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

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

August 18, 2012


Our eating habits become ordinary, routine, and uneventful. But sometimes they take on new meaning. Birthdays and anniversaries have a special cachet. More than eating and drinking is involved. Important business deals may be made at lunch; engagement rings presented with champagne toasts at dinner. An extra factor can turn a meal into a memorable occasion. In sixty-seven years as a priest in New York, I’ve experienced hundreds of meals that provided nourishment; a relatively few that stand out in memory.

1.     The Byrnes had moved out of the Bronx, where we had been close to Nana Byrne. Now it was more of a trip from Mount Vernon to Grandma Byrne’s. Down the Post Road then west on Gun Hill Road,  past the twin towers of the Franciscan Church to Nana’s house. The “biggee” at Nana’s was the cuckoo clock. We carefully watched the little door open and the bird come out. Our trip featured an early dinner at Brienlinger’s. Dad took me to the Men’s’ Room.  Returning to our table, I spotted a sign saying, “This way to the bar for a quick drink”. My recollection, after these many years: Nana and her cuckoo clock, the twin towers of the church and the sign encouraging a sneaky drink!

2.    St. Emeric’s rectory. In June 1949, I returned from Catholic U. with a Doctorate in Canon Law and was assigned to the Archdiocesan Tribunal with residence at St. Emeric’s. Vin Brosnan, the pastor, a Chaplain in World War II, was a delightful boss. When I arrived home after a day at the Chancery, he would hear me enter and call out from his room, “Okay. Brud, the martinis are waiting”. Dinner would follow with his interesting stories of the war. Dinner was always pleasant. But then, Bros bought a television. The yearwas1950. A new pervasive presence had entered our apartment and our world. He set it up in the dining room. It ended conversation. 

After a week, I spoke up. Bros was surprised. “You don’t like it?” “Not really, Monsignor. Our conversation is overwhelmed by Hopalong Cassidy. I'd rather chat with you. You’ve had an interesting life.” With further friendly remarks, that was it. The TV remained in his quarters. Evening meals were pleasant in the company of this great man and priest, even if, by rare chance, a war story was repeated for a third time. Memorable meals, memorable conversations, a memorable man. A young priest had spoken up to a veteran monsignor. A memorable occasion, indeed.

3. Cameo Restaurant, Lexington and 86th Street. I was now a full time chancery man with residence at St. Thomas More’s. Frequently late for supper after a busy buerocratic day, I found it better to relax before eating with a shower in the summer. There was no air-conditioning in subway cars at that time. To the Cameo, then, and its regulars: Florsheim Shoe store manager, district leader and members, Jefferson Democratic Club. Before entering, check out who’s inside. If a certain woman community activist is present, keep walking. She never stops talking and does not remind you of springtime in nearby Central Park. Benny, the Greek waiter, was an interesting study. He loved to tell the Father slightly anti-clerical jokes and stories about his need to keep alert. On a recent night, a couple has dinner; man pays the check; leaves tip on table and goes to men’s room. Girl friend steals tip.

More serious matters occurred on 86th Street some years ago: drug dealing on the north side, prostitution on the south, tragically played out by two young blondes with their pimps nearby. Hats off to the NYPD! A mounted police officer was posted on each side of the street. From their lofty posts, the cops could see transactions under way. The horses provided quick arrivals at the spot. Problem solved. The Cameo is memorable to me as an occasional evening oasis for its food, staff, neighborhood diners and its location just off 86th street with its sometimes street theater.

4.    Michele’s Restaurant, Washington, DC As a student  at Catholic U. 1946-1949, my classmate , Terence, later Cardinal, Cooke, myself and two other priests went to dinner one evening at the fashionable Michele’s in our clerical attire. We were graciously received by the maitre’d, who with a bow, ushered us to a prominent table. When we were seated, three musicians with violin, zither, and viola bowed towards us and played, to our considerable surprise, the “Ave Maria”. At the conclusion, sensing an atmosphere of nineteenth century Vienna, we four ceremoniously rose and bowed to the smiling musicians. Yes. A colorful evening, indeed.

5. Petaluma, 1st Ave and 73rd Street, diagonally across the street from the Ronald McDonald House, a residence for parents who have children afflicted with cancer. My association began when, I, as pastor of St. Joseph’s of Yorkville sold our convent to the RMDH. Increased demands brought about construction of a new building on 73rd Street accommodating eighty-five families. As a board member, I participated in the design including a chapel and establishing a Pastoral Care Department. I offered Mass there on Wednesday evenings, occasionally followed by dinner at Petaluma. One Wednesday, the maitre d’ noticed the smudge on the foreheads of my accompanying friends. “Oh my,” he exclaimed, “Ash Wednesday. Would you be able to give ashes to my staff?” After dinner, I went back to the chapel for the ashes. Staff was gathered in the cavernous kitchen: waiters, busboys, chefs, dishwashers, bartenders, and hat check girls. I conducted a brief ceremony and applied ashes to a variety of foreheads! Diners appeared quizzical. Wait staff with clean faces had suddenly vanished and then reappeared, marked with the ashes of Lent. It was, indeed, an evening to be remembered.

6.          6.    The RMDH is an expensive facility to maintain. Resident families pay a small amount, if they can afford it. Among various efforts to raise the necessary funds, an annual gala is held at the Waldorf-Astoria, bringing in enormous individual and corporate contributions. As the only clergy board member, I was privileged to provide the invocation. At one of the galas, as I began the prayer, I could not help but notice the well-dressed affluent men and women. The evening gowns of the women appeared like moving lanterns of color and style, not to be found in the outer boroughs. This sight prompted me to add extemporaneously to my prayer. “And may I suggest to those who are Catholic in this distinguished assemblage to pray, as we experience the shortage of priests, that our Holy Father would become aware of the wit, wisdom, and charm of this half of the human race and brighten our Church by ordaining some and permitting others to marry members of the clergy.” Applause was heartfelt. Some stopped at my table to laughingly suggest that I might be sent up the river to a little country parish. Apparently Cardinal O’Connor was advised of the incident and had his Vicar General send me a note,  disapproving of my “trivializing” the Holy Father. It was a memorable night at the Waldorf!