Published February 10, 2005
Some people seem to stay in our souls long after their deaths, even if their paths cross ours for only a short time.
Father Joseph Peacock is one of those souls. I knew him for only a few years, when he was a retired priest living in the rectory of St. Thomas More Church in Decatur.
He was a plump, amiable man who took a long time to learn people’s names, but that didn’t faze me at all. After asking me who I was for a few weeks, he finally had it down pat.
He was in his 70s when I knew him, but he had such a vibrant spirit that he seemed decades younger.
At a time when many people are starting to run out of interests, he was coming up with more and more. He had just begun painting, and often had a big canvas propped up in his small quarters at the rectory.
My husband and I sang in the church choir, and often, on Thursday nights, when the choir was practicing in the sanctuary, Father Joe would wander in and take a seat behind the organ. He just sat there with a pleasant smile on his face, enjoying the music.
My own father had died many years before I met Father Joe, and there were times when I couldn’t help but contrast the emotional styles of the two men.
My dad had been somewhat of a loner, a man who wasn’t very comfortable around children, and I had grown up feeling he was too busy to spend time with me.
Not surprisingly, I figured God was also a very busy person and had more important things to do than listen to my prayers.
Over the years, I had known many priests as pastors and confessors, but none as friends. Priests always seemed overburdened with their priestly duties, and I never tried to forge any kind of friendship.
But Father Joe was different; he expressed real interest in the books I was reading and the essays I was writing.
The first time he heard my confession, I was extremely nervous, and he must have sensed my anxiety because he listened in rapt attention and then assured me, “You have made a very good confession.”
One day, after choir practice, Father Joe asked my husband if he could use an extra pair of walking shoes. They were an excellent brand and the right size, so my husband gratefully accepted them. After that, Father would often stop Jef after Mass to jokingly inquire about how the shoes were working out.
As we grew to know him better, we realized Father Joe was having trouble adjusting to retirement.
He had been the founding pastor of St. Benedict’s Church in Duluth, but that had been years ago and he sometimes fretted that people had forgotten about him.
I’ll always remember the way he sighed when he told us that he doubted many people would attend his funeral.
One afternoon, Father Joe asked my husband for help packing his car for a trip to Blackshear, Georgia. Father mentioned that he planned to hit the road on the evening of the next day, which was Sunday.
But my husband knew the old priest’s vision was failing and felt it would be dangerous for him to drive at night, so Jef gently suggested waiting until Monday morning.
At Mass the next day, for the first time ever, Jef and I were asked to carry the bread and wine up the aisle to hand to the celebrant, who happened to be none other than Father Joe.
When we got to the altar, Father was beaming at us. He leaned forward and whispered, “I’m going to take your advice. I’m going to leave tomorrow morning.”
I will never forget the sermon he preached that morning. The whole world was grieving over Princess Diana, who had just died, and Father gently reminded the congregation that, like her, we could never be sure when our own time would come.
The next day, when the phone rang, I was stunned by the news: Father Joe had died Sunday evening. He had gone peacefully, we were told, while sitting in his favorite chair at the rectory, watching television.
I also will never forget his funeral. The parking lot was jammed, and there was standing room only in the church.
As I sat in the choir, I kept looking over at the chair behind the organ, expecting to catch Father Joe’s eye and say, “Look at all the people who showed up!”
But the chair was empty.
When we went up to pay our last respects, I reached out and gently patted the old priest’s chest. At that moment, I sensed what had made Father Joe so special to me, and I also recognized that it was no longer there.
My husband is still wearing Father Joe’s shoes. Recently, I took the shoes to a repair shop to get them re-soled, and the man did such a fine job with them that I suspect they will be going strong for years to come.
The other evening, a lovely lady named Trish Turner gave me a ride to Duluth to speak to the ladies’ club at St. Benedict’s.
When I walked into the narthex, the first thing I saw was a huge, framed photo of Father Joe.
He was quite a bit younger, but he had the same kind expression and smiling eyes that I remember.
How I miss Father Joe! He was a dear priest and a good friend. He was a father to me in the best sense of the word.
And all these years later, especially on Valentine’s Day, I wish I could tell him how well attended his funeral was, how long the shoes have lasted—and how much I loved him.
But I think he already knows.
Lorraine Murray is the author of two books: “Why Me? Why Now?” a Christ-centered guide for women with cancer, and “Grace Notes,” stories about her faith journey. She also writes a bi-weekly column for the Faith and Values section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University. E-mail: email@example.com.