Some people have profound spiritual experiences while praying in a church or contemplating a sunset or a starry sky. I had one while looking at a weather-beaten farmhouse near Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Wrenched Away. For my brother, Larry, and me, the move happened too fast. We had just graduated—he from elementary school and I from high school—and it was wrenching to leave behind all our friends and familiar places. But we understood that Dad needed an easier commute into New York City. To get to his two jobs as a legal stenographer, the poor man had been taking a train, a ferry, and a subway, with long walks at both ends of the journey. Often, he didn’t return home until well after midnight, only to leave again for work a few hours later.
Commuting from the farmhouse was simpler, but still too long a trip to be workable. What my father really wanted for us was an apartment in Brooklyn, right in the city, but housing there was in short supply. The farmhouse would be “just a place to live” until an apartment became available, he explained. Meanwhile, he would go in to work on Monday and return on Friday.
Dad was doing the best he could, but the long-neglected farmhouse was a far cry from the clean, comfortable home we had left. It had no running water or indoor bathroom and needed paint inside and out. A contractor did the major repairs, and Dad joined in on weekends, but during the week, Larry and I were left alone to do the painting. We felt overwhelmed. Our only ray of hope was the kindness of the family across the street, who let us use their bathroom every day.
I did some crying, as I scraped peeling paint off the outside of the house. And it wasn’t just because of the move. Two years before, when I was fifteen, I had experienced a much more wrenching loss: my mother died in my arms at a tuberculosis hospital. I tried to be strong and ignore the pain, but it was still there.
The Spirit Steps In. By the middle of the summer, we had a workable kitchen and bathroom, and the house was looking more like a home. Then one day, Dad opened the newspaper and saw a picture of a black family of six who were living in a car.
Now, my father was a committed Catholic who took his faith very seriously. He had come into the Church thirteen years before, when hardships made him realize his need for God. Dad never talked much about his faith at home—his conversion upset my mother—but it was the bedrock of his life. So I believe it was the Holy Spirit who prompted him to notice and reach out to that homeless family.
I didn’t know what my father had in mind at first. But no sooner had he discovered how to contact the family than he had found us an apartment in Brooklyn. We moved in right away. And then, to our astonishment, Dad gave the farmhouse to the family in need.
Amazing Graces. Other amazing developments followed. One Saturday morning, unable to cope with my sadness and sense of loss, I told my father, “I can’t take it anymore.” Dad replied, “Why don’t you go see a priest at Our Lady of the Angels? The church is only a block away.”
I took his advice and had a good talk with a wonderfully kind priest by the name of Fr. Jim. Seeing that I didn’t know much about God, he suggested that I sign up for religious education classes. That’s where I began to find the healing and peace I needed. Eight months later, it was a very happy guy who stepped up to the baptismal font and was reborn as a son of God!
Knowing that I would need support, Fr. Jim had introduced me to some young parishioners who were serious about following Christ. Some of them—including Jack, whom I chose to be my godfather—became my close friends. As time passed and I went on to a sales career in the wool industry, these friendships encouraged me to keep praying and growing in my spiritual life.
And so it was that four years later, Jack and I and two other friends walked into 10:00 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Angels. It was an ordinary Sunday—until, in his homily, the priest asked, “What are you doing to thank God for the gift of faith?” My heart took a leap. Immediately, I knew I was being addressed, not just by Fr. Tom, but by the Lord!
I emerged from church amazed, only to discover that my three friends had also sensed some call from God. We went to see Fr. Tom that very night. Eight months later, all four of us decided to quit our jobs and study for the priesthood. We were all ordained and remained close friends to the end. (Having recently concelebrated at Jack’s funeral Mass, I am the group’s lone survivor.)
Sixty-Six Years Later. Fast-forward to last year, when a friend invited me to go with him to Atlantic City. I agreed, on the condition that we take a side trip to look for the farmhouse where I spent that fateful summer.
It took some time, but after driving around and around, we finally found the spot. I got out of the car in front of the shabby, empty building. Memories came flooding in: long hours scraping paint; loneliness, sorrow, and tears; bath times at our kind neighbor’s home; my father’s hard work and desire to give us a better life; his compassion for a homeless family. . .
As I stood there, I suddenly felt I was on holy ground. Everything came together, and it hit me that another loving Father had been watching over me during this difficult, lonely time in my life. Was it by chance that Dad was struck by the photo in the Daily News? Or that the Brooklyn apartment became available when it did? Or that I went to talk with Fr. Jim or heard Fr. Tom’s life-changing sermon? No! My heavenly Father was carrying out his wonderful plan for me, even when I couldn’t see it.
Thinking back over my life, I remain overwhelmed by the tremendous goodness and fatherhood of God. Like my three friends who also heard God’s call at that Sunday Mass, I went on to many happy years as a priest. I’ve served in parishes and a seminary, with Cursillo and Marriage Encounter.
How many Masses I have been privileged to celebrate over the years! How many baptisms and marriages. How many confessions, where I’ve raised my right hand and said those beautiful words of forgiveness. And everywhere, how many wonderful people the Father has sent me to learn from and work with.
So here I am, one voice among many, witnessing to the loving kindness of God. Thank you, Father, a thousand, thousand times!
Fr. Robert Blauvelt has been a priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, for fifty-six years.