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Wednesday, November 25, 2009


J. Grant Swank, Jr.

I was a sophomore in a church-related New England college outside Boston. I could not go home for Thanksgiving because I just couldn’t. I was planning on being home for Christmas and being in Maryland for November vacation was too close to December’s get-away.

So I went from student to student on campus to ask for money. I had an idea. I would feed the Boston poor in Scollay Square on Thanksgiving Day. But I needed money — cash.

Fellow students gave away their money. I put it in a jar in my dorm room. And then most of my friends left for Turkey Day elsewhere. It was an eerie feeling at the college when dorms were mostly empty. But I was so excited I was beside myself.

Prior to Thanksgiving I went into Boston where they sold clerical collars. I, a Protestant, would dress as a priest. It was the only way I could be certain that I’d be safe at nighttime in Scollay Square — the dregs section of the metro. It was after all where the prostitutes stood on corners, vagrants slept in the gutters, and a downtown mission sang hymns like, “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling.”

I knew Scollay Square. I was a part of the college’s Evangelistic Association. We made our ways into the slums of Boston to sing and preach and hand out hymnals in the mission. It smelled badly in that mission house. But it was one grand place to be. Straight backed chairs. Floppy hymnals with paper backs. An old piano at the front of the room. No microphones. Hanging bald light bulbs strung from the stained ceiling. And the gospel preached with gusto, especially by students preparing for the ministry.

I can recall when I preached my first sermon. It was in the Scollay Square downtown mission. When I got back to campus, seated in chapel the next morning, I wrote the outline of my sermon on the back of an envelope I was mailing home to my parents. They would be so proud that their son was preaching, let alone at the slum mission. I was elated with that sermon outline. I wish I still had it.

So it was that preparing for Thanksgiving I went to buy my Roman collar. It worked. It fit. I weighed only 120 pounds, so I didn’t need a large collar. I had a black suit; most of the preacher-wannas had a black suit. So I was all set. I had my cash. I had my collar. I had my black suit. And I had my Thanksgiving in Boston rather than with family in Maryland. Perfect.

The day came to get onto the T — the train that went from Quincy to Boston. There I sat, looking very much like a Father. And so it was that people seated to my right and left greeted me kindly: “Hello, Father.” “Good day, Father.” I smiled and nodded in reply. I recall especially two old ladies. They were whispering to one another. I heard one say, “He seems awfully young to be a priest.” Oh, if they only

Of course, then, in 1958, Catholics swarmed all over Massachusetts, particularly Boston. Priests in garb and nuns in habits were all over the place. So for me to be one of them fit in quite readily, though truly I was a bit young to have finished one’s priestly schooling.

Presently I disembarked and walked up the dungeon steps from below ground onto Park Street and Tremont Street, the Boston Commons to my left. It was mid-afternoon. I walked down past King’s Chapel right into the heart of Sculley Square. I was home!

Sure enough, vagrants, otherwise then known as “bums,” were to right and left. I approached my first customer. “Hello, Father.” “Hello. I hope you’re having a blessed Thanksgiving Day, sir.” “Not at all.” “Then here’s some money. Take it over there to the cafeteria and get yourself a turkey dinner. God bless you.”

I handed him the cash. I had already checked out how much the meal was. It was indeed a cafeteria where you served yourself and paid the cashier when filling up your tray.

With a flash the man took my money and darted into the shadows. He had no intentions of eating a turkey dinner. Liquor was better. And he had my cash in hand.

That taught this naïve Protestant teetottler a lesson. So for the next fellow I approached about a turkey dinner, I walked with him to the cafeteria, watched him put the food on the tray and then paid the cashier myself for his food. That was that.

But before any more men had their free meals, I walked them right into King’s Chapel. The doors then were never locked. It is an historic church — stone, awesome, quiet, perfect for meditation and prayer. There each fellow along with myself knelt before the altar to pray. I prayed aloud. Then we two stood to our feet, walked to the cafeteria and the man had his turkey dinner.

Night began to fall. I still had money. I was on one grand high for Jesus. Truly. I had never felt so good in a long, long time. I thought my heart would burst.

I came upon a flophouse. I walked in. I talked with the clerk, who herself was a bit of a vagrant. Everyone was that in Scollay Square. The building was dark and dirty. For fifty cents a person could literally flop down somewhere under its roof.

I walked further down the street to be called out to by a fortuneteller. “Father, let me see your palm. I will tell your future,” she beckoned. She was seated in a storefront type of station, dressed as gypsy fortunetellers were garbed in Scollay Square. Behind her was a fancy, colorful curtain. “No thank you,” I replied. “God bless you.” Then I went on my way as she kept calling me to have my fortune told.

Presently, as I was standing under a lamppost, its light forming a perfect circle all around me, I looked up several stories high to an apartment of sorts. There was a light on and a man peering out the window. He must have caught sight of my collar and concluded he hated priests. So with that he opened the window to shout obscenities at me — clenching his fist all the while. I concluded I wasn’t going to linger there under that light.

Finally all my money was gone. I boarded the T for a return to college. All the way home I was thrilled beyond words. What a Thanksgiving Day I had had. It was delightful, fulfilling, out of this world. No one could ever believe what a grand time I had in Scollay Square.

Looking back on that day many, many times — and sharing the experience with numerous friends not only at Thanksgiving — I truly believe it was one of the most miraculous spiritual experiences I have ever been privileged to know.