The Lighter Side of the Vincentians
Being a Vincentian Priest is an amazing gift. Every day is a new day of grace-filled moments. But there are always unexpected—sometimes out-of-the-box—experiences to be had. Such is the story of five Vincentians—Frs. James Dorr, Albert Pehrsson, Michael Shea, John Timlin, and Charles Strollo—whose “unique” religious ministries show their chameleon abilities to step in no matter what the task requires.
On Sundays, his day begins with a short ride to Queens, New York. He arrives at the Belmont Racetrack, presents his ID, enters the gate, and then heads to the recreation center. After assembling what he needs, he welcomes the thirty or more attendees who enter the room. But unlike those gathered, he is a Vincentian priest, who celebrates weekly Mass for the workers, owners, and jockeys of the track.
Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Fr. James Dorr, CM, was ordained a Vincentian priest in 1958, and after a lengthy tenure in myriad Vincentian ministries, he retired from active priesthood ministries in 2010. His desire to remain vibrant led Fr. Dorr to his unique mission.
It all began in 1978 with Fr. Kenneth Slattery, CM. Fr. Slattery loved horses and the thrill of horseracing. Being a friend of personnel at the Belmont Racetrack, it didn’t take him long to connect with the track personnel. Before he knew it, Fr. Slattery was celebrating Mass at the track on Sundays and holy days. He continued serving for almost two decades until his health began to suffer. Upon his retirement, Fr. Dorr stepped in. It was a ministry that had grown a devoted following from the track staff.
Ten years later, Fr. Dorr continues to serve as “chaplain” for the Belmont Racetrack. He laughs when he explains the circumstances surrounding the ministry.
“The chapel was once a betting parlor,” states Fr. Dorr. “It’s a small space and can only hold thirty people. Most days we are filled to capacity.”
After Mass, Fr. Dorr has breakfast with the track personnel and has become a familiar part of this horse-training community.
“It has become a consuming responsibility,” states Fr. Dorr, “but, I realize the importance of celebrating Mass. Most workers start at 5:00 a.m. and labor the entire day into night. They can’t get to Mass, so we bring it to them.”
While Fr. Dorr confesses he is not a betting man, he does admire the track community and the beauty of the sport of horseracing.
“I like horses,” admits Fr. Dorr and jokingly adds, “but racing is too expensive for me. I’ll stick with the spiritual aspects of the track.”
Bread plays essential roles in both religious rituals and secular culture. It is a part of our celebrations, and, for Christians, a symbol of devotion. But for one Vincentian priest, bread is about friendship and the act of giving. It’s the story of a life lesson—one that still resonates with him today.
It all began on Christmas Eve when Fr. Michael Shea, CM, was six years old. “Mike” was a typical child, eyeing his presents in anticipation of the wonders of receiving gifts the next morning. Noticing his young son’s innocent expectations, his father said, “Remember, Mike, it’s always better to give than to receive.”
Fr. Shea admits that as a child, he didn’t fully understand his father’s message that night. And while he has given his time and energy to others through his Vincentian ministries, he has also created a ministry around giving that involves a simple loaf of bread.
It started during a fortuitous visit to see a fellow Vincentian Priest at St. Mary’s Parish in North Carolina. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by the enticing aroma of freshly baked bread emanating from the parish kitchen. He asked the confrere about the source of this olfactory-captivating smell. The priest rather nonchalantly replied, “It’s homemade bread baking. It’s so easy to make; anyone can do it.” Intrigued, Fr. Shea thought, “Me, a bread maker? Why not?”
Using a simple starter of butter, salt, milk, yeast, sugar, and flour, Fr. Shea experimented and eventually perfected his bread-making process. Once his baking technique was perfected, he began to share his loaves with others. The popularity of his bread rose during his years as a campus minister at Niagara University, where he brought the loaves to his weekly dinner with students. The students loved the simple staple, and soon word spread around campus about the “heavenly” baked good.
On one occasion, a student asked him the secret to his doughy delights. Fr. Shea replied, “It’s simple. Take the ingredients, put them in a breadmaking machine, add water, press the button, and three hours later you have bread.”
While he might see his bread making as a low maintenance process, it is his act of sharing with purpose that most resonates with others.
“Anybody can make bread,” Fr. Shea once told a student and added, “What’s the big deal?” The student replied, “The big deal is you make it and give it to others.”
But there is an added ingredient Fr. Shea bestows on his loaves that most breads don’t have, and what he claims makes giving his loaves a true sense of sharing with others in the Vincentian way.
“My final ingredient is the Vincentian blessing,” admits Fr. Shea. And sharing the bread truly makes him understand the significance of his father’s words, “It’s better to give than receive.”
THE PEANUT MAN
As a young boy, Fr. Alfred Pehrsson, CM, would gather with his father and siblings on Sunday afternoons for the family ritual of reading the New York Daily News comic strips. Fr. Pehrsson was fascinated with strips like Dick Tracy and would trace and imitate the drawings, while adding his own unique twist to the characters. His father, a portraitist, encouraged his young son to develop his interest and talent.
