I chose a chair in the back row. When Mildred and Elaine arrived and sat nearby, they told me, “We’re from the neighborhood.” That was significant, because most of the people gathered in Father Jim and Sister Maggie’s spartan living room were not from the neighborhood. The Central neighborhood defines “inner city”; just southeast of Cleveland’s Public Square, it’s adjacent to, but separate from the bustling area around Progressive Field, where the Indians play, and the Q, home of the Cavs. When Langston Hughes lived in Cleveland, he attended Central High School, as did John D. Rockefeller and John L. Severance, after whom Severance Hall is named, home of the Cleveland Orchestra. Today, most suburbanites skirt Central on their way to a game. The visitors here on East 35th Street tonight, however, are in the habit of stopping in and staying for awhile—weeding the community garden, helping to build a Habitat house, and attending the weekly Mass Father Jim O’Donnell has been celebrating in this living room for 40-some years.
He has been celebrating Mass and, with Sister Maggie Walsh-Conrad, befriending the neighbors, and, yes, raising children in a unique ministry, ever since Jean Vanier changed Father Jim’s life at a retrueat.
He looked him in the eye and said, “Don’t you see that God is calling you to spend the rest of your life with people who are poor?” Jean Vanier, at 89, still lives in community with people with disabilities in the original L’Arche community he founded at Trosly-Breuil in France. Father Jim, a mere 87, is raising two young teenagers, former foster children, along with Sister Maggie.
Tonight was the final Mass on East 35th Street. The little family has moved 130 blocks west to a safer neighborhood for the kids. Most of the attendees were long-time friends and supporters of the ministry. This was my first time, though I had intended to come to this evening Mass for many years. I felt like an interloper, although Father Jim, whom I interviewed a couple weeks ago, had invited me. But then, whom would he not invite?
There was a guitar, played by a man in a flannel shirt, and there was standing room only. The kids did the readings. Sister Maggie cried when she spoke first during the homily. “We are the church. We are the temple. We are all holy. We are all blessed,” she said.
She handed the mic to Father Jim, who began, “Behind every man, there’s a great woman,” and everyone laughed appreciatively. Acknowledging the bittersweet nature of the evening, he went on, “The spirit goes wherever we go. We strive to bring the presence of God to whatever we do. Your ministry of presence to us has been just as important as ours to you and others. You are the chosen stories. Know your own goodness, kindness, and love.”
The communion bread and wine were passed around from person to person. Father Jim requested a final song from Elaine, the woman sitting near me. Her face shining with tears, she moved to the front of the room and said, “This song might seem strange, but it has been on my heart all day.” She led us in singing “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” which somehow seemed exactly right. Then a neighborhood guy named Anthony wanted to sing a song, too. The percussive sounds he made were uncannily clear–the opening riff of the Temptations’ “My Girl”–and we joined in on that, too. Two verses.
Afterwards, there was food and lots of talk and hugs and tears in that house. I spoke to the few people I recognized and slipped out into the chilly fall night. I was glad I had finally made it.