On a recent return to ChocolateTown USA to surprise my special needs sister on her birthday, she and I went out to our parents’ cemetery for a visit. I was surprised to find the baby area had been decorated with festive pinwheels we see for sale here alongside balloons. Pinwheels, in force, are particularly pretty in the breeze. What was normally a functional, aesthetically dull, easy to mow cemetery now had a bit a whimsy and charm reminiscent of the colorful cities of the dead here in Mexico.
Directly across from my parents’ grave is my best childhood pal’s, Bernie’s, final resting spot that I’ve been visiting for four decades now.
On the same day as my visit the Diocese of Harrisburg (Diocese is the administrative and managing body of Catholic churches in a certain geographic area.) released a list of pedophile priests dating back to the 1940s. The names were to be released by the courts the following week in an impending trial.
When born, I was named for the parish priest at the Holy Name of Jesus. Yes, the Holy Name of Jesus, like the Parthenon or the Vatican. By the time I entered school my namesake was promoted and Fr. Mahoney ruled the school with an iron fist. My father told me Fr. Mahoney was such an excellent fund raiser (earning him the moniker Fr. My Money) he worked out a deal with the Diocese to not be transferred. So, whereas, priests normally moved around parishes every year or two, Fr. Mahoney was a constant at the Holy Name of Jesus long after I had my own kids decades later.
When the priest sex scandal broke in the 1990s I thought I was quite lucky to have had Fr. Mahoney at the helm when little as I suffered no sexual abuse from he or the secondary priests. Not that they were perfect. For example, I was amazed, even as a child, that a priest could, each week, take a bus load of boys to a state park to play, drink like a fish (priests only) and drive back into ChocolateTown. But having been given all the burgers I could eat I kept my mouth momentarily shut and my thoughts to myself.
Plus the only phrase in my childhood that carried more weight than “Sister said…” was “Fr. Mahoney said….” Riding around in the car with my brother last week as the news was announced we both agreed Fr. Mahoney could have had anything he wanted with us and our parents would squarely be on his side.
Sidebar: My brother remembers his scout leaders being gay men that preyed on boys from broken homes to go on special “them only” camping trips. My brother was peeved to not go camping with just the leaders even after he realized the true nature of the trips. My brother is not the brightest bulb. By the time I was in scouts the leaders were no longer single, middle aged men but my pals’ mothers. I had nothing to fear from Mrs. Cartwright.
Well, my brother and I were surprised to hear on the radio that on the list was Fr. Mahoney and several other priests that served at the Holy Name of Jesus. Just then a childhood pal that is my brother’s friend now called him in tears over the news. She was convinced Bernie, my pal, killed himself at 14 after having been molested by Fr. Mahoney.
Wow, that was a connect-the-dots image I didn’t put together near as quickly. On the surface it made a certain sense. Bernie reached his six foot height, and puberty, by fourth grade. Bernie was physically mature long before his contemporaries and maybe that was appealing.
Plus, despite being a suicide, Bernie received a Catholic funeral and burial in a Catholic cemetery, strict no-no’s. At the time Fr. Mahoney’s logic was he didn’t leave a note so perhaps it wasn’t a suicide, per se. Or, perhaps, Fr. Mahoney’s logic was he didn’t want any more attention brought to the situation.
The first thought that comes when disturbing a secret grave is that once opened milky sensations float to the surface like specters from some Halloween greeting card. I realized the theory had legs (albeit skeletal ones).
Before going to the US, Bernie’s sister contacted me via FaceBook to have a cook out and meet her family. I was quite surprised as over the years I had visited her parents prior to their demises which, when I became a parent, realized was very classy of them. However, I had not seen Bernie’s sister since his funeral and I didn’t go to his Mom’s funeral as it was the same day as my father’s.
The month following the cook out invite by Bernie’s sister went by and I heard nothing more. Thinking she changed her mind about meeting me 40 years after the funeral I understood her brother’s death was the only thing we now had in common.
Imagine my surprise when she called to meet that afternoon.
As I waited outside the restaurant I thought how I would no longer be able to visually place Bernie. I had only one photo and it was the content of the photo I recalled more than he, himself. Just then a woman approached I realize was Bernie but now Bernie was middle aged and female.
As we chatted and got more comfortable I realized her mannerisms, hand gestures and voice were just like her brother’s. It was spooky.
I broached the theory of molestation by Fr. Mahoney and she brushed it off genuinely liking Fr. Mahoney and thinking it wrong to release the information when he was now defenseless (being dead and all). I refrained from commenting on the obvious that the children molested were defenseless also and asked no more questions. To what end? It can only make a bad situation even worse for her.
Part of being on the list of pedophile priests is they get stripped of any building or space named for them. The childhood pal that called and started Bernie’s death ball rolling in my mind dedicated years to raising money for a Fr. Mahoney grade school. Those plans have hit a brick wall.
After meeting with Bernie’s sister I went back to the cemetery to place one of my mother’s hand made rosaries on her tomb and a colorful pinwheel on Bernie’s. I don’t know what happened all those years ago but I do know I don’t believe in coincidences. To have so many coincidences so close together while I happened to be in Hershey, Pa leads to a certain conclusion.
It may also explain why I’ve nightmares on the eve of his death’s anniversary if I haven’t consciously thought about the approaching anniversary occurring the next day. I’ll simply wake up that morning in sweat thinking that dream about Bernie was really scary, then, realize the date. As a Mexican pal pointed out to me, those dreams are because a bad death carries lingering vibrations.
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkin