Posted November 09, 2015 in Memorials:
He Was a Pastor

by Mary Catherine Rowland, Fr. Tom’s sister and fellow staff worker.

When I am asked about my brother’s priesthood what comes immediately to mind is something that happened when our father was dying and Fr. Tom was a parish priest in the diocese of El Paso, Texas.

The new bishop there came to see my father and said, "I have been visiting parishes, and I want to tell you that wherever your son has served, people say that his time there was the high point of their parish life."

Fr. Tom was an excellent pastor and teacher. Among other things, he was blessed with the gift of being able to relate the day’s gospel reading to everyday life. People delighted in this practical wisdom.

One Sunday morning when I was visiting him in El Paso, my mother said, "We need to go over for Mass now."

I said, "It’s still a half hour before Mass." She said, "If we don’t go now, we won’t get a seat."

We went, and she was right. By the time Mass started, people were standing in the aisles.

Fr Tom loved the liturgy, and he loved helping people participate knowingly and lovingly, not only in the Mass but in all the sacraments.

He was also an excellent organizer and community builder. One time, I visited one of his parishes of several thousand families. He had only one assistant.

Working with parishioners, he established a school board, a finance committee, and a maintenance committee, and he hired an excellent office manager—all so that he and his associate were free to be priests and pastors.

They also developed a system of small neighborhood groups in which immediate neighbors got to know one another and care for one another and would call the priests for needed priestly ministry—deaths, illness, births, whatever.

The families also socialized together and became friends. They had pot lucks, prayed together, studied the Bible and played together.

One night I went to a gathering of one of these small groups. The two priests came for confessions, Mass, and a pot luck supper. What touched me was seeing the gospel lived out.

If someone was not at peace with another, the word was: go to that person and make peace. If necessary, ask others to help you reconcile. Then come back for absolution and Mass.

From the very beginning of his priesthood, Fr. Tom formed these groups in every parish he served in.

Fr. Denis Lemieux in his blog on Fr. Tom the morning after he died wrote, "He was a pastor, first and foremost, through and through."

He was also a liturgist. In the early ’60s, Fr. Tom helped start the Southwest Liturgical Conference, which is still active, and he served as director of the Diocesan Liturgical Office for a number of years. He gave retreats and talks throughout his own and other dioceses. He also taught liturgy and liturgical spirituality in seminaries both in El Paso and Ghana, West Africa.

After one of his retreats, a priest in Ghana told me that for him, "the Mass will never be the same."

How did Fr. Tom get to be this way?

After God, we owe special thanks to our parents. When Mother was pregnant with Fr. Tom, it was discovered she had a heart condition. The doctors, back then in 1925, advised an abortion. Our parents refused, and Mother spent the rest of her pregnancy in a hospital cardiac ward.

My parents attended daily Mass whenever possible, as did we three children. My mother prayed for priests every day after our family rosary.

My father was an officer in the U.S. military so we moved around a lot. From 1936 to 1940, we lived in the Philippines.

Manila was a rest and renewal center for the missionaries in the Far East—China, Japan, Korea, Burma. We became friendly with the Columban missionaries, and they often came to our home on the military post for supper. We grew up on their stories.

For months we had the privilege of hosting a priest who had been buried alive in China by communists. We also "adopted" an American missionary in Korea, and our parents helped raise money for his many projects. He became "son" and "brother" until he died in 1976 as an archbishop after 44 years in Korea.

From early childhood, Fr. Tom loved airplanes and dreamed of becoming a pilot. 1941-1942 was a special year for him, for that’s when he received the book A Flying Priest in the Arctic from a former teacher.

That teacher remembered Tom’s skating to school to save the 5-cent bus fare in order to buy model airplane kits. This book set Tom to thinking it was possible to be both a pilot and a priest.

The second huge gift was his senior year in high school in a parish where the pastor was one of the pioneers in the liturgical movement in the U.S. Their senior retreat was given by another liturgical pioneer, who encouraged him to go to seminary, which he did. In September 1942, he entered the seminary of the Columban Missionaries.

It was there that he learned that baptism was the most important event in his life. Since then he always had a copy of his baptismal certificate hanging beside his bed.

It was because of his convictions about baptism and how it affects our lives that he insisted from the beginning of his priesthood on lay people taking their proper and active roles at Mass and all parish activities.

This was what attracted him to Catherine Doherty when he came to visit me in Madonna House in 1956. He was able to stay till early 1958 when his bishop recalled him, and he began many more fruitful years as priest, teacher, liturgist, and pilot.

Fr. Tom’s other passion, aside from the priesthood and the Mass, continued to be flying, and he was a licensed pilot for many years.

In 1986, 28 years after his bishop had called him back to his diocese, Fr. Tom was able to return to Madonna House and become a full-time member.

Here, he worked in a variety of jobs—he was the bee keeper for a while—and he wrote his book, God Acts—We React, which is now in its third edition and is being used by seminaries and study groups. He also traveled extensively giving workshops on liturgical theology all over North America.

Coming to Madonna House meant giving up flying, so he became an avid hobbyist, building remote controlled model airplanes which he flew beside the priests’ house on fine days and with local friends who were equally avid about flying.

Fr. Tom served at our houses in Ghana and Edmonton, each for three years.

He loved parish life and was always the first to volunteer to fill in whenever a local parish needed a substitute.

Just two years ago, at the age of 87, he went down to Carriacou in the West Indies, where we have a house, to help out as a parish priest.

There he was unflagging in celebrating daily Mass and bringing the sacraments to the "old people," most of whom were considerably younger than he was.

He was quite ready to stay there as long as needed. However, it was there that he began to feel tired and unwell.

When he returned home, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia and told he had a month or two left to live. He said a "last Mass" for his MH community, a Mass in which he said good-bye. Then he went on to live another year and a half!

Last December, he celebrated 65 years of priesthood.

Fr. Tom has now flown to his heavenly home to share forever in the eternal liturgy.


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