The Faiths of My Father

My father was a practicing Roman Catholic virtually all his life, with one glaring exception — glaring perhaps only to his children, to whom it was a source of lurid speculation. We never saw him attend confession. He would drop us off Saturday afternoon and wait in the car as we bared our souls.

Was our father without sin, mortal or venial? Or had he committed some obscure atrocity that he dared not reveal, even to a priest? He often traveled to Dayton, Ohio on business, and there was one theory we bandied about: that our father, in addition to our mother and us five boys, had a second family out there.

A more plausible explanation is that my parents were using artificial birth control, which the church then and now deems to be evil. as the youngest of the five, I sometimes was referred to as a "happy accident."

My father was religious in the broad sense of the word. He believed in things outside himself, in duty and service. He had faith in his family and his friends, in his country, and even in its governmental institutions. He believed in education, which had been the Holahan clan’s ticket to upward mobility in 20th century America. His devotion to his alma mater, Yale University, bordered on fanaticism. His own father had begun his working life in 1883, down in a Pennsylvania coal mine, at ten years of age.

My grandfather was liberated from a life sentence underground by one of his older brothers, a priest, who found him work at the local parish. Michael Holahan eventually settled on railroading and rose to the position of switchman. The stolid brick building where he plied his trade in Darien, Connecticut for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, is still there, although his job has long since been automated into oblivion. He worked until his death in 1938 at age 64.

My grandfather was a union man, a Democrat and a staunch Roman Catholic. He and my grandmother, who died in 1966, never owned a car. When grandma would visit us in Stamford, she walked, five miles each way. They planted a big garden and shared the harvest — what the family didn’t eat or put up for the winter — with their neighbors. The cherry crop was earmarked for homemade wine. One of my father’s chores was to handpick bugs off the plants and squish the gushy things between his fingers. He never was keen on gardening after that.

During World War I the family acquired a herd of pigs as part of the patriotic Liberty Garden effort, and the six children learned to ride the porkers as if they were quarter horses. My Uncle Ed, one of four to attend Yale University on a railroad scholarship, set out traps in the local marshes to earn money selling animal pelts.

Thanks to Ed the family had the dubious distinction of owning the neighborhood’s only pet skunk, with its organs in fine fettle. According to my father, if you do right by a skunk, it will make allowances.

This seemingly simple and straightforward life was also one of severe expectations. After graduating from Stamford High School, my father was off to Hotchkiss, a WASP-infested boarding school upstate that in two years would prepare him for the Ivy League. In one of his letters to my father, Michael Holahan wrote in spare, compelling prose, “Richard, I understand you are not fulfilling your religious duties. If this continues I will bring you home.”

I suspect that my father questioned the religion he inherited more than once in his life, which after 94 years came to an end on Christmas Day of 2003. In 1914, he was four years old and in the next room when his mother, Margaret Callery Holahan, gave birth to twins, at home, where babies were born in those days. One of the twins died immediately and without benefit of the holy sacrament of baptism. Because of this circumstance, the child could not be buried in a Catholic cemetery and would have to await the Second Coming to be reunited with his Heavenly Father.

Listening to my father tell this story, late in his life, I inferred that at some point, perhaps at age four, he found Catholic teaching wanting on this point. But whatever his theological differences with Rome, my father didn’t abandon the church.

He stood by other institutions that he knew were not infallible, including various town boards and committees he served on, and the Democratic Party. He cast his first presidential vote in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt and his last for Al Gore in 2000. His political faith was tested severely by four years in what was then a Republican lion’s den, Yale University, and it never wavered. He was one of only a few classmates who openly supported FDR.

Although a successful businessman, my father steadfastly adhered to the catechism of the New Deal: it was the “little guy” — like the working mother, the immigrant or the unskilled laborer down on his luck — who needed an occasional hand from government. Conversely, corporate behemoths didn’t require coddling. Government was for the people, not for some of the people.

He practiced what he preached. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas our house would be awash in unsolicited turkeys, fruit baskets and fifths of liquor from contractors and firms that had business before the various town boards my father served on. Our mother guarded these gifts fiercely so the packages could all be returned intact (in the case of perishables or items we boys had mauled, he would mail a check).

At my father’s funeral mass, his eldest son Michael surmised, “If there is a heaven, I submit to you that my father is already chairman of the Divine Planning Board.” If so, I submit that heaven would be a better place for it.

I know my father talked to God. I saw him do it at mass right up to the end of his life. I am fairly certain that it was a one-way conversation. If God had talked to my father, he would have mentioned it. My father’s faith didn’t require a dialogue. Nor did it demand perfection. Perhaps he even wondered, in a weak moment, if his God, the Creator of such a puzzling universe, wasn’t exactly perfect either.