and after two years of college, he joined the Marines and was soon shipped to the Dominican Republic. His rise in rank was rapid; within three years he was a captain in charge of the city of La Vega and its surroundings. When my father came home on furlough in February 1922, he married my mother and took her back to the Dominican Republic. He resigned his commission in January 1923, and they both returned to the States for the birth of my sister Betty, their first child.

My recollections of my father are few but precious-being carried on his shoulders (as perilous as it seemed to me at that age since he was 6' 4 1/2"), being encouraged to jump and then caught in his strong arms, being taught by him how to pee standing up by the commode, being carried to the doctors in those same strong arms after tramping on a broken milk bottle that went through my foot.

On rainy days my mother would allow us to go to the attic and take out some things from my father's trunk. Photos from the Dominican Republic that showed him in full dress uniform standing guard over the tomb of Columbus were especially fascinating. Among the curiosities was a white envelope containing a picture of me as a smiling baby with a head of spit curls. My dad had made my mother cut them off, but she had saved them and they were still in that envelope. It often made me wonder if my amother had really wanted another girl.

Those who knew my father well always spoke highly of him. His two brothers, Edgar and Adrian, and his half-brother John (my godfather) all lived into their nineties and became images of what my father must have been like-gentle, bright, inquisitive, and talented. Once when I was in my late teens, I was introduced to Father Thomas Wolf, the ninety-year-old pastor of a parish a few miles from Patton. On hearing my name, he asked if I was Baz Weakland's son, and spoke in glowing terms of my dad, saying he had been my father's confessor for years. That my dad had his own confessor impressed me and indicated that he took religion seriously. His brothers often told me that Baz should have left the small town and gone on to more challenging work where his talents would have been fulfilled.

How often it has come to me that much of my life was spent seeking the father-figure that had been there so briefly, but I was grateful to have Weakland blood in my veins. My father was the epitome of the Weakland male figures going back to the original John Weakland, who in 1757 married Susan Cunningham in Hagerstown, Maryland, made his way to the mountain parts of Western Pennsylvania, and established a temporary homestead among the Indians. The family legend is that the Weaklands, devout and fervent Catholics, had sailed from England to the Maryland colony in 1641 as indentured servants, working for a Thomas Cornwallis for five years to pay off their indebtedness. The legends further claim that they were not originally English but Dutch and that the name had been anglicized, a fact that accounted for the many spellings of it that can be found in official documents.

John and Susan had three sons and a daughter who settled permanently in Western Pennsylvania and my direct line goes back to their oldest son John (1758-1854) and his wife Catherine Jackson (1769-1861). They were a sturdy pair, both living into their nineties. This John Weakland was a legendary figure in the history of Western Pennsylvania, his memory being especially commemorated in the history of the Catholic Church in that region. He farmed and hunted, traded with the Indians, and then sold his wares in Baltimore. Once a year a priest would come north and circuit ride through that area, saying Mass in the different homes and solemnizing the baptisms and weddings already performed by the patriarch of the Weakland family since they had not waited for the priest to come. We would say it was a lay domestic church. The patriarchs must have been reading the Bible regularly for the Sunday family prayer meeting because the boys were given names like Samuel, Aaron, Levi, Zephoniah. The historical descriptions of John Weakland fit my father perfectly - over six-feet tall, calm and peaceful, strong and fearless.

From the Weakland side of the family I inherited a frontier spirit of tenacity and forthrightness that was embedded in this fascinating older Catholic tradition. The Weaklands had come to America to practice their faith freely and had left the Maryland colony toward the end of the seventeenth century when that freedom was in danger; then they kept that faith alive in the mountains of Pennsylvania without the strength of the organized church they had known in Europe. Moreover, the men were as active in the faith as the women. Since the Weaklands had arrived in the New World before the Revolutionary War and had fought in it, they considered themselves fully American with no need to prove it, unlike Catholic immigrants of the nineteenth century. To be able to trace one's ancestors back to older Catholic roots was exciting for a youngster my age.

* * *

If you were to open the desk drawer in my study today, you would find a double-edged safety razor and next to it a small handsome golden pen-and-pencil set. When, in my early teens, my sisters teased me relentlessly about the peach-fuzz that was growing on my chin, Mom let me take my dad's razor out of the trunk, use it, and keep it. It lies in the desk drawer as a personal sacramental, a way of bringing my father to mind. The pen-and-pencil set was a gift to my mother from my father at their wedding. After her death in 1978, my sisters passed it on tome; it, too, serves as a personal sacramental, bringing a vision of my mother as a teacher since in every way she was the best teacher I ever knew, both in school and out of school.

