In 1989 having concluded my second term as Provincial of the Australian and New Zealand Dominicans, I thought I was going to study for a semester at Boston College. However, I received a call from a Dominican friend, Fr. Bernie Maxwell, who introduced me to Fr. Ed Howley. He was in need of a priest after an emergency left him on his own in the large parish, and so I found myself going to St Thomas More’s Church in Darien, Connecticut, in USA.
This was one of those meetings that change a life – Fr. Ed became a close friend, in fact I called him my Godfather since he became a father figure for me. I am proud to acknowledge him in that role.
Ed had a simple but profound understanding of ministry. First in importance was his self-understanding. “I am a minister of God’s love, not God’s hate, everyone is welcome in this church.” That became obvious as I began to work in the parish, people from all age groups and every background found their way to St Thomas More’s.
He also said, “People listen to kids, they won’t always listen to priests!” So the replies of children became his homilies!
Fr Ed told me that people were only in church for an hour a week, so you had a limited time to make an effect. “They want good music and a good homily” he used to say. He was right, people wouldn’t come to Mass because they had to; they would only come because they wanted to be there. If only the church had listened to Ed we may have retained more people.
Since Ed befriended me, I was introduced to his friends and family, getting to know the sisters and staff and visiting a number of people in the parish. This meant that I was welcome too! We would also go for impromptu drives – I never knew when or where we would go, life was certainly an adventure.
I was accused of turning the rectory into a religious community because on weekends I would cook a meal and so on Sunday afternoons priests were welcome to come for dinner. This produced an excuse for great conversations on all sorts of topics, pastoral and moral issues, also church politics. My eyes were opened! Sadly, subsequent history has proved Ed’s observations were correct.
Ed and I flew to California where his brother and wife were camping. We got mistaken for FBI agents when we got lost in the country and innocently asked directions from suspicious farmers. But we had a wonderful week amongst the redwood forests.
When I had to leave after four months, I was able to introduce other Aussie Dominicans studying in USA and so a succession of priests with weird accents filled in at St Thomas More’s. When he heard of my other proposed activity, making an internship with the Thomas More Center preaching team, Fr Ed booked them to give a renewal, thus beginning another friendship that has now spread to neighboring parishes and even other east coast states. I was only intending to go there for four months too!
Fr Ed became Monsignor Howley, a title he certainly deserved but hardly respected – he was most happy being a simple priest and pastor. There is an excellent testimonial to him on the parish website: www.STMDARIENCT.org. This fills in the dash between 1922 and 2012, the years of his life. There is also a family tree which gives his pedigree, the people who would have been proud of such a distinguished family member.
I know I benefitted from Ed’s friendship; I know I am a different priest because of his influence. I think many people know themselves to be loved by God because of Ed’s preaching and kindness. I know God has welcomed him home and said. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”