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The heart of a pastor

“You’d better get here soon,” Paul heard the doctor say when he took the call at work early on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1940. “In my judgment, your wife and your son will probably be dead by midnight.” 

With that, he rushed from the textile mill near their home in Pawcatuck, Conn., to the hospital where his wife, Ann Marie, had already received last rites and gone blind from toxemic seizures. A nurse had just baptized the three-pound preemie. 

And still, this was all a wonder. Soon after their wedding in 1930, Ann Marie had been told that she couldn’t conceive, so when she informed her doctor early in 1940 that she was pregnant, he thought she was crazy. 

That November, they took Paul Loverde home. 

“We could have taken you home in a shoe box,” Ann Marie recalled. She regained her sight. The country would soon go to war and she returned to her full-time job in the mills. Paul could soon be found playing behind their modest second-story walk-up on Stillman Avenue. 

A steep, 30-foot granite cliff was all that separated their yard from St. Michael’s School. When his parents weren’t looking, he took the shortcut, scaling the rocks and emerging in the schoolyard a bit tussled. Just around the corner was St. Michael’s Church, where Paul would serve the daily 7 a.m. Mass for Msgr. Quinn from fourth grade on. On many weekends, his Sicilian immigrant father took him to the local Dairy Queen, read him the Sunday comics, gardened out back, and filled the home with Italian songs. Ann Marie had a fish allergy, so on some Fridays, father and son went out for fish and chips at the China Village. 

“He was thick with his father,” Ann Marie liked to recall. To honor Pope Pius XII’s Marian Year of 1954 and the Assumption, the father-son duo built a grotto to Mary out of cement blocks. It had been several years since the only child had told his parents, at the age of 7, “I want to be like Father Mike”— his cousin, Father Michael Giovino, a priest of the Diocese of Buffalo — and began to play Mass in his room. Then the grotto became a pulpit where Paul could preach to the assembled robins and sparrows. 

Paul scaled new cliffs, going on to La Salle Academy in Providence, and then seminary. When St. John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, Paul was there in St. Peter’s Square with fellow North American College seminarians. When Blessed Pope Paul VI closed the Council Dec. 8, 1965, Deacon Paul was there, just 10 days shy of his ordination to the priesthood. 

“Why did the Lord call me?” the bishop would ask through the years, in wonder at the gift of his vocation. 

Leaders are many things. The grateful son of weavers is a stalwart pro-life voice; tireless promoter of vocations to the priesthood; trenchant critic of the pornographic culture; shepherd to one of the country’s fastest-growing dioceses; ardent supporter of Catholic education; sonorous evangelist on WTOP. The list goes on. 

Yet to those who work with him daily, the little things eclipse the big labels: the kindness as he holds the elevator for you; or remembers that today is the anniversary of your brother’s death; or takes the time to learn the name of the temp assisting down the hall. 

Earlier this year, his herniated disc worsened quickly. Following surgery in May, a neurological issue left him often unable to turn his head. His annual summer trip to Stillman Avenue was cut short by a visit to the emergency room. 

Summer turned to fall and he soldiered through his public commitments, his crozier sometimes serving as a cane. At the opening of school Masses for high schools in September, he asked the students for their prayers.

Yet within days, he would answer the phone to hear the apostolic nuncio’s secretary tell him that Pope Francis had accepted his resignation and appointed Raleigh Bishop Michael F. Burbidge his successor. The name was familiar: years before, while updating his funeral arrangements, Bishop Loverde had put this brother bishop’s name down as the requested homilist.

By Oct. 4, the day of the formal announcement, the bishop’s steps seemed to be quickening. The epistle from St. Paul for Mass that day recalled “He, who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through His grace.” Perhaps the soon-to-be bishop emeritus is already glimpsing a new cliff to scale. 

Returning from a family vacation in New England this past summer, we pulled off I-95 to Pawcatuck. St. Michael’s Church was a pile of rubble, having recently been deemed structurally unsafe. The China Village is shuttered. The Dairy Queen still stands, and we bought the kids sundaes before stopping at the house on Stillman Avenue. 

Out back, our kids ran around, ecstatic to be out of the car. They started toward the cliff, but I called them back. Together we walked up to the 1954 Loverde father-son project, the Maria Assunta grotto. Sparrows and robins were in attendance. The cement blocks are intact, the statue of the Blessed Mother a bit weathered. 

We prayed a Hail Mary there, in gratitude for a beloved bishop. 

Those who wish to make a simple act of devotion or gratitude on the occasion of Bishop Loverde’s nearly 51 years of priestly ministry can do so online. There is also space to share a note with Bishop Loverde.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is the apostolic administrator’s Delegate for Evangelization and Media.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016