In a way it was fitting that Father Robert Greatorex died while I was on vacation in January. For many years our relationship, such as it was, involved me calling him to see if he’d preside at parish Masses while I was away, often on vacation. It worked the other way as well. He’d call to preside at Masses for the Sisters when he was going to be away, which happened three times a year and always to Boston, or Baaahstun as he said it, his hometown.
Our’s was a relationship of convenience and necessity, which I acknowledge not as a confession so much as an unfortunate reality. Our paths didn’t intersect often beyond the walls of the convent where we’d exchange platitudes while passing in the hallway.
That changed a few years ago as his health began to decline and my responsibilities as dean gave me a limited role in his care. As a few of us helped him make the transition from the convent, where he’d lived for over three decades, to an assisted living facility, I was able to get to know him as I hadn’t in all those years before. We had conversations driving to doctor’s appointments in Marshfield, when I’d stop to see how he was settling in to a new home that he insisted was not his home, and when we shared our first meals together at the only restaurant he liked, The Olympia, eating a meal so predictable that the servers could have placed the order as soon as we walked in the door: chicken salad, mashed potatoes, gravy and pie.
By this time his memory was failing and some of the details were missing and a few perceptions weren’t quite accurate, but he was always in good humor on these outings and I appreciated hearing him tell stories of Boston, however it might be pronounced; of his years as a hospital chaplain; and the various experiences that come from being a priest for more than 50 years.
He was no longer able to celebrate Mass publicly, but he got up before the sun and offered Mass in his room, contacting me every month or so asking for more hosts and wine. He was an eager presence at nursing home communion services and enjoyed being part of the ritual, of responding to the prayers he’d exchanged for so many years, of singing hymns so familiar that they helped him remember. He thought all of the Leaders of Prayer were “superb.”
Once he became settled in an assisted living facility I must confess that my visits became rather fleeting, as did his memory as to who I was. At first the details were specific. He knew my name, that I was pastor of the two parishes in Stevens Point that he knew best, the one across from the hospital where he’d been chaplain to the sick and the other having Mass at the convent where he’d been chaplain to the Sisters. The last few months all of that was lost, even memory of my name. He spoke of me then, as he did many in those final months, as “my good friend.” Not a bad way to be remembered.
The highlight of the visits came as I was leaving, even my final visit just a few days before he died. I said then as I always had, “Robert, would give me your blessing?” It was the one priestly thing that he could still do. And then, even on that last visit, he would raise his hand and say something such as “Loving God, bless my good friend in his ministry and bless his people in their service to you. Keep them safe and always in your care. We ask this in the name of the Father and of the Son and of Holy Spirit.”
We trust he now enjoys that same love and care with God. TL