Jan 20, 2018

Father Tom Field

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog entry about Father George Mathis, the first pastor I had at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Fayetteville, TN.  Father George served the catholic community of Fayetteville from 1979 to 1983.  He was instrumental in my finding sobriety in August, 1983.  I loved him dearly.  He was a very conservative, risk-averse manager of a young parish -- probably exactly what the church needed at that time.  He was also a sensitive and very creative artist who contributed generously of his talent to St. Anthony's and many other parishes.  In late 1983, the Glenmary Missioners Society, of whom George was a member, decided it was time for him to move on.  He was replaced by Father Thomas Field, known to all as Father Tom.  The change was dramatic.  Let me share my impressions.

Father Tom was originally from Minnesota.  He had been a journeyman electrician before he began his training as a Glenmary Missioner.  He was a big man, and often made it known that he was descended from "hardy Viking stock."  For every way in which George Mathis was refined, Tom was down-to-earth.  Where George avoided risk, Father Tom relished a good adventure.  They were very different people.

I recall a conversation I overheard shortly after Tom arrived.  One parishioner was lamenting the fact that "He certainly can't preach like Father George."  Another wasn't convinced he was as reverent during the Mass.  I felt that it was just a sign of change, that no two pastors will ever be alike.  The parish soon learned to love Tom Field.

Not long after Tom's arrival, he realized that St. Anthony's had never had a float in Fayetteville's Christmas parade.  He asked the next Sunday if anyone in the parish could provide a flat wagon and tow vehicle for the parade.  Soon there was a flurry of activity in the parking lot behind the church as a crew tried to build a manger scene on the trailer.  Hay bales were strategically placed.  Several mothers engaged in sewing shepherds' and angel outfits.  By the night of the parade, all was ready.  A couple of live goats and a lamb punctuated the rickety float along with a star on a long pole, lots of kids in costume (Mary, Joseph, a Jesus doll, three wise men, and a few shepherds and angels), and a boom box blaring out Christmas carols.  On each side of the wagon hung a primitive sign reading "St. Anthony Catholic Church."  As the borrowed tractor dragged the assemblage into the parade route, Father Tom looked at me and said, "We're gonna win a trophy.  Judges always love kids and animals!"  Sure enough, the St. Anthony float won first prize for "The Spirit of Christmas."  And for several years after that, Tom made sure we had award-winning floats in the annual parade.

Tom was not a formal individual, but he was affable and loved by the community at large.  He became very active in the Interdenominational Ministry Association, and served as its president.  He had a regular table at Rachel's Restaurant where he was joined at breakfast by a cross section of citizens every morning.  He became active in the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs.  Everyone in town knew Tom Field.

One of Tom's lasting legacies had to do with his love for those suffering from mental impairment, special needs brothers and sisters.  He helped establish a chapter of the National Association for Retarded Citizens (the ARC) in Fayetteville.  Then he proposed a summer camp for special needs citizens.  Tom was at his best as he approached every church in the county looking for volunteers and cooks and equipment and buses to conduct a week-long program.  It became an annual event that continues and is a tribute to his persistence.  Every child has an escort or friend who ensures their safety and participation in games, meals, crafts, and general fun.  And as a side effect, it brought many churches closer together in a cooperative charitable effort that continues today.

One area in which Tom helped me was in my desire to restore and install a pipe organ in the church.  I was acting as choir director shortly after Tom's arrival.  I had proposed the idea to Father George a year before and he was way too conservative to give the go-ahead.  But when I suggested to Tom that I thought the parish could restore a pipe organ and that it would greatly enhance our worship, he was all-in.  We approached the Parish Council and got their blessing to try and raise funds.  I've told the pipe organ story in another blog entry, but it would never have happened without Tom's involvement and willingness to take a chance.

When he arrived at the parish, there was a small, very decrepit two car garage on the property.  Tom asked if I could draft some plans for a parish social hall of about 2,500 square feet using the corner of the garage as one corner of the hall.  I drafted up the plans.  It turned out that our Bishop had placed restrictions on any newly-constructed buildings in the diocese.  Father Tom simply asked for permission to expand an already-existing garage to make it usable as a social hall.  When the Bishop came to town to help dedicate the new Parish Hall, he was shocked to see a building bigger than the church!

