I’ve been on the staff of Old St. Mary’s only since August, but I’d heard about this church for many years. Old St. Mary’s was the second parish staffed by the Paulists, the first being St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. The Paulists were founded in 1858 and came to Old St. Mary’s in 1894. We’ve been here almost our entire existence.
I first heard about Old St. Mary’s from my novice master, Fr. George Johnson. The first year for students seeking to become Paulist priests is called “the novitiate.” It is a year without academic studies spent learning about Paulist spirituality and mission while actually living the community life of a Paulist. In 1966, when I entered, our novitiate was located on 1500 acres of woodland and lake called Mt. Paul. We had no contact with newspapers, television or any other outside distractions for one year and two days.
Fr. George was 62 years old. He did not want to be novice master. He had arrived at Mt. Paul to assist a younger priest, Fr. Tom McCormick. When Fr. McCormick died suddenly of a heart attack, Fr. George became the man in charge. He was a shy, nervous man who didn’t have natural skills for communicating with restless, energetic young men—there were 25 of us novices and the oldest was 29—but he did his best. He gave us a one hour conference five days a week on some aspect of Paulist life. He had many nervous mannerisms, repeating certain phrases over and over, like “’course again” or “consequently, therefore.” We restless, housebound novices would add up the repeated phrases and after a conference would whisper “25 times?” “no, 27!”
Vatican II had just concluded and the Catholic church was experiencing a new energy. Young theologians were introducing creative ways of understanding our Catholic faith. Fr. George was quite conservative by training and temperament, but he liked to read and made a valiant attempt to introduce us to some of the new theology that was being ventured. He was more successful, however at conveying practical insights—one conference was spent explaining how Paulist could wash their socks when away giving a mission. I still remember the details!
We knew that Fr. George was awkward in his meetings with us but also sensed that he was kind. He certainly fed us well—a blessing we appreciated when visiting Paulists related horror stories about the more ascetic novice masters of years past.
But what I remember about Fr. George more than anything else was his love of Old St. Mary’s in San Francisco. He had been ordained in 1930 and came to Old St. Mary’s after two years as chaplain at Newman Hall in Berkeley. The eight years he spent as Director of the Chinese Mission had clearly been the happiest of his life.
Young priests often develop a special relationship with the people they encounter in their first assignment or two. Fr. George was 28 years old when he arrived at Old St. Mary’s, not too much older than we novices were when we listened to his stories. When he talked with such enthusiasm about the young Chinese children he had helped mentor in basketball games and marching bands, he lit up in us an enthusiasm for the future ministries we dreamed of having.
As we came to the end of our “one year and two days” at Mt. Paul we novices were filled with excitement at the thought of leaving the isolated woods for a new life as Paulist seminarians in the big city of Washington, D.C. But Fr. George was even more excited than we were. After doing his best as novice master he had been assigned to the parish staff of Old St. Mary’s in San Francisco. He had spent 25 years pastoring faith communities in other cities and now felt he was returning home.
I only saw Fr. George Johnson once after that joyful day when my classmates and I made our “first profession” as Paulists. His second tour at Old St. Mary’s lasted the rest of his life. He died in 1979 and is buried in the Paulist plot in Colma, not so far away.
When Fr. Eric Andrews, the president of the Paulists, asked me if I would consider coming to the parish staff of Old St. Mary’s, I immediately thought of Fr. George. I had never been here for more than a brief visit, but I knew it would be a good place. I said yes.