Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

May 31, 2009


Yesterday, I turned in the keys to my thirty-ninth floor apartment at 222 East 93rd Street. I was deeply involved in the building of this 650 apartment complex:two seventeen story buildings and a forty-two story tower. But that's another story. My move out unearthed an accumulation of photos of family and friends, letters, newspaper clippings,and articles and book reviews that I had written. Leaping out of this memorabilia are the remembances of significant individuals, who helped me find meaning in the swirl of life and whom I may have helped to the same end. There were my parents and siblings, a roster of Brooklyn relatives of my mother, priests and nuns,and an assortment of men and women in that limited circle of those whom I could call close friends. We shared insights, supported one another, and I had, among those in the circle, one or two who, unknown to them, were frequently my moral guides. Faced with a difficult decision, I would ask myself, "What would Jim Colbert think if I were to do such and so?" We had been altar boys together, classmates at Iona '38, and fellow travelors - literally, intellectually, and spiritually. He became a distinguished physician, president of two medical colleges, and the father of eleven children, one of them, Stephen Colbert of TV's Comedy Central. Jim always said the Pope is right. A lot of my memorabilia brought him to mind.

Another personality, who emerged from the past, was Ilah McDermot, a parishioner at St. Thomas More's, my residence during my chancery years. She was the proprietor of Wakefield, Young Books at 65th and Madison, patronized by the financial and social elite of Manhattan's Upper East Side. She traveled to Europe occasionally, seeking objects d'art for her shop. I was invited to spend a week at Villa Santa Bonda, just outside of Siena, where she and her daughter had taken a wing of the 16th century villa. The local pastor, Father Galante, who was also the Curator of most of Siena's art treasures, spent an afternoon and evening with us. In a dreadful mix of Latin and body language, he and I conversed. "And where", with effort, he asked, "is Mr. McDermot?" He had died long before I met Ilah, a tragic death of TB, bitter towards his fate and faith, and towards his wife and daughter. Ilah had managed a book shop on a Cunard liner. Ashore at Tel Aviv, she met an officer of the British marines, whom, in time, she married. It was an unhappy parting!

Ilah had a remarkable influence on others and was a leader in my St. Thomas More's study group. She introduced me to a Meg Campbell, who was desirous of becoming a Catholic. We went through the basics and I received her into the Church. Meg was married to John Campbell, the Laird of the Isle of Canna, a small island off the west coast of Scotland. He and all twenty-eight inhabitants of the island were Catholic. The Outer and Inner Hebrides, to which Canna belongs, and the Highlands of Scotland have remained heavily Catholic after Britain became Anglican. After Meg returned to Canna with Ilah, I was invited to come to visit. Perhaps at this point, it would be well for me to acknowledge that, what Father Galante may have suspected, there was no romantic element in play - none, nada, nil, zero, zip, tout au contraire! I was a young priest; Ilah an elderly woman. It was an extraordinary friendship, and only that. (I write all this, not so much for others, but for my own sense of being and identity!)

In moving out of my apartment, what brought Ilah to mind? She has been long dead. But I found three books she had given me as Christmas gifts: in 1956 "A Christmas Garland" by Max Beerbohm; in 1959 a leather bound "The Complete Works of Shakespeare"; "Selected Poems of Siegfried Sassoon" a magnificent volume by the famed Stanbrook Abbey Press, no date but with this inscription: "Dear Father, You have been such a very real comfort to me and to mother and Patricia and I have found nothing to express my love and gratitude adequately but this book of poems, being perfect in form and print and meaning, that might express some of my feelings and might, I hope, give you pleasure. Ilah."