Matt C. Abbott
April 10, 2010
Praising Father Poppa
By Matt C. Abbott

With all the bad clergy-related news as of late, the following reflection, recently provided to me by Clark Sowers of Belle Fourche, S.D., is a dose of the positive. Mr. Sowers' touching reflection (slightly edited), written in 2006, features Father Chester Poppa, OFM Cap., who serves in the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.


Father Poppa and St. David's Church

By Clark Sowers

I recently heard the news that St. David's Church in Broadus, Montana, may be closing its doors. This was precipitated by the decline in health of Father Chester Poppa, the local Capuchin priest for the past 31 years. Last week I heard that Father Chester was in Billings due to some heart and kidney problems that will require dialysis. Since dialysis clinics aren't numerable, especially in eastern Montana, this may effectively end his service in this tiny western sheep and cow town and close the doors of a parish to a faithful few.

My connection is the conception of my Faith, literally. My parents were married in St. David's Church almost 60 years ago. My mother and her sisters were raised in this territory by their parents, Jim and Lena Trucano. There was a time, I'm sure, when weddings were numerous and expected, as were the baptisms that followed. Other sacraments were bestowed as faith and tradition expected.

Previous to Father Chester was Father Pat, the priest who married my folks and very likely my aunts as well. He had been there 40 years before being reassigned in 1975. I served my first Mass under Father Pat when I was staying with my cousin Matt one summer. Matt was needed to serve a funeral and I followed him to the church, dusty-ragged and torn as a kid in the summer would be. The other altar boy didn't show so Father Pat put me in the black altar boy cassock with the white lace top and I served my first Mass.

As with the rest of my cousins, when we stayed with our grandparents in Boyes or Broadus, we would attend Mass either on Saturday night or Sunday mornings. Those rickety pews back then seem so stable now, 40-plus years later.

It is a comfort even now to return to St. David's and see the mural and recognize cousins and grandparents on the walls. I took great joy in bringing my parish priest to meet Father Chester and view the church and point out my relatives on the walls.

Our family connection continued with Father Chester when he visited my father who was at Deaconess Hospital in Billings in the spring of 1976. He was new in Broadus and making his rounds during his visit in Billings. My dad would die that spring but the connection my family had with Father Chester was set.

It would continue to grow as I had nieces that would be baptized in Alzada on the once-a-month trips Father Chester would make to the little church in the tiniest of communities in the southeastern corner of Montana. We had four nieces baptized there, two of which were godchildren.

Father Chester buried an uncle of mine, Neil McCurdy, in 1985. He would bury my grandfather in 1988 shortly after my son Michael was born. My grandmother would die in September 1999 and Father Chester would preside over her funeral as well. He told me several times how much he loved my grandparents. He renewed that vow last week when I saw him in Billings.

At my grandmother's funeral I had the privilege of being one of the grandchildren to eulogize her. Father Chester came up to me after the service and said, 'If I'd known what you had written I wouldn't have had to prepare a homily.' I took that as quite a compliment from a man we dearly respect.

Through the years Father Chester would always inquire about my mother, fully aware of the sufferings of her life. On a couple of occasions, my wife, Cathy, and I would take our family to Mass in Broadus and once even provided music through our daughters. Recently, with my oldest daughter now in Billings, it provided opportunities to stop and have lunch with Father Chester and go to confession, when necessary of course! But there was something about returning to the confessional with an old priest who loves his priesthood and with a sinner with a contrite but incomplete heart. To kneel behind the curtain knowing full well that Father Chester knew me felt good. Never was a priest so appropriately named: Father Poppa. Never was confession so mirrored to that of the Prodigal Son returning to his father as when one would receive penance from Father Chester. When we were finished he would bless us as we continued our trip.

