The image of the kindly parish priest was portrayed in the 1944 movie, Going My Way. In that film, Bing Crosby, plays Father Charles O’Malley, a young priest assigned to “help out” the aging pastor, Father Fitzgibbons, of St. Dominic’s. In the course of the story, Father O’Malley revitalizes the parish, and makes lasting impressions on the parish’s youth—particularly, the youngsters he recruits for the boy’s choir. It’s a warm sweet gentle story of human goodness. It is one of my favorite movies. Usually, films do not mirror real-life, but, this story does. Read on.
As young parochial students at Sacred Heart School in Whiting, Indiana during the late 40’s and early 50’s, we were taught by the Sister of Providence along with Diocesan priests—Monsignor George Moorman, and Father John Daniels. By the time we were in 5th grade, Monsignor Moorman had retired, and a new pastor, Father Herman J. Miller, led the parish. The new pastor put Father Daniels in charge of the altar boys.
For parochial school boys, becoming an altar boy was a prestigious honor. It announced to everyone that you had learned the Latin prayers and mastered the intricate duties associated with serving Holy Mass. Only after Sister’s countless drills, rehearsals, and examinations would one be sanctioned as an altar boy. Serving Mass was very serious business.
The fictional St. Dominic’s had Father O’Malley. At Sacred Heart, we had Father Daniels. Father “D” as he was called by the students became our mentor. He was always there to give us needed advice, guidance, and keep us on the right track. A few of us had developed a proclivity for mischief, and worked Father D overtime! Students liked Father Daniels and looked up to him. He was pleasant and fun to be around. He always made you feel better about yourself after talking with him.
Boys had to be in sixth grade in order to become a server. Usually, the “rookie” altar boys were assigned the Friday evening novena with Father D. Here we learned how to properly carry the crucifix and candles, serve benediction, and become familiar with the various aspect of being an altar boy. By seventh grade, we were serving at one of the two daily Masses—6:30 am or the 8:00 am all-school Mass. As a rule, Father Daniels had early Mass. I liked getting up early, so I volunteered or would trade with a buddy so I could serve 6:30 for Father D
I enjoyed serving for Father Daniels because, like the movie priest, he was understanding and patient. He didn’t get upset when my Latin was less than perfect or sanctuary bells rang at the wrong time. He’d put you at ease with kind words and a smile. When the liturgy was over, he always thanked us for serving. His words of appreciation always buoyed spirits and self confidence.
As an eight-grader, I again volunteered to serve early Mass. By now, we were seasoned veterans and selected to serve weddings, funerals, Holy Days and other special liturgical occasions—Lent’s Stations of the Cross and, especially Holy Week. Through it all, our respect and admiration for Father D. grew.
In Going My Way, Father O’Malley counsels his students and gives their life direction. So did Father D. A week before graduation from Sacred Heart, in June of 1954, he called our class together in church and talked to us about our Faith, our future, and life’s purpose: the sacredness of living; the challenges we would face in high school and choices as an adult. He reminded us to always do our best. Then, gave us his blessing and dismissed us in Latin: Ite, missa est—Go, you are sent forth.
Like the screen’s Father O’Malley, Father Daniels knew the importance of providing children with nurturing, guidance and love. He realized, too, that impressionable youngsters draw freely from examples presented to them by adults. Through his actions and words, Father D. enhanced and enriched countless lives and gave direction to our journey.
Today, Father Daniels, as a senior priest, is retired and in fragile health. I want him to know that after all these years, I still remember the lessons he taught. As a former student, I’d like to return his kindness. I know my Latin is a little rusty, so be generous with this aging altar boy, and permit him just the smidgen of a benediction: Dominus Vobiscum—Lord is with you. Beyond words, I am thankful to Father D. for Going My Way.