Life at the villa

On Tuesday morning I ran over to the St. Rose of Lima priests retirement villa in Annandale to snap a quick photo of Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Sister Maria David, the daytime administrator there, to accompany a short story in this week's retirement section.

Since I hadn't set foot in the building since before it was dedicated, Sister Maria David gave me a quick walk-through, pointing out the trailing ivy in the main gathering space, the square tables in the dining room, and, of course, the courtyard, where she had most recently planted sweet peas under the hummingbird feeder.

After our brief photo shoot among the rose bushes, Sister Maria David was about to see me out when she paused. Did I need to take photos of any of the priests? Would I like to say hello to Msgr. Mahler? Did I have time?

Honestly, I didn't have much. It was mid-morning and we were putting the paper to bed that afternoon, with a special section, and it would take me at least 30 minutes to get back to the office from the Annandale house. Time, as anyone on deadline knows, was precious that day. But I couldn't say no. And I'm so glad I didn't.

Inside his suite, Msgr. Frank E. Mahler stood to greet me. He cleared off a chair and asked me to sit down, his Bible and prayer book next to him on an ottoman. We commented on the cool breeze blowing in through the open windows. I told him I'd heard so much about him and was so pleased to meet him. He cracked a joke.

Only then did I look around my surroundings. Gone was the "institutional" apartment space I'd seen two years ago, set up thoughtfully, but impersonally, for an unnamed inhabitant. In its place was a treasure trove reflecting the long life of the man who celebrated 55 years as a priest last May.

Art covered the walls, including a map of Long Island, N.Y., where Msgr. Mahler was born. A full-size atlas was propped next to his chair in case he needed to look up a place mentioned on the news. A crock pot, toaster oven and (new) sandwich maker filled the small kitchenette where he does much of his own cooking. A bust honoring "St. John Wayne" sat in the living room, next to a statue of a horse in motion. He showed me his favorite book of maps - a "then and now" look at the Middle East and the Holy Land. I might go get one.

In his bedroom, a small altar was set up against a wall where he sometimes celebrates Mass, though often sitting down. A storage closet had been impeccably transformed into an office, with photographs of the Grand Tetons standing in for the room's "windows." Every Western ever produced (only a minor exaggeration) lined a top shelf - especially those featuring "the Duke." 

Msgr. Mahler truly had made this space, which started as a blank canvas, into a home, and I was so honored that he took the time, and was willing, to welcome me.

After my brief tour, we chatted for a few more minutes. Msgr. Mahler shared a few anecdotes of his time as a priest and praised Sister Maria David's care of and attention to the priests and the retirement villa. He told me of his upcoming eye appointment and cataract surgery. He was anxious to know if the mail had arrived.

Life certainly has slowed down for the man who served as founding pastor of two parishes and pastor or administrator of several more. He now has time to flip through his atlas and make a meal in the slow cooker. Or eat cherries in the courtyard. Or welcome a guest out of the blue on a Tuesday morning.

Did I have time to stop and say hello to Msgr. Mahler? Of course I did.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012