I rifled through the “memories” folder in my file cabinet earlier this week, looking for two simple pieces of paper. In amongst the flotsam and jetsam (ticket stubs, travel brochures, report cards, greeting cards….watch for me soon on one of those hoarder shows), I found them: the two sheets of yellowed paper upon which were written a simple, yet powerful letter. I slipped them into a protective plastic sleeve, snapped the page into a binder filled with music, then drove with a heavy heart to both sing at, and report upon, the funeral of the letter’s author.
Monsignor Donald Endebrock died Oct. 8 at the age of 90. I had met him in 1971 as he served at his second pastorate, my childhood spiritual home; I had been the beneficiary of his knowledge, compassion, and devilish sense of humor since I was only 10 years old. He was the first priest I got to know as a person behind the Roman collar; over the many decades of our friendship I watched him express his love to his flock through his homilies, his deeds, and his care of the sick. He was especially kind and patient with children, even one cynical teenage girl in his congregation we’ll dub, just to pick a name at random, Chris. (Okay, maybe it’s not so random a choice.)
When I was a teenager, I was regarded by adults as “deep”, for I worried about issues which did not often enter the minds of my peers. (Obviously, I peaked early and am now on a rapidly accelerating downhill slide.) At the age of 14, I was preoccupied with death, refused to attend any more funerals, and decided that having an elaborate funeral of my own was out of the question. I wrote to Monsignor, stating my views and asking for the Church’s position on simple ceremonies, but never really expected an answer from the busy pastor. A few days later, I received his handwritten reply, dated Nov. 29, 1975: doctrinally correct yet respectful of my views, Monsignor explained the Church teachings on a level I could understand and I grew to see the value of the liturgy for the survivors.
Even at that early, cynical age, I recognized what a special gift the letter from him was and carefully filed it away. Over the ensuing years, I grew to recognize the power of the written word and became a professional writer; reviewing its words, I began to sing at funeral liturgies, always keeping the families who mourned in my prayers. Above all, I recalled its deeper message: a child’s faith should be protected, valued and nurtured, and I strove to remember that in raising my son.
One simple letter from an earthly shepherd had changed my life profoundly, and I thought it appropriate to bring it to the funeral Mass of its author. As I looked at my friend and mentor’s simple wooden casket resting center aisle amidst a church packed with mourners, I reread the letter. I sang with the choir at the funeral through my falling tears and thanked God for the gift that was Monsignor Donald Endebrock.
After Mass, my binder tucked under my arm, I turned to look at Monsignor’s casket once more and saw the youngest priest in our diocese standing beside it. Father Edmund rested his hand on the polished wood of the casket as he said a prayerful goodbye. When he turned to leave, I stopped him and asked, “Did you know Monsignor Endebrock?” He admitted he had not, but had learned of Monsignor’s dedication and humility from the stories of others. I looked at him: a man of God, young enough to be my biological son, and felt a spiritual hand on my shoulder guiding my next words.
I opened the binder to show Father Edmund the yellowed letter, written a dozen years before he had been born, but which contained a timeless message I knew had to be shared with this next generation.
“I have another story for you, Father,” I told him. “Let me teach you about the power of a letter….”