Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In remembrance of Father Virgil

I am one of the throngs, the thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of people in Santa Barbara and beyond, whose lives were touched in one way or another by Father Virgil Cordano. Father Virgil, as he was known, who practiced his religious life as a Franciscan friar and spent 89 years on the planet as a man who devoted his life to others — as well as to the serious exploration and questions of existence, religion and the meaning of our lives — passed away peacefully last week, into his other heaven. (“Short of heaven, this is the best I can have,” said the man of the cloth of his beloved Santa Barbara in a KEYT television interview).

Wearing his simple brown Franciscan robes, the bespeckled Father Virgil was a familiar sight, known for his warmth, accessibility and great sense of humor. He never turned anyone away, and responded faster than an ambulance or fire truck to a friend, parishioner or community call.
On one occasion, as I sat beside my friend Douglas Bartoli, who had just passed away and was lying in state in his house within view of the Old Mission and the rose garden, I called Father Virgil to see if he could run over, since we were just across the street.
“Can you come do last rites?” I asked, naively.
It was too late for that, he told me, but he hurried over to comfort Mrs. Bartoli and did bless the body. Although Doug had left the Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church, his Catholic Italian mother — as well as the rest of us — were comforted by his visit. Father Virgil practiced these acts of kindness millions of times, as those of you reading this will know.
Then there were marriages and baptisms (including my own) of which I can’t even venture to estimate the amount, though the other Franciscan fathers might know.
On the occasions that I “retreated” to the Immaculate Heart Center for Spiritual Renewal, Father Virgil would visit and talk with me, as he did with others, in the peaceful gardens. Often we reminisced about his close friend, my godmother Virginia Cherrill Martini, who we both sorely missed. She was the glue of our friendship.
Last year, when I arrived, unannounced, at the Old Mission, with a man I wanted to marry, Father Virgil came down to speak with us both for an hour. Although he could not officiate due to rules of the church, he blessed our love and promised to bless our marriage (which did not occur).
Always there, whenever you needed him — that was Father Virgil.
In times of crisis and joy, in sickness and in health, for the rich and for the poor.
Most importantly in my life, when I told Father Virgil that my very Catholic Italian grandfather was extremely upset that I had not been baptized as a child (even though he and my grandmother kidnapped me from my agnostic parents for such a ritual, to no avail), we met on Friday afternoons at the Old Mission to “talk shop.”
A few years later, he baptized me at my godparents’ hedgerow cottage in Montecito. Margarita, my godparents’ caregiver, upon Father Virgil’s command, grabbed a metal bowl out of the kitchen to place under my head. Holy water was sprinkled, Virginia and Florek put their hands on me, per his instructions (“Does it matter where?” asked my godpa Florek, before placing his hand firmly on my butt!) and I was now a part of the fold. We celebrated with champagne and some years later, he confessed something to me about that day that surprised me. Confessions, as you know, are always confidential.
In addition to the lessons of love he preached, this humble man in brown robes knew every Catholic in town’s secrets and foibles, and probably many a tawdry tale of non-Catholics as well. He had a long and enduring friendship with Duke Sedgwick, among other powerful men and women in this town, and I always thought a book about “The Priest and The Cowboy” would be fascinating.
But I did know a little secret of Father Virgil’s that I don’t think he’d mind my sharing.
Those wide sleeves of the Franciscan robes?
The perfect place, he once showed me, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, to tuck a wee bottle of Holy hooch!
Sorry, Father Virgil. I was never good at keeping secrets.
I, like many, will always miss you and love you.
Keep up the good work upstairs, Padre, and if what you said is true, I’ll see you later.

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