My mother's family name was Kane, a family that emigrated to the United States from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland about 1849, during the potato famine. They ultimately settled in Patton at the end of that century. Mymother, Mary Delilah Eulalia, the oldest child of George Kane and Myrtena Buck, was born there in 1897. After graduating from high school, she went to Normal School to prepare to be a teacher. Until her marriage in 1922, she taught all grade levels in small rural schools around Patton, sometimes teaching all eight grades in one classroom with its potbellied stove in the middle. Although she gave up teaching to take care of the family, she never lost her intense love of learning. After my father's death, life was difficult. Pictures from that period show her looking very shy, almost ashamed of our poverty.

After my dad's death, we moved to an even poorer section of town, a dilapidated wooden structure with no furnace, just a potbellied stove in the living room and a coal stove in the kitchen, and no hot water heater. Though this was a double house, I have only vague recollections of the families who came and went. Only their side of the house, however, was excavated to form a hard clay-floored cellar to which both families had access. Since we had no refrigerator, we kept food there in the hot months. On Saturdays Mom would fire up the kitchen stove and heat bucket after bucket of hot water, dump it at intervals into the tin tub in the middle of the kitchen, and call each one of us in by seniority to take our baths. It was while soaking in that tin tub on Saturday afternoons that I heard my first operas broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Before the opera began I would read the account of the plot, listen carefully to Milton Cross as he announced the names of the singers, and then just bathe in the beauty of it all.

Louvers in the ceiling allowed the stove heat to rise to the second floor, upstairs, but little warmth ever reached there. During the winter, Mom would place bricks in the stove's oven and, when hot, wrap them in flannel and place them in our beds. Then, we undressed behind the stove in the living room and, in our long underwear, make a wild dash for the beds upstairs. We made an even wilder dash in the morning to dress downstairs behind that stove. My older brother and I shared a room and bed and, being bigger, he always got the warm brick. That bed had no springs, just slats and ropes and a thin mattress. The winters were severe in Patton, with piles of snow and the thermometer often falling below zero. After we went to bed, Mom would crawl under the house to cut off the water supply and drain the pipes so they would not freeze and burst. This process was reversed in the morning. If the weather became even more severe - ten below zero was not uncommon-she slept on the couch in the living room to keep the fire stoked through the night. Until we boys were old enough to handle an axe, she chopped the wood for the two stoves and hauled the coal up from the basement.

Our house was situated less than fifty yards from the railroad tracks and so we lived with the constant rumbling of trains in the background. A small creek called Chest Creek, polluted by sulfur that seeped into it from abandoned coal mines, ran on the other side of the railroad tracks. Our house was rat infested and often Mom, when she crawled under the house, had to scare them away. Rat traps were everywhere, especially in the clay cellar; once a trapped rat was running around wild down there. Mom put on a raincoat, went down with a clothes-line pole, cornered and killed it. Years later, when she was old and seemed so fragile and petite, I had a hard time reconciling that image with what she had to put up with after my father's death.

The first serious decision she had to make was whether to place us in foster homes, as some urged her, or to try to make it on her own. I preserve a vivid image of her at the kitchen table talking to us about this decision, crying, pounding the table, and forcefully asserting that no one would ever break up the family and take us away from her. Instead, we went on relief.

At that time, the monthly relief check was thirty-eight dollars. Rent was eight plus coal and electricity cost, which left less than thirty dollars a month to take care of food and clothing for seven people. New clothes were a rarity; I wore hand-me-downs from my brother and later my uncles. A few years later, when I was already in St. Mary's grade school, those of us on relief also obtained clothing made by a project supported by the WPA (Works Progress Administration). We had to go to the fire hall and stand in line for hours with all the other kids on relief to be measured. My brother and I received new brown corduroy knickers. In school those of us on relief were now marked publicly, and, being exceptionally sensitive to the teasing of the other kids, I came to resent being poor.

We had our share of illnesses. I always had a sore throat and was susceptible to colds. Not a one of us played the "too-sick-to-go-to-school-or-church" card lightly with Mom since that meant staying inside all day, even if one felt cured by noon. We all had measles, mumps, and the usual kids' stuff, but thank God no polio or any of the serious diseases that some kids in town contracted. We had the usual ailments of poor kids, the itch, head lice (that meant having a shaved head for boys or having hair doused with kerosene for girls). Mom searched our beds assiduously for bedbugs, rampant she would say in the town movie house, and would roll the mattresses over every week as a preventative. I am amazed when I think back on those years that we survived as well as we did. Doc Cooper, who had assisted my father at his death, provided all our medical needs without ever charging a penny.

Life also had its joys, simple as they were. We had a radio, and that meant listening to the Lone Ranger, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and being able to hear great music on the Firestone Hour and the Met broadcasts. We had no phone; in fact, I was in high school before I ever talked on a phone. We never had a car, and didn't miss one. I never owned a bicycle or even a baseball glove and at the time it didn't seem like such a big deal - lots of kids didn't have bikes.


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