By Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter April 2000

True story: Many years ago my mother went to confession to a priest I’ll call Father Brimstone. It had been a particularly stressful week, and Mom confessed that she’d yelled at my sister and me.

Father Brimstone let out a loud gasp and asked, “Would the Blessed Mother do that?”

Mom has no response for that, was a little hurt, and went to other priests for confession after Incident.

Years later, when I was about 11, I confessed to Father Brimstone I’d taken the name of the Lord in vain (this was a big sin at that age; these days it’s typical behavior while doing house repairs). Anyway, like his reaction to Mom, Father Brimstone drew a sharp breath, shocked at my behavior.

I decided that considering I’d soon be hitting teen-age years and the decade of impure thoughts and more serious sins, I’d best seek out a different priest for confessions as well.

Father Brimstone was a good man, a dedicated priest, and sincerely did his best, but he often lacked the ability to relate to his congregation. His sermons were at times incomprehensible, and I’m sad to admit that many people stopped going to his masses. For a time, I was one of those people.

Here at Saint Mary’s Foxboro we’ve been very lucky to have two excellent, caring, and outgoing priests for some time, Father Tom Reilly and Father Steve Madden.

They are two of the best there are in the priesthood. They’re always accessible, always willing to lend an ear, give some advice, or help where needed. Unlike Father Brimstone, they know their congregation is made up of imperfect humans. Unlike Father Brimstone, they are in touch with the community. They are friends.

Their love for this town is obvious; their enthusiasm for the Patriots is a plus. Their playful kidding of each other at mass is also charming. For example, at the sign of peace, Father Steve often ventures far down the church to shake hands with everyone. Father Tom later commented, “I told him he had to stop at Friendlies.”

Two weeks ago, Father Steve announced that after seven years here, he is leaving Saint Mary’s. It is not his choice; the archdiocese has reassigned him. It is the way of the church, a priest goes where he is told. A Catholic priest takes oaths of celibacy, poverty and obedience; obedience can often be the most difficult — frequently he must leave friends, and a community he has helped shape and nurture.

Father Steve was crying as he broke the news — it’s hard for him to accept, and it will be harder for this town.

I greatly respect and admire Father Steve because it was he who brought me back to church. After I moved to Foxboro, I fell out of the habit of going to church for a year or two, and it was at a Christmas mass in 1994 — Father Steve’s mass — I realized how important church was to me, and I liked what he was saying.

Father Steve has always spoken his mind and tried to relate the day’s Gospel to contemporary issues and times. That has distressed some people; some parishioners have been extremely vocal in words and letters to Father Steve that his words upset or offended them.

But the best teachers are the ones who challenge you to think about things differently, or tell you truths you might not want to hear. Although Father Steve’s words riled some and were controversial to others, he had a much larger number of supporters here in town who got his message and understood him. He touched countless lives and made a difference. He made a lot of friends.

His messages were always on-target: God loves you. Family is everything. That you want to be a better person is the most important thing. Be forgiving. Get involved. Take care of your parents. Cherish the moment. Don’t be afraid to think about things a little differently, to question. It’s okay to doubt yourself and not have all the answers. Just keep trying to do better. God loves you no matter what.

There have been dozens of times that he’s finished his sermon with his signature, “God Bless you all,” and I’d just nod and think to myself, “Message received.”

He never judged; he never condemned. He never gasped or made faces during confessions. He smiled a lot, and always provided an ear to listen to the troubles. He was always there when needed. He always helped.

One Christmas a few years back, long after the food pantry baskets had been distributed, a person showed up at the rectory door, looking for food. Father Steve not only collected as many canned goods as he could find in the rectory pantry, he gave away the priest’s own frozen Christmas turkey.

“Don’t tell Father Casey that,” he later quipped about the former pastor.

Father Steve was born to the priesthood. He has gone far beyond the parameters of his job description, venturing out into town and becoming involved with countless good causes and organizations, such as the farm stand, discretionary fund, and many others. He is a friend to all the youth of the town. He takes them to dinner. He’s there at the games. He’s a friend first, father/authority figure second.

When you go to communion, he says your name. He knows everyone.

And now he’s leaving.

It is a truism that life is change and everything changes from moment to moment. Children grow up, kids graduate school, friends come and go, jobs change, loyalties shift, people die, and things happen. Nothing stays the same. In some ways, it’s what makes each moment precious.

But only rarely are we forced to stop and reflect on it. The reflection oftentimes comes when we lose a friend.

Losing a priest — a friend — as special as Father Steve is very difficult. We can say all the cliché things: “We wish you well in your new assignment, the new town lucky is to have you, we’ll miss you, thank you for everything … ” But it doesn’t seem like enough.

If Father Steve made a difference for you, I encourage you to tell him so before he leaves. Let him know how much this town appreciated his acts of kindness. Tell him what a friend he’s been to all of us.

As for me, I’d just like to say this. Father Steve, you made a difference here. An incredible difference. Don’t worry when some say to you they are upset with your words — it means you got through to them and challenged them to think in a new way. You have been a good friend to Foxboro and we are better for having known you. We’re going to miss you very much.

Good bye, Father Steve. God bless you!

UPDATE! Father Madden is returning to Saint Marys Foxboro in the spring of 2008 — as pastor!

From the Foxboro Reporter, 1/31/08: [“I’m obviously very excited about coming back,” said Madden, 51, who currently serves as pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Watertown and will succeed Rev. Thomas Reilly as pastor locally. Reilly, who served at St. Mary’s for a decade, was reassigned last month to Our Lady of Assumption Church in the Green Harbor section of Marshfield. Rev. Jason Makos, associate pastor at St. Mary’s, made the announcement last Sunday morning. “He told me that before he even got the words out of his mouth that people were on their feet clapping,” said Madden, adding that he already has received several cards and phone calls from old friends and well-wishers.]

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