As we laid former president of Saint Ignatius High School, Rev. Robert J. Welsh, S.J. '54 to rest on Wednesday, September 5, a rainbow appeared over Saint Ignatius High School as if it were a sign from Fr. Welsh letting us know he was now home.
During the funeral at the Church of the Gesu in University Heights, several people close to Fr. Welsh shared their own memories of him and the friendship they shared. Here are some remarks from Rita Carfagna, Jeff Leitch '71, and former president of Saint Ignatius and current president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States Fr. Timothy P. Kesicki, S.J.
Rita Carfagna reflection:
Jeff Leitch '71 reflection:
I am honored to have this opportunity to share some reflections about Fr. Welsh on behalf of my husband, Peter, and our families and friends.
I first got to know Fr. Welsh when Peter and I were dating in high school. Little did I know at the time that throughout those high school and college years, Fr. Welsh was hoping and praying that Peter would find a vocation to the Jesuits. Obviously that didn’t happen! In fact, Fr. Welsh con-celebrated our wedding Mass in 1976. In the middle of Mass, while on the altar, he became seriously ill and had to leave. After Mass he was fine, but it was a little hard for me not to take it personally!
Since that time, I have been blessed to come to know Fr. Welsh as my dear friend and confessor, and as the spiritual director for our prayer group. Several times a year, in the Jesuit residence, he celebrated the Eucharist with Peter and me, and our friends, the Gabors, Leitches and Ertles. Following the Gospel, he would share a reflection on the readings and engage us in faith sharing. What a rich time that was – his reflections were simple and strait forward and always so right-on. During those times, he shared the most precious gift he could with us – his faith in and love for Jesus Christ. He always encouraged us to remain steadfast in our faith and trust in our loving God; he reminded us to remain patient - that God’s grace may come in God’s time but it always comes; and most importantly, he helped us nurture a personal friendship with Jesus.
I feel so blessed to have simply lived in his orbit all these years, because it enabled me to witness the myriad loving relationships that defined him and made him a living testimony to God’s love in our lives.
There was the love he had for his family, especially his mother. He shared with us the story of how his sister died in a tragic accident when she was just a toddler. Years later he asked his mother how she kept her faith all those years and her reply was simply, “Rob, to whom else would I go?” I believe that his mother was the one who really helped form him in his faith life.
Peter and I witnessed how he loved his fellow Jesuits. I will always remember the deep joy he felt looking forward to his trips to Omena. And upon his return, he would regale us with stories of days filled with card-playing and golf with the likes of Fr. Von Tobel and others. And we could only imagine the hours of merciless barbs they so gleefully exchanged on those trips! In recent years when we visited him at Columbiere, we watched as those loving, wise-cracking barbs continued between him and Fr. Jim Lewis and his devoted friend, Fr. Frank Canfield. You just couldn’t keep this good Jesuit down!
Fr. Welsh’ love for all of his students was paramount, especially that sometimes most un-lovable group – the sophomores! He always got a twinkle in his eye whenever he recounted his conversations with them in the dining hall or in their CLC’s. What love he had for them! The students were the ones who really lit up his life and he changed their lives for the better as many an alum will tell you today.
Fr. Welsh loved his friends. And the love all of us had for him is undeniable. That was so evident last evening at his wake. As more than one person there said “he made all of us feel as though we were his best friends.” That’s because he became invested in our lives – he witnessed our marriages, baptized our children, helped us through the grief of losing a loved one, and if we needed his help in anyway, he was there for us. And besides all of that, how could any of us resist that Irish charm and wit and simply how much fun he was to be with?
And of course, there was the loving friendship and working relationship that Fr. Welsh shared with my father, Jerry Murphy. To say that those two Irishmen hit it off is the ultimate understatement. Fr. Welsh was so delighted the way my father called him “Bob.” Even though Peter and I have known him all these many years, I am pretty sure we never called him “Bob” – Fr. Wonderful, maybe, but never “Bob!” I think I can confidently say that the friendship Fr. Welsh shared with my father and mother was one of the best things to ever happen to all of them! Together they were named Founders of St. Ignatius High School because they transformed its campus, first with the addition of Murphy Fieldhouse, then St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel, and finally the Clavius Science Center. But of all of those accomplishments, I know it was the designing and building of the chapel that meant the most to Fr. Welsh.
Because the most important love of Fr. Welsh’ life was his love for Jesus Christ. His own experience taught him and we all heard him say it many times, that when you come to know Jesus, you cannot help but fall in love with him, and when you fall in love with him, you cannot help but want to serve him. Fr. Welsh wanted nothing more than for others, especially the young men who walked the campus, filled the hallways and classrooms, and prayed in the chapel to come to know, love, and serve Jesus as he had.