He had a wonderful sense of humor.  He had rescued a wayward beagle that became a member of the church family.  When he took the dog to have him neutered, he announced to the parish that Blue "had taken his final vows."  A friend of mine went to Father Tom to see if he would be willing to listen to an AA fifth step, in which the recovering alcoholic "Confesses to God, to himself, and to another human being the exact nature of [his] wrongs."  Tom hesitated, then said, "I'd be glad to.  I normally would set aside about an hour, but knowing you, I guess I should set aside a whole afternoon."  Then he started laughing as only a Viking can at his own joke.

Tom left St. Anthony in 1989 to move to a double parish in North Carolina -- Cherokee and Bryson City.  Margo and I visited him often while he was there.  Just as he had in Fayetteville, he soon became part of the fabric of those two communities.  He loved machinery, and soon got involved in the Western Carolina Railroad and became a qualified steam locomotive operator.  He was engaged in a soup kitchen for the poor and a thrift shop to support it.  He started a Habitat for Humanity chapter and built homes for needy families.  He became active in a ministry to help addicts and alcoholics.  And then, sadly, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.  It progressed fairly quickly.  In 2000, Father Tom left the active ministry he loved so much.  After a couple years assisting at a church in Madisonville, TN, he moved to the Glenmary headquarters in Cincinnati, where he could live with assisted care.  Even then, he missed being a pastor.  He called the Cincinnati Fire Department and asked if they could use an old, broken-down chaplain.  Soon, he was spending a couple days a week in firehouses around the city, where the firemen learned to love him in the same way his parishioners had.

Father Tom died of his disease and its complications on February 27, 2004.  He was only 64 years old.  During the night of his visitation at St. Matthias Church in Forest Park, a hook-and-ladder truck parked in front of the church bore silent testimony to the love that the fire department held for their self appointed chaplain.  A fire helmet adorned his casket along with a fur hat with Viking horns that had been a gift from a parishioner.  He departed this earth as he would have loved.

Rest in peace, my friend.  You are indeed a man who lived and exemplified Christ's gospel of love.

The Glenmary magazine published a fitting memorial:
‘A giant of a man with a childlike relationship with God’

Father Tom Field was a big man physically.  He also had a big heart. Father Tom, 64, died Feb. 27 in Cincinnati.  This giant of a man had a childlike relationship to God. Perhaps this is why he had such a special place in his heart for the little people of the world. He delighted in the summer camp for handicapped children he sponsored in Tennessee.  And each year Santa Claus became his partner in ministry while he served in Fayetteville, Tenn.  This true disciple of the Lord loved fire trucks, trains and practical jokes.  His heart also embraced the poor and marginalized.  I remember listening as he expressed frustration when someone displayed prejudice for the Cherokee people with whom he worked in North Carolina. 

Father Tom’s generous hospitality was experienced by many people over the years. His table ministry was a reflection of the life of Jesus, who was criticized by his enemies for being “a friend of sinners and eating with them.”  Meals were ministry events for Jesus. This continued even after the resurrection—and it continues today as we gather for the Eucharist. Father Tom strengthened bonds of friendship, unified mission parishes and reconciled alienated folks to the Church over abundant meals. 

Searching for God’s will was also a constant in Father Tom’s life. It led to his first vocation choice as a Benedictine brother on the northern Dakota prairie at Blue Cloud Abbey. Even after becoming a Glenmary priest, he was at ease with manual labor projects. He was seen just as often wearing a tool belt as a Roman collar. This ongoing vocational discernment led him to resign as pastor of St. Joseph Church in Bryson City, N.C., in 2000.  

His battle with Parkinson’s disease was taking too great a toll. He did not want to become a burden.  But he wanted to continue to serve. So he went to St. Joseph the Worker Mission in Madisonville, Tenn., as a sacramental minister to a community established and led by pastoral coordinators. He touched deeply this emerging congregation. Providing Eucharist to them allowed him to continue his table ministry.

Glenmary priests and brothers have a tradition of lining up to form an honor guard as the body of a deceased Glenmarian is brought from the church at the end of the funeral liturgy. We always sing this same joyful song: “For all the saints who from their labors rest,/ Who you by faith before the world confessed,/ Your name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia, Alleluia!”

At our funerals we celebrate the victory of God’s grace that enabled our brother to serve with fidelity to the end. We celebrate the unique way our fellow missioner lived out his Glenmary Oath to “dedicate myself for my whole life to the missionary apostolate in the rural areas and small towns of the United States.”

The call of every Glenmary priest or brother is also a call to a community of support for one another. Father Tom responded to that call as well. He made my journey as a missionary far more enjoyable, my commitment easier, my fears for the future more manageable, my attitude toward myself more compassionate.

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