Fr. McAfee’s love for beauty

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When asked why he planted rose gardens, Father Franklyn M. McAfee answered simply, "I'm captivated by beauty." His quest to create and find the lovely in life enhanced a busy priesthood in a newly created diocese for the past 45 years.

Father McAfee was born in Detroit in 1943, the only boy between an older and younger sister. His father was a convert to Catholicism, and an organist, which inspired Father McAfee's own love of music. He attended St. David Elementary School and Sacred Heart High School.

He felt the call to the priesthood from a young age, "But then I wanted to be an astronomer, until I discovered you needed a lot of mathematics," he said.

Father McAfee originally entered seminary for his home diocese but eventually was asked to leave, he believes, for his conservative views. A priest named Father James A. Hickey, later Cardinal Hickey of Washington, advised him to attend Catholic University in Washington and to apply to another diocese.

He followed Cardinal Hickey's advice and in 1971, Father McAfee was ordained for the Diocese of Richmond, which at that time served the entirety of Virginia. He was first assigned to St. Thomas More Church in Arlington (later the cathedral). There, he came to be the go-between for Msgr. Richard J. Burke, pastor, and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who came to speak at the church several times.

"(At one time) people got there at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and it started at 7:30 p.m. It was packed," he said. Archbishop Sheen's words inspired Father McAfee and strengthened him in the early years of his priesthood.

After four years, Father McAfee became the chaplain of Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, and, after the diocese split into Richmond and Arlington, was the first director of the Family Life Office. He also served as a columnist for the Arlington Catholic Herald during this time and headed what is now the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. But what he really hoped for was to be a parish priest.

In 1988, "finally, I got my wish," he said. Bishop John R. Keating brought Father McAfee into his office to announce he was being named pastor of St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria. But Bishop Keating made such a big deal out of the news, said Father McAfee, "I thought I was going to become a bishop."

It was at St. Lawrence that Father McAfee began to grow roses in a prayer garden, a custom he continued at his next two parishes - St. Catherine of Siena in Great Falls and St. John the Beloved in McLean. To protect his flowers from deer, he got a border collie named Gregory, after the pope during the life of St. Catherine.

One of his favorite memories was getting the chance to sing with Maria Von Trapp, made famous by "The Sound of Music." When the Arlington diocese and the Archdiocese of Washington cosponsored a conference during the year of the family, Von Trapp was invited to speak about her family's devotion to the Sacred Heart. Father McAfee asked her to sing "Edelweiss" with him, "and we sang in front of everyone," he said.

Father McAfee also befriended Mother Teresa when the Missionaries of Charity were considering opening a home in the diocese, though they eventually settled in Washington. Bishop Thomas J. Welsh asked Father McAfee to escort the provincial of the Missionaries, and she began to pepper him with questions. "She must've liked what I said," he concluded, because she asked him to serve as the sisters' confessor.

During his time at Notre Dame, Father McAfee wanted to award Mother Teresa with an honorary degree. Not long before the ceremony, Mother Teresa called and explained that she needed to visit the sisters instead. She thanked him for his understanding and said, "I'll remember."

"Hopefully, she will remember," he said, looking upward expectantly.

Among his former parishioners, Father McAfee is described as a gifted homilist. In 2001, he celebrated a memorial Mass for Barbara Olsen, a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. His homily was reprinted by The Wall Street Journal.

His parishioners also remember Father McAfee for his three "M's" - Mass, meals and mail. "I was a stickler when it came to my mail," he said, and to his food. "I always insisted on having great meals because it adds to the morale of the priest." For 26 years, he hired a talented cook named Elke D'Amico, who made everything from scratch.

More than meals and mail, he loves beautiful Masses, especially the Latin Mass, which he instituted at St. John the Beloved. He loves orchestral music and used one of his favorite settings, Dvorak Mass in D, for his 40th ordination anniversary Mass five years ago. He loves beautiful churches and often renovated or acquired new art for his parishes. He also loves handsome vestments.

Father McAfee liked to order his vestments from a tailor in Holland, but he once ordered one from Australia. He hadn't received the article when he saw a picture of Pope Benedict XVI in Australia, wearing a vestment just liked the one he ordered. He emailed the company to complain, but he never got his vestment.

In January, Father McAfee celebrated his retirement at St. John the Beloved, where he had lived as pastor emeritus since 2009. Today, Father McAfee lives in the Sacred Heart Home in Hyattsville, a residence operated by the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016