As I stand here this morning, I am filled with gratitude to God for the gift and beacon that Fr. Welsh was in our lives and I am deeply grateful to Fr. Welsh himself for so willingly serving as such an effective messenger of God’s unconditional and magnanimous love.
Although losing him is hard, I am comforted by the image I have of Fr. Welsh being completely fulfilled and resting in the arms of the Jesus he loved so. But then again, probably not resting. I think Fr. Welsh and my father might likely be sitting in a corner of heaven somewhere, excitedly planning the addition of just one more chapel in the heavenly kingdom. And no doubt, this one will be even more beautiful than the last.
It's an honor and privilege just to attend this celebration of father bob welsh’s extraordinary life...let alone have the daunting responsibility to share a reflection about a man I love deeply and who our prayer group affectionately refers to as Fr. Wonderful.
I say daunting because how in a few minutes do you possibly capture this man who means as much to so many as Robert J. Welsh, S.J.? It's impossible -- and there is such a feeling of inadequacy in even attempting it. If Bob Leitch was my earthly biological father then Bob Welsh was my spiritual father going back to my sophomore year at Saint Ignatius...my director, mentor, counselor, friend, confidante for nearly 50 years. He taught me what a personal relationship with Jesus Christ was all about with his words and his deeds. And I, like you, am really hurting today knowing something significant has died deep inside. It's not difficult to identify—it's the emptiness that comes with the final separation from someone you dearly love, and with whom you have enjoyed every moment you’ve been in there presence.
Until these last few days, I didn’t realize how much dependency on Bob there still was for me. Though we only saw Bob a few times a year and phone calls were difficult, I knew that a physical connection to him was only a three hour drive away. Our prayer group has visited him a number of times these last years at Columbiere and though it was obvious his body and mind were failing there was still that smile, that sparkle in his eye, and he always acted so interested in recounting stories from his Saint Ignatius days, any updates on news from Cleveland, and always always any bit of news about his beloved wildcats. Especially the football team.
Yet despite the grief we feel and the sorrow we share today there is a special gift we also share and I think its where we begin to find the peace and consolation we all seek. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola describes a special God-given grace from the fourth week as the gift of memory, which allows a retreatant to bring to mind and embrace all the wonderful people and blessings that one has enjoyed thus far in life -- and to be ever grateful for them. That would seem to be the perfect setting to place ourselves in today as we remember our dear friend and brother, Fr. Welsh. So let me humbly suggest that we pause now and thank God that we have a God who loves us so much that he would gift us with Fr. Welsh. Because of that gift of memory, Father continues to live in our hearts and minds, and his immeasurable imprint on our lives endures. Yesterday at St. Mary's Chapel for nearly six hours there were countless stories from hundreds of you that testified to that fact. This morning at this time i would ask that we all take a moment to reflect and center on that one Fr. Welsh moment or story that is most meaningful for us and hold on to it.
So I would like to focus this morning on (3) elements in this reflection of father:
1.) His influence on myself and our family
2.) His tremendous impact on Saint Ignatius High School
3.) And finally, I might suggest an Ignatian exercise to help us all remember our friend, teacher, priest, brother in a more meaningful way.
I first encountered Fr. Welsh when I was 16 and an all-knowing, all-commenting, sarcastic sophomore. I learned at the wake yesterday that the greek translation for sophomore is “wise fool." How apropos! For whatever reason from beginning to end at Saint Ignatius, Father always loved sophomores, and there really isn’t much to like — let alone love. They were and are all about themselves and thats what Bob loved as he kidded them in his special way with his brand of self-deprecating humor. That was fall of 1968, yes, 50 years ago—and he was teaching Theology. I didn’t have him in class but the word was out: this is the guy (even then) asking students the Jesus question. Honestly after seeing him at morning masses preaching the features and benefits of a friendship with Jesus, I actually felt sorry for this jesuit. 'Our class will take this poor guy apart,' I thought. There was some initial ridicule but Father connected with nearly everyone because he was genuine and really cared for students. Sophomores can smell phonies a mile away. Within a year he was my primary confessor, advisor, and the dear friend who I could rib and needle and he would give it right back. How great was this!
