Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Eulogy for the Rev. Francis W. Carr

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 27, 2008

Eulogy for the Rev. Francis W. Carr (1925-2008)

Frank Carr is one of the major reasons why I am a priest today. Throughout my journey to ordination his friendship, encouragement, love and prayers were a huge support for me. But the greatest gift he gave me is a simple definition of what it means to be a Christian. He used to say, to be a Christian means living a life of love, forgiveness and service. Love, forgiveness and service – simple, beautiful and quite a challenge for all of us.

So, where to begin? Well, I can say at least one thing for sure – Fr. Carr is loving this service! He is thrilled to have his beloved St. Paul’s filled with his family and friends and members of the congregation. I am sure he’s been singing along with us in heaven, with that big, booming voice of his. Yes, Fr. Carr is loving this service just as he loved so many services in his long life and his long priesthood.

Actually, he had been to a couple of really good services in recent months. He happily told me how beautiful Easter was at St. Paul’s this year – one of the best he could remember, he said. He loved that the children were able to play such a big part in the service. And many times he told me how much he enjoyed John Negrotto’s preaching. And back in December I was so happy that he was able to come out to Grace Church in Madison to be at my ordination to the priesthood and to serve as one of my presenters. After the ordination he pulled me close said, “It was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end.”

And, you know, that’s how I feel about his remarkable life. “It was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end.”

I wish I had known Frank Carr in his prime. The man I knew was already shrouded in blindness and burdened with a great deal of physical pain. And, of course, there was a deep loneliness and sorrow after the death of his beloved wife, Lee. Yet, as I heard the stories over many wonderful afternoons across the street in his apartment – usually with a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream and a delicious lunch prepared by Jane – as I heard the stories I came to realize that this man had lived a magnificent life of adventure, a life of boldness, a life in service to Jesus Christ.

Despite the Great Depression, his childhood in Boston seemed to have been normal and happy. But then, like so many of his generation, he was caught up in World War II and ended up serving in the Pacific. It’s interesting to me, although he told me many stories and some were repeated often, he never went into any detail about his wartime experiences. Once or twice he said, “Someday I’ll tell you about the war.” But, he never did. So, I can only imagine the horrors that he witnessed – humanity at its worst.

And yet somehow out of that crucible of war came a deep sense of call to the priesthood. And, as might be expected, this New Englander stayed close to home, attending Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven. But then Frank’s story takes an unexpected turn. Bishop Daniels of Montana visited the seminary and asked the priests-in-training, “Will you go on an adventure for Christ? Will you come to Montana?” And only one said yes - Frank Carr. Each time I heard that story it amazed me. Montana was a long way from all of his family and friends. And to hear Fr. Carr tell it, Montana in the 1950s was still a lot like the Wild West. There were lots of guns around and there were saloons where the young priest was told he should not enter. There wasn’t another Episcopal priest for many miles. And yet this unlikely and wild place is where he chose to begin ordained ministry.

From Montana it was on to Washington State and then to St. Alban’s in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. (When I think of Frank’s ministry, I always picture him on a journey circling the country.) Movie stars went to St. Alban’s, and Fr. Carr spoke warmly of people such as Fred Astaire and Spencer Tracey. In one of my favorite stories, one time Fr. Carr was greeting people after a service and as a woman approached him, he said “Your face is so familiar, have we met before?” And the woman looked at him kindly and said, “I don’t believe so. My name is Olivia DeHavilland.” Forty plus years later he was still embarrassed not to have recognized one of the famous faces of the day.

It was in L.A. where Frank met the love of his life, Florence Lee Anderson. In his telling, at least, they seemed to have hit it off instantly and she soon signed on for the life of a priest’s wife – a life sharing and supporting his ministry - and a life living in places not of her choosing…

Such as Texas – which was the next stop. Fr. Carr was busy in Texas, building three churches, including St. Mark’s in Arlington which he started in a living room and is today one of the largest churches in the Diocese of Ft. Worth. However, living in Texas in the 1960s meant taking sides in the great issue of the day – the civil rights movement. To his eternal credit, this Yankee from Boston stood up for equality, marching and speaking out for desegregation and decency. But, that courageous choice came at the cost of late-night threatening phone calls that remained forever vivid in his memory.

Those threats against him and his young family finally led to one last, unlikely stop – right here at St. Paul’s in Jersey City, 1969.

He often said that his ministry here in the city was the most satisfying of all. And what a time to be in the city! What a time of dramatic change and conflict – a time when the old Jersey City was dying and something new and different was about to be born. And Frank and Lee – and their children Leslie and Bruce – were in the thick of it.

He was proudest of his long service to Christ Hospital and starting the summer program for neighborhood children – a program that over the years provided a safe, fun and nurturing place for hundreds of kids during those steaming and dangerous summers of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

He was also very proud of the good relations he had with clergy from other denominations. For many years whenever a new priest or minister arrived in Jersey City they received an invitation to dinner with Frank and Lee next door at the rectory. I’m told that Lee was a phenomenal cook – so I’m sure this hospitality and delicious food went along way to create warm friendship among the clergy.

It was a time of great change in Jersey City and it was also a time of great change in the Episcopal Church. Frank admitted to me that he had opposed women’s ordination, but after meeting so many superb women priests he had come to realize that he had been wrong. He and I disagreed about the current controversies in the church, but he always listened to me and grudgingly admitted when he thought I had made a good point.

There is a story that Fr. Carr told often – it was important to him and I believe it sheds so much light on Frank’s faith and character. He and a certain bishop were having a disagreement about something and, as Frank remembered it, in the heat of the argument the bishop said, “Frank, you’re worthless!” And Frank responded “No, you’re wrong. I’m not worthless. I’m made in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. I’m not worthless.”

It’s an important story because Fr. Carr recognized his own worth and in my experience he recognized the worth of all people as children of God redeemed by Jesus Christ. And I think the richness of his ministry was a result of treating people with the understanding that they have great worth.

Now, of course, he wasn’t perfect – he could get angry and frustrated – and when he yelled with that big voice you wanted to get away as fast as possible! But, on the whole, he treated all people as beloved children of God. And throughout his long journey around the country from Boston to Montana to Washington to Los Angeles to Texas and to Jersey City, over and over his life of love, forgiveness and service touched people’s lives. And in return people continued to keep in touch with him for many, many years. Sometimes when he felt down, I would remind him of this vast network of people all across the country who cared deeply about him.

A couple of Decembers ago I had a wonderful encounter with this vast network of love. I was visiting him over in the apartment and he asked if I would go downstairs and get his mail for him. When I got his mailbox open, there was so much mail wedged in there, I had trouble getting it out. This was one day’s worth of mail. I saw that along with the usual bills and junk there were about two dozen Christmas cards. When I got back upstairs, he asked if I would read the cards to him. As I read card after card, it was an incredibly moving experience to realize how much he was loved by so many. And today it makes me aware of how many people all across the country will be mourning this great man, this faithful priest, this good friend.

Frank Carr lived his magnificent, adventurous life as a faithful Christian. He lived a life of love, forgiveness and service. He recognized his own worth and he recognized the worth of others. You and I can remember Fr. Carr and honor him best by treating one another as beloved children of God and living lives of love, forgiveness and service.