Such was the beginning of what would become a lifetime hobby that Fr. Pehrsson incorporated into his Vincentian ministries.
As a young priest, Fr. Pehrsson was stationed at the Vincentian grammar and high school in Panama, Colegio San Vincente, located in the interior town of David, Province of Chiriqui. Even though he spoke broken Spanish and his students didn’t understand English, Fr. Pehrsson was assigned to the grammar school, a daunting task even without a language barrier.
Communicating with his Spanishspeaking students proved problematic at first, but Fr. Pehrsson took a new twist to his instruction: drawing peanut-shaped characters on the blackboard, which served as instruction aids. His students were receptive to this teaching method and fondly referred to him as “Padre Maní” or “Peanut Priest.”
The enduring success of Fr. Pehrsson’s one-panel creations lies in his ability to portray simple observations that connect to his audiences. His cerebral humor is observational, nostalgic, and focused on common situations in everyday life. He admits that some of his characters are based on real people and stereotypical personality traits: Grandpa is Archie Bunker and Grandma is Edith Bunker; the little girl is often a tattletale; and the little boy is suspiciously innocent.
“I tend to create the setting and plot, and then let the characters create the dialogue, telling their story through their facial expressions,” says Fr. Pehrsson. “Sometimes I get an idea and draw the characters but question, ‘What are they saying to one another?’ Some of my cartoons stay on my desk for hours before I can hear the chatter.”
Since his arrival at the Eastern Provincial motherhouse in Germantown in 2004, Fr. Pehrsson has made it a practice to draw as many as six cartoons a week (they regularly appear in the provincial newsletter, the Notebook). Five years ago, his artwork went beyond the Germantown community when his friend, Joe Pritchard, a former Vincentian seminarian, convinced him to share his comics with a New York publisher, Bob Walsh of PBJ (Precious Blood of Jesus) Enterprises, Inc. Fr. Pehrsson soon began sending Walsh his drawings and within four years, he has submitted more than 4,000 cartoons. Today, the comic books are available worldwide through Amazon Books.
“Fr. Al’s drawings are yet another way for him to effectively reach out and serve our brothers and sisters in Christ,” says Walsh. “His books are unique pulpits—the other side of which are congregations around the world who can see his drawings and reflect upon their special messages.”
At ninety years old, Fr. Pehrsson continues to faithfully draw cartoons; he vows to keep going until he no longer can.
“Bringing the little boys and girls into existence helps me cope with the crazy world around us,” reflects Fr. Pehrsson. “Why would I want to stop?”
PUT ME IN COACH
For baseball fans, the crack of a bat hitting a ball, the roar of the crowd cheering the home team, the smell of concession stand foods, and the sound of an organ playing century-old favorites create a sports heaven. Just ask two avid baseball fans who also happen to be Vincentians—Frs. John Timlin, CM, and Charles Strollo, CM. Their love of the game coupled with their priestly responsibilities took their baseball experience to a whole new level.
Whether working as ticket sales reps, ushers, grounds and dugout crew, concession stand operators, or clubhouse staff, the Philadelphia Phillies staff members work full days during baseball season. Sensitive to their employees’ needs, the director of Fan Relations wanted to provide an opportunity for them, many of who were Catholic, to fulfill their weekly Mass obligation. An Archdiocesan priest was recruited to fill this void, but during the 2000 and 2001 baseball seasons, a substitute was required while the priest recuperated from an illness. Enter Frs. Timlin and Strollo.
Fr. Timlin, then-director of the internal seminary, and Fr. Strollo, then-assistant provincial, couldn’t have been happier to answer the call.
“[Securing priests to offer Mass] speaks to the Phillies’ respect and care for their employees,” notes Fr. Timlin. “And for two diehard Phillies fans like Charlie and myself, it was great!”
The priests offered Mass on Saturdays, which was held in one of the stadium’s greeting rooms at 4:30 p.m. during evening home games. On average, twenty-five to thirty people attended.
Admittedly, they confess that the perks were a great incentive. Not only did they get to be a temporary part of their beloved hometown baseball team staff, but they were also given four free tickets in premium seating directly behind home plate for the evening’s game. On one occasion, they had the opportunity to meet then-Phillies team manager, Terry Francona, who Fr. Strollo remembers as very gracious and welcoming.
“I applaud the concern the franchise has for its employees, especially coming from the managers and owners,” says Fr. Timlin. “We knew they had a reputation for being good to employees and consider this a nice touch to provide [their staff with the chance] to maintain their faith while working.”
Fr. Strollo also commends those who attended Mass. “These people of faith, wherever they were from, took the time to make sure they didn’t miss Mass. It’s admirable.”
For Frs. Timlin and Strollo, being part of the organization was priceless.
“I don’t care if the Phillies are doing well or not, baseball is baseball,” says Fr. Timlin. “For two guys who really enjoy baseball, it was a dream come true.”