Irish Catholic Weights & Measure


“He will fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting” (Job 8:21).

Today is St. Patrick’s Day.  A day of joy and celebration filled with corned beef and cabbage, green beer and Irish whiskey.  The Irish are known for their humor. This story is offered in their honor.

Four Irish Catholics

It is curious story involves four San Francisco Irish Catholics—a bishop, a monsignor, a priest and an altar boy. A McFarland, a Cummins, a Walsh and a Donohue, all in descending order.  The incident happened at St. Brendan’s church, the namesake of the great Irish voyager, in the California City by the Bay.

It was the mid-1960s.  Bishop McFarland was a diocesan canon lawyer living along with Monsignor Cummins and Father Walsh at the St. Brendan Parish rectory.  The three clerics noticed that the taste of the communal wine seemed to be getting weaker. It was obvious that someone was tampering with the holy beverage.  Of course, the likely suspects were the altar boys. In those days, snitching a taste of the grape was thought by the boys to be a kind of rite of passage. 

As it turned out, the priests were right.  In wine terms, the cleverness of the seventh graders versus the eighth graders is worthy of mention.  The seventh graders were of a “very good year” but the eighth graders “mediocre at best.” You see, when Monsignor Cummins asked the seventh-grade boys to get a couple bottles of wine from the priest house across the alley, they’d grab three and put one in the bushes for later.  The eighth graders, on the other hand, just took swigs and then watered down the bottle to bring it back to the previous level. Had they followed the seventh graders’ lead, nobody would probably have been the wiser. As it was, the seventh graders’ tactic was no match for the loose lips of their eighth-grade counterparts.  

And so the three ecclesiastics, probably over a lamb chop, potatoes, and green pea dinner, sought to resolve this pilfering problem.  They likely were sipping good Irish whiskey or a fine wine as they conjured up their solution. No doubt there was a lot of laughter around the table too—maybe so much that their eyes watered—possibly at the rekindled memories of their own alter-boy pasts.

A day or two later Bishop McFarland, the respected canon lawyer, in his finest robes, summoned the uniformed boys to the church from the parish school and sat them in front of the altar rail (a part of the architecture of the day).  He proceeded to tell the altar servers that under canon law, there was a precise dilution of so many parts water to so many parts wine preparatory to the communion sacrifice—that it had to be exact. The result of the boy’s indiscretion was that every single parishioner who took communion had unknowingly committed a mortal sin because of them.  They’re actions, the towering prelate told them in his booming voice, was a grievous SIN! The boys trembled. The bishop was an authoritative figure, known by those who served under him as “Absolute” Norman McFarland.

Donahue’s Faith was Fortified

One of those altar boys was Tommy Donohue.  He related that he was confused and scared for his very soul.  He immediately went to confession with Monsignor Cummins and confessed that he had stolen some of the wine.  The monsignor got pretty verbal in admonishing him for his terrible, evil and sinful deed. Beside two decades of the rosary and five Our Fathers, his penance included that he beg the Lord’s forgiveness for the remainder of his life whenever he lifted a glass of wine.

Of course, Donohue ended up owning a saloon in San Francisco—the Philosopher’s Club.  To this very day whenever someone orders a glass of wine, he wipes down the bar in front of the patron and mutters (almost inaudibly) under his breath: “Forgive me, Lord, Forgive me, Lord.”  He really does—despite the bishop’s lie! In this case, two wrongs did make a right.

The story is representative how two wrongs can sometimes make a right.  Donahue stole the wine. The Bishop, the monsignor, and the priest made up a lie.  Sometimes the Irish do that. Donahue’s faith was fortified and the altar boys learned a lesson.


©Copyright 2018 Daniel Demers


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