Monday, June 20, 2011
(Above: Father Crespin greeting parishioners after Mass. Photo by Pat Brock.)
I know one person who is really going to hate this column: Rev. George Crespin, who is retiring as pastor emeritus of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley.
Why? Because this column is about him. And he's a very humble guy.
But I can't help it. When a good man like him calls it a career, attention must be paid.
Crespin, 75, was the first priest ordained in the Diocese of Oakland when it was split off from the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1962. He was one of those bright young priests who came out the seminary fired with enthusiasm during the heady days of Vatican II.
The diocese's first bishop, the late Floyd Begin, and the second bishop, John Cummins, considered Crespin to be the best and brightest of the bunch, and they put him on a career fast track.
Begin appointed him chancellor of the diocese, and Cummins promoted him to the number two job, Vicar-General. It was clear that both hoped he would succeed them as the diocese's third bishop.
But Crespin turned his back on all that. He didn't want to be a high-ranking prelate; all he wanted to do was be a simple parish priest. And, after years of trying to talk him out of it, they finally let him have his way.
For the last three decades he's been the epitome of what a parish priest should be. He's the guy you call at 3 a.m. when your mother is sick or your kid is in trouble. He's the guy who is always there to welcome people to the church, whether he's saying Mass that day or not.
St. Joseph's was founded 132 years ago to serve the largely immigrant working class neighborhoods of west Berkeley. Back then, many of the immigrants were from Finland. Today, they're from Latin America. They found a home in St. Joseph's and a surrogate grandfather in their beloved "Father Jorge."
And his influence goes way beyond St. Joseph's. A couple of years ago a crisis erupted at Berkeley High when the security guards decided to strip some male students down to the waist to look for gang tattoos.
Trouble was, the students were Latino and the security guards were African American.
It looked like a race riot was about to explode until the school frantically called Crespin, who arrived and promptly calmed everything down.
Those tough teenagers trusted him because when they look at him they see that gentle old man who was so kind to them when they were little kids.
Small wonder the Berkeley school board passed a resolution in his honor last Wednesday.
Crespin's retirement isn't entirely voluntary. In a sense, he's collateral damage in an ongoing dispute between St. Joseph's current pastor and the parishioners. But I've already written about that controversy elsewhere in this paper. Today, I want to focus on Crespin and a life well lived.
In 1946 Crespin's hero, Pope John XXIII - then known as Angelo Roncalli - was appointed papal nuncio to France. He did so well, the head of the French Communist Party exclaimed, half in frustration and half in admiration, "If all priests were like Monsignor Roncalli, there would be no anti-clericals left!"
The same could be said about Rev. Crespin.
And here's the news story I referred to:
BERKELEY — A controversy over the direction of a liberal Catholic Church and its pastor continued this week.
On Sunday, about 150 parishioners of St. Joseph the Worker demonstrated outside the church protesting what they say is a more conservative direction the parish has taken the past two years under current pastor the Rev. John Direen.
The demonstration was timed to coincide with a visit by the Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, which includes both Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
The demonstrators want Direen removed, and the pastor has generated controversy by ousting the Rev. George Crespin, St. Joseph’s long-time priest.
In the past, St. Joseph’s has been used to plan antiwar protests and labor organizing drives; it once was used as a safe house by United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez when his life was threatened.
The protesters claim Direen has dismissed the parish council and its Latino counterpart, the Consejo Latino.
Parishioners also assert that Direen has closed the conference room in the rectory to the church’s Social Justice Committee, the St. Vincent De Paul Society and Berkeley Organizing Community for Action, an interfaith political action group that lobbies the city and the school board on issues affecting the poor.
The conference room has been converted to a gift shop to raise funds for the parish, said Mike Brown spokesman for the diocese.
Brown said that Direen did not dismiss the council but named new members to replace members who had left due to attrition.
Cordileone met with many parishioners during his two day visit including a representative group of protestors, Brown said.
"The Bishop has offered to continue the dialogue with those who have matters they would like to discuss," he wrote in an e-mail.
The diocese is not discussing closing the parish, Brown said and Direen sees his mission as strengthening the parish’s financial position.
Crespin was informed three weeks ago that he had to leave St. Joseph’s by the end of this month.
More than 250 letters from parishioners protesting the developments at St. Joseph’s and Crespin’s dismissal have been sent to Cordileone. A similar letter contesting Crespin’s ouster was signed by 29 East Bay priests.
Brown said when Direen became the new pastor Crespin remained as pastor emeritus but the arrangement did not work out.
"It has generally been a difficult situation and this has increased and recently Fr. Direen made the decision that Fr. Crespin would leave the parish,"
The parishioners were silent until a Mass said by Cordileone was over. Then, as the church doors swung open, they began quietly chanting the Lord’s Prayer.
Berkeley police were called when the demonstrators attempted to reenter the church to talk with the bishop. Police left after determining the demonstration was peaceful and no arrests were made.
Protestors said they would not give up.
"This (protest) is very painful for us," said Delfina Geiken, chairwoman of the church’s St. Vincent De Paul Society. "We were raised to be deferential to the hierarchy. But we have no choice. We have to save our church."