He has been there for me ever since. Through the Saint Ignatius years, college time at UVA when i still pondered a jesuit vocation and also first encountered some difficult health issues, supporting my wife Jan and me during the courtship years when Father for the first of many times told her he would be willing to perform an exorcism on me to rid me of my attachments to pathetic, losing Cleveland sports teams (unfortunately, that’s the only time the wonderful one failed us). What followed were three children that also came to know and love this man, many years of association on the Saint Ignatius Board, the amazing experience of making the Spiritual Exercises with Bob, then learning from him how to lead others in the same, his counseling and consoling me through the suffering and death of two parents, the dozens of gatherings of our prayer group for liturgy and dinner that Rita so beautifully described, and the over whelming exhiliration in 2010 of seeing Father officiate the marriage of our daughter Megan and son-in-law, Andrew, whose own conversion to Catholicism was in no small part due to the example and encouragement of Bob Welsh. And the list could go on and on. And he did the same for countless others. Our family was not the exception. Rather that was the rule with Father. He shared and stretched himself to the max because he loved and understood what God had called him to.
There is no measure of gratitude I can ever offer for all that Father did for us, but the wonderful surprise and irreplaceable gift was seeing the relationship he developed with my dad late in my father’s life. My dad and his brother were two of the first non-Catholics to attend Saint Ignatius High School. After World War II, my dad attended John Carroll University and though he came to church with our family on the special religious occasions, he was not a member of our faith. Father took a special liking to my dad because no one could turn a story better than Bob Leitch and he was the consummate host and entertainer. Along the way my dad learned that Fr. Welsh loved golf—though he was by no means a scratch player. So we started playing 2-3 times a summer a high stakes winner take all golf match at Elyria Country Club. My father and his partner —the great sandbagger “Bobby” Welsh (as my dad affectionately described him) vs. Mark Maynard and myself. Over 6-7 years we probably played a dozen times and no game was more competitive, fun, or had more caustic commentary among the participants. Our team never won—never came close—these games were always won by them and lost by us on the first tee when my dad ‘negotiated” the bet to make sure father got all the shots he needed to assure their victory. Afterward, the chortling by those two as they mocked us was unmerciful. Father even took a few puffs on a victory cigar once while sipping an adult beverage, before turning green and excusing himself for a trip to the restroom. Make no mistake about it, Fr. Welsh loved to win. Ask anyone that was in the Athletic Department or on the football coaching staff around the time of the St. Edward game each year. He was even more serious about these golf games and it forged an incredible bond with my father.
There are so many stories that could be told from those games, but my favorite involves Father Welsh on the par 3 —13th hole —when he needed to hit a ball about 125 yards over a pond onto a small green. Father put three balls quickly into the water and was seething. He asked me for two more balls, which I promptly gave him and he put those in the water as well. Then he came to me just sticking his hand out to solicit another sleeve of balls -- no words were necessary. I was laughing by this time, which infuriated him, and I said, “sorry, Bob, I’m out of golf balls!” He stared for a few seconds and as he turned to go back to his cart I could hear him yelling the following to me:
“Jeffrey, if you can’t afford to play this game, maybe you should find something better to do with your free time!” All of us roared at Bob Welsh’s “tin cup moment.”
My dad so loved Bob Welsh. The culmination of their relationship occurred in 1991 in the Saint Ignatius Chapel located in the basement of the old science building when my dad surprised my mom on their 40th wedding anniversary by being baptized by Father and initiated into our faith. The only others present were Jane and Tom McManamon who acted as godparents and were life long friends of my parents and Father Welsh. It was the first and most important step in my dad’s life long battle to overcome alcoholism and though it took another three years to reach sobriety, he credited Father as one of the key people who finally got him on the right road.
As mentioned earlier, in 50 years of knowing Father I have seen him take on and accomplish so much at Saint Ignatius. And I'm not telling those here anything you don’t know because most of you were there to help and experience it. But no tribute to Father is complete without some mention of our beloved Alma Mater and his time there.
The late Fr. David Fleming, S.J. in his book, What is Ignatian Spirituality? states that the spiritual exercises are a vision of life, work, and love. In my experience, I have not seen anyone better epitomize all three visions than Fr. Welsh.
His overall vision of the world was that it was full of goodness and opportunity, a place God sustains and loves. Contrast that with what we see on the world stage today. It would be easy to adopt the opposing view that our world is bleak, full of evil, greed, and selfishness with no room for god or each other. Father's life vision came directly out of the spiritual exercises and is summarized so well on the signage at the center of campus that asks all who pass through the school’s doors: what is it god wants of me? If you were going to spend anytime at Saint Ignatius you had better be prepared to respond to Father’s life-changing question.
Father’s work vision was just as straightforward. He believed the specifics of the work you did was not important. Just as long as you understood the import of choosing to be with christ in that work and then have christ by your side as you made decisions about that work. When Father left ignatius nearly 20 years ago, I think we may have seen him feeling his worst. He struggled after his time at Saint Ignatius during his sabbatical and in his time at Gesu Parish in Toledo. He was depressed, lonely. Yet he never lost his ability to laugh at himself and in conversation he called himself out if he felt his attitude was less than christlike. Despite a very difficult period in his life, he remained with Christ in whatever assignment he was given, deeply in love with the Lord.