Our bond with this dear priest was cemented in May 1995. In January 1995 we lost our six-year-old son, Michael, in an accident for which I was responsible. My grandmother had been placed in the local nursing home in 1994 and, due to her condition, hadn't been informed of our loss. Michael and Grandma Trucano had grown close when she would stay in Belle Fourche. He called her Grandma "Piano." Even though she had suffered a stroke and couldn't talk, she and Michael carried on without any restrictions.

So on this day in May we had the heavy hearts of knowing what we needed to do. When they brought her to the family room in the nursing home she began to count our children. She knew one was missing. I finally had to tell her what happened, and with heavy heart, she accepted the suffering. We managed to lift her spirits with the kid's music and had an enjoyable time. During this time Father Chester came to give Communion to those at the nursing home. We visited briefly. Later, although the weather was overcast and windy, Grandma wanted to go outside. We bundled her up and took her to the patio.

A short while later Father Chester came out to return back to the rectory. We talked a bit and he talked to Grandma. As he turned to leave we shook hands and Father Chester said, "You know you have an angel in heaven, don't you?" At that very moment we clasped hands and spoke, the sun broke through the clouds and shined directly on us. Cathy commented, "The sun!" And it was hot as we stood there. I acknowledged to Father Chester that "we did know Michael was in heaven." Father Chester turned and left and the sun went back behind the clouds. He remembered this last week when I saw him in Billings.

Maybe it was circumstance, but I don't believe it. I was in the presence of a holy man who was comforting the sorrowful.

Our next opportunity to share the Faith occurred on June 2005 at my daughter Jamie's wedding. She and Glen asked Father Chester to concelebrate at St. Paul's, our parish in Belle Fourche. And what a wedding it was! Glen's family of 18 brothers and sisters are Catholic and both sides of our families are Catholic as well. The church was full. The responses were united. The music was simple but beautiful. Sitting down with Father Chester afterwards, it was obvious he was filled with the Holy Spirit! He told me, "This was entirely Catholic!" It was obvious what he was part of was complete, because of his presence.

I look back now on the little church called St. David's. I recall how encouraged I was lately to see the Spanish-speaking families full of little children dressed up so beautifully. I think of the family we sat behind with four children and one on the way, and how I was filled with hope that again this little parish would bring the light of Christ to a little spot on the prairie.

In heart of sheep country I think of the little shepherd of a priest, faithfully caring for his flock. I think of our conversation last week and how he declared his love of being the priest of a small parish and how he hopes he can return. He wanted to retire here. I recall the scripture telling of the shepherd going in search of the one lost sheep. I reflect on Father Chester's love of community, that one lost sheep, and I am moved by his faithfulness.

One Saturday I stopped to see Father Chester and noticed in his office that the Daily Office of Readings was open to Morning Prayer. These are the prayers priests are required to pray every day. With no one around, he still prays the Office every day.

I think of the news reports about our Church and the rogue priests who damaged so many. Yet I wonder, New York Times, where are you now? Where is your story on a priest faithful to his vows, to his parish, to his community and to his order?

Father Tim taught me that "In death we must die too many things before we physically die." In his quizzing an older priest in our diocese about the difficulty of moving to a new parish, he was taught that it is difficult to leave the projects and plans you have for the parish, the people you come to love, those you marry and those you suffer with and send to heaven. "Yet priests," he was told, "share in the paschal mystery of Christ's resurrection" when they arrive at their new parish. When Christ said, "Look, I make all things new!" he wasn't kidding.

So I hold out hope for the parish that planted the seed of Faith in me that there will be a resurrection. I know too that Father Chester's priesthood will change, not end. His leaving may be a step on the path to Emmaus for him. There may be a death in his leaving the town and ministry he loves, but I know he will be resurrected.

When I left Father Chester in Billings, he thanked me for being "a good friend."

Good friend, I thank you Father, for your faithfulness in a world of unfaithfulness; for your kindness in a world full of cruelty; for your sincerity in a world full of doubt and mistrust; for your greatness borne out of humility in a world full of pride. I thank you for your living example of Jesus Christ.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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