When Father Milton A. Hipsley Jr. was pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas in Hampden in the 1980s, a visiting priest took note of stacks of unopened correspondence from the Catholic Center that seemed to be accumulating in the rectory. He asked Father Hipsley if he was worried about the unread letters.
“I don’t worry about mail,” the pastor replied. “I only worry that maybe someone will show up at the rectory and a priest won’t be available (to help him).”
The anecdote, told by Father Joseph Breighner during Father Hipsley’s Dec. 22 funeral Mass at St. Agnes in Catonsville, captured the essence of Father Hipsley.
The former pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Mary in Cumberland, who died Dec. 17 after a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, was a man whose entire life was focused on the nitty-gritty aspects of pastoral ministry: visiting the imprisoned, comforting the sick, consoling the lonely, feeding the hungry and giving hope to the hopeless.
“Milt just didn’t give a few dollars to a homeless person,” said Father Breighner, a Catholic Review columnist. “He would befriend them and say, ‘I am your friend.’ He didn’t give as a superior to an inferior.”
Father Breighner remembered Father Hipsley as a man who was “very innocent.”
“There was no guile,” Father Breighner said. “There was no persona. There was no front. There was just the person of Christ. The person of Christ showed through Milton so very well.”
Ann Pugh, Father Hipsley’s sister, told me that her brother possessed a sense of simplicity from the time he was a boy. It wasn’t naïveté, she said, but genuine goodness. It was holiness.
Once, when Father Hipsley was 6 or 7, he and Ann were playing on an abandoned farm near their home in Baltimore. After their mother called them in for dinner, Pugh said, young Milton stayed outside to observe the falling snow.
“Everything was covered in white and silence,” Pugh remembered. “It was very spiritual to him. He felt God’s presence.”
As a prison minister, she said, Father Hipsley felt the desolation of those forgotten by society. When he first started celebrating Mass at a Cumberland prison in the early 1990s, she said, only 3 people attended. Within a brief time period, however, that number grew to 30 or 40.
“They would greet him in procession,” Pugh said, noting that seeing prisoners come to him for spiritual support almost made her brother cry.
Father Hipsley once told me that inmates are “lonely” and “frustrated.”
“If you go in and show kindness to them,” he said in his simple way, “it’s like showing attention to the barking dog. If you pet the dog, it starts to lick your hand and become like a friend.”
At the conclusion of Father Hipsley’s funeral Mass, attended by Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, Bishop Denis J. Madden, Bishop William C. Newman, nearly 50 priests and many family members, friends and former parishioners, Archbishop William E. Lori offered a prayer that God will send more men to step forward to enter the priestly vocation who have the same spirituality and love for the poor as Father Hipsley.
“He loved those who did not give back,” Archbishop William E. Lori said. “He loved those who were unable to return his love measure for measure. He loved those who could not give financial recompense. He loved those who could not give social recompense.”
What a blessing it would be if we could all live our lives that way.
December 22, 2014 03:59
By George Matysek
Sorry for the light postings of late, folks.
Since this blog began, I haven't gone longer than a few days without posting. The last two weeks have been busy, however, and I haven't had a chance to step into The Narthex.
The good news is that I've got lots of good stuff coming your way. If you like to laugh, you'll really like what's coming later today and in the next few days. I have also come across some really cool stuff that's been sitting in my notebook. It's long past due for sharing.
July 30, 2011 11:30
By George Matysek
Father Milton Hipsley holds his rosary at his Mercy Ridge residence in Timonium last year. (CR/Owen Sweeney III)
Father Milton Hipsley's letters started arriving on my desk in the summer of 2009. Very neatly written in all capital letters, the notes always seemed focused on the importance of kindness and of taking time for spiritual reflection. A new message appeared every two weeks or so.
What struck me the most about the correspondence was that I knew the letter writer was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Father Hipsley, a longtime Western Maryland prison chaplain and pastor of St. Mary in Cumberland, had recently moved into Mercy Ridge Retirement Community in Timonium. Wearing a special electronic bracelet so medical staff could monitor his location, the priest who had often visited prisoners was suddenly faced with his own kind of confinement.
To me, the priest's letters were a very tangible demonstration of Father Hipsley's determination to continue his ministry in one of the only ways left to him - through the mail.
George P. Matysek Jr. meets with Father Milton Hipsley and Ann Pugh in 2010. (CR/Owen Sweeney III)
About a year after I received that first letter and a year after Father Hipsley was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I called Ann Pugh and asked her how she would feel about me writing a story about her brother.
Naturally somewhat hesitant about how I would portray her sibling, Ann agreed to my proposal after I assured her that the story would highlight Father Hipsley's ministry of pen and paper. She graciously accompanied me on a visit to Mercy Ridge so I could spend some time with the retired pastor.
The story that resulted from that meeting is one I will always cherish. I was moved by the simple, sincere faith of a man who knew at some level that his mind was leaving him - but who didn't let that stop him. He remained focused on faith and helping others.
Father Hipsley no longer sends me letters. I recently called Ann and her husband, Frank, and they confirmed what I had suspected: the priest's condition has deteriorated in the last year. He no longer speaks of his beloved Cumberland. Sadly, he's even given up writing letters.
"It's taken a toll," Frank told me. "He asked how his brother, Bob, was doing. He gave him last rites last August."
Ann reported that the head nurse at Mercy Ridge believes Father Hipsley has found a sense of peace. He no longer agonizes about not being able to serve his parishioners at St. Mary or the prisoners in Western Maryland.
"He often talked about the letters he got and the letters he wrote," Frank said. "That was an important part of his life - a tiny piece of his ministry that he still had. It filled an important void in his life. I think it's a tribute to him that people still write to him."
The "long goodbye" has been difficult for Ann and Frank, but the parishioners of St. Joseph in Cockeysville believe God must have a purpose in it.
"I guess it's part of God's plan," Frank said. "It gives people like us the privilege of being a caretaker. So, maybe that's part of the plan that we will never understand."
God bless you, Father Hipsley. Thank you for your priesthood and thank you for your courage in allowing me to share your story. Your letters are in a special folder that I keep on my desk. I plan to save them and return to them often.
The story on Father Hipsley was recently awarded first place in the feature category of a journalism competition sponsored by the Maryland, Delaware, DC Press Association. I was fortunate to also win first place in the religion category for a story an a survivor of sexual abuse.
April 26, 2011 01:37
By George Matysek
Just got word today from Wordpress that The Narthex is among the fastest-growing blogs at Wordpress.com. It seems that it's ranked #7 among blogs that are gaining in recent popularity.
Thanks to everyone who is stopping by!
January 28, 2011 01:43
By George Matysek
Check out this cool CR 'blog preview' put together by my good friend, Matt Palmer. (Take a good look at the credits. Gotta love our casting director!)
December 09, 2010 02:02
By George Matysek
A narthex is the main gathering area or lobby of a church. It’s where conversation takes place, bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds.
That’s what this blog aspires to be — a spot where you can join a conversation about news and happenings related to the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Catholic world at large.
Stay with The Narthex for inspirational posts about people who live their faith every day. You'll also get a frontline perspective on archdiocesan news you won't find anywhere else.
I have to give a shout out to Matt Palmer, my good friend and colleague at The Catholic Review. He came up with the name for this blog. It's the perfect fit for what I hope to accomplish here. I hope this blog will be as fun as it is informational.
Let's get going.
November 23, 2010 02:25
By George Matysek