By: Peter Finney Jr. | Clarion Herald
Talk about an awesome deal. I was a freshman in high school, and in the Stone Age before voice mail and answering machines, the priests at St. Leo the Great Parish needed someone to answer the rectory phone from 6 to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Don’t tell Cesar Chavez, but the pay was $1 an hour – $15 a week – plus all the fried chicken, meatloaf and gumbo that Annie Rockett, the legendary rectory cook, had made from scratch earlier that day, a movable feast for a teenager with a bottomless pit.
Annie might have been one of the great unknown chefs of New Orleans. She could have opened her own restaurant because her food was that enticing. She taught me to add half-and-half to scrambled eggs for extra creaminess. Mostly, Annie just said, “I’ve got your plate ready. Sit down and eat.”
All this, and I got to do my homework in peace and quiet. Over time, the $10s and $5s became quite a stash, especially with gas selling for 36 cents a gallon.
In the early ’70s, most parishes had two or three priests. The St. Leo pastor was Father Clinton Doskey, and his two associates were Father Lee Saloy and Father Crosby Kern. They are all gone now, dying within 20 months of each other, the last being Msgr. Kern, the rector of St. Louis Cathedral and the moderator of the Clarion Herald, who died Nov. 30 at age 73 at the Old Ursuline Convent just five weeks after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of large-cell cancer.
If truth be told, Msgr. Kern was the person who had the greatest impact on my professional life, and, really, my vocation. I was living the pampered life of a sportswriter in New York, covering the New York Knicks and spending 95 nights a year on the road. I remember calling home from Los Angeles one evening in February. I was eating a room-service prime rib – medium rare with au jus and horseradish sauce – while my wife Carolyn was on Long Island tending to our four children, who were then 7, 6, 3 and 2.
“So how did your day go, honey?” I mumbled in between bites and over the transcontinental background noise of screeches and screams.
“It snowed 3 inches today, and I just got finished shoveling the sidewalk,” she replied.
Something had to change.
When we found out in 1992 that the Clarion Herald was looking to hire a full-time executive editor, my wife gave me “the look.” Even for someone with husband hearing – which is the rare ability to hear and process only selective words – I got the message.
I guess you could say the fix was in because although I knew a lot about writing, I knew absolutely nothing about Catholic journalism. Msgr. Kern was the moderator of the Clarion Herald and headed up the search committee for the new editor. Another committee member – Jerry Costello, the editor of Catholic New York – asked me a very good question: “Could you tell me who the Vatican Secretary of State is?”
Suddenly, I felt like Ralph Kramden, tongue-tied and quick-twitching, where the only words that could escape from his mouth were “humunah, humunah, humunah.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “But I could learn!”
Apparently, that answer was good enough, and I got the job.
Msgr. Kern convinced Archbishop Francis Schulte and his successors of the importance of using the Clarion Herald as a teaching and evangelizing tool, and he passionately persuaded everyone who would listen that financing a ministry of the church comes down to the conviction on the part of the bishop to use that tool to its greatest effect. A priest who never had trouble stating his opinion also could tell a bishop to put his money where his mouth was.
Msgr. Kern brought that kind of passion to every aspect of his priesthood. In his 24 years as pastor of St. Angela Merici Parish in Metairie and nine years as rector of St. Louis Cathedral, he attacked every challenge, sometimes with the subtly of a sledgehammer, but always with the vision of what was best for the church.
One of his best friends, Deacon Gil Schmidt, understood that the Sicilian in Msgr. Kern created an explosiveness that had to be weathered. Thirty minutes later, it was as though nothing had ever happened. Instant amnesia.
“I got to spend time with him last week giving him Communion, and I told him I had his teeth marks all over my body,” Deacon Schmidt said, laughing.
“And you deserved every one,” Msgr. Kern replied.
But Deacon Schmidt remembered something else about Msgr. Kern, something not many knew – how he had consoled him and his wife Anna following the loss of their son Wayne. “He bent over backwards and the true Crosby came out,” Deacon Schmidt said.
He did the same thing when NOPD Commander Ed Hosli, whom he had come to know on his French Quarter duty, lost his son Jacob in his sleep. Msgr. Kern erected an altar of repose for the Blessed Sacrament above the work sacristy of the cathedral, with a plaque memorializing Jacob.
During the final five weeks of his life in hospice care, Msgr. Kern had the rare privilege to renew old acquaintances, heal old wounds and say goodbye.
“It’s sobering,” he said the last time I saw him three weeks ago. “But I am trying to align my suffering with Christ’s passion. I’m ready.”
I told him I was eternally grateful that he had taken a chance on a sportswriter who couldn’t tell an aspergillum from spearmint gum. But, God works in mysterious ways. Our oldest son Peter, who was screaming on the phone that day while I was eating a room-service prime rib in L.A., went on to become a priest.
“You got a priest out of the deal,” I reminded him.
“I know, I know,” he said.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at [email protected]