The third part of the Ignatian vision that Fr. Flemming refers to is the vision of love. In the spiritual exercises it is described as the contemplatio—the contemplation on the love of God. Over time I came to see that all of Father’s efforts at the school were focused on making Saint Ignatius a place where that vision could become a reality, but it could only be accomplished by changing one heart at a time. His approach was the same with everyone: teachers, parents, students, board members: come to know God loves you first, experience that love, no matter how imperfect it may be, in our daily lives, and eventually respond in service to others out of love because you fully recognize that there is no one else you would surrender your life to—besides Jesus.
As Father was leaving Saint Ignatius, the school newspaper published a lengthy list of his 21 most important accomplishments—one for every year of his presidency. Number one was articulating the spiritual vision of the school through the spiritual exercises and exhorting every student to know and live the Ignatian Prayer for Generosity.
In viewing the school today it's easy to assume that Saint Ignatius always hired with mission in mind, that the spiritual well-being of everyone on campus was always the first priority, that students always understood and practiced the corporal works of mercy as part of their everyday curriculum, and that experiencing some form of the spiritual exercises has always been available to parents, alumni, and friends of the school. Father Welsh was the initiator, the impetus behind all of these. As our good friend Dale Gabor said many times, "Father was the force, the one person who never lost perspective, never forgot the true purpose of why we are all here, never forgot to first and foremost thank god for all the blessings and good things that were happening here. There were plenty of people at Saint Ignatius who were carrying the torch and willing to help but Fr. Welsh was the person who lit it."
And how that fire still burns!
I asked you earlier to call to mind your fondest memory of Father. I would like to go back to that now and make use of something described in the spiritual exercises as Ignatian contemplation.
Once you’ve identified your “Welshian moment,” I ask you to take yourself back to it by closing your eyes and imagining its happening all over again. Hear his voice, see his smile or facial expression, hear his wisdom or maybe his clever remark that made you laugh. Perhaps it occurred during a meal and you can even remember what you ate or what you were drinking.
As we reflect, ask yourselves these questions:
What is it God may be saying about your experience of knowing Father in that moment?
How has reliving a special time with Bob Welsh influenced you today? Inspired you? Motivated you to change something about yourself for the better?
Is there a thank you or message we might have for God or Fr. Welsh at this time—knowing he is at peace and in the presence of the God he so dearly loved and that our dear friend, Fr. Welsh, really has the Lord's ear now?
For me, I am taken back to the last time I was with him before he left for Columbiere in early 2015. Our prayer group of the Gabors, Ertles, and Carfagnas had dinner at the Harp restaurant after our Sunday afternoon liturgy in the Jesuit Residence. For whatever reason, I took Father back to the residence by myself and we sat in the front seat of my car for a good ten minutes talking about all kinds of unimportant things. Then I remember telling Bob of my frustration with my job in Canton and the hopelessness about it that i was experiencing.
At that very moment he took my hand and reminded me I was called there for a reason and that I needed to look into the faces of my co-workers and find Christ in them and then pray for ways to be Christ for them.
Then something happened I will never forget. He looked straight at me and said “Jeff, when I leave here I don’t know what’s ahead. Just remember I will never stop loving you. Thank you so much for your friendship all these years and especially that lousy sense of humor of yours.” He had a wide grin on his face as he got out of the car and walked into the residence. I reflect often on that experience and it lifts me up today especially because I miss our dear friend so much. May your own remembrances of this good and holy man do the same.
I would like to close with a prayer that father wrote himself and that was also published in the april issue of the Ignatian quarterly as he was leaving the school. It's entitled: To know, love, and serve you.
Lord let me know you. Let me feel at home with you. Be comfortable with you. If you reveal yourself to me more and more, I know that my knowledge of you will be deeper and richer. And this knowledge will issue in love.
Lord, if I know you, I am going to love you. I simply cannot know you and not fall ever more deeply in love with you so that are everything to me. I want to be more completely yours each day. If I come to know you and love you, then I will be driven to serve you.
Lord, let me serve you. Let my whole life be a service of you. More and more, I want you to heal my selfishness. I want you to claim me as your own. Then I will be looking out for your interests. I will be that servant friend of yours. That is my heart's desire.
Now let the liturgical celebration continue!
Heaven awaits its newest saint.
Fr. Timothy P. Kesicki, S.J.
As I look out my window from the Jesuit General Curia in Rome, with a view of St. Peter's Square, I can imagine Fr. Welsh saying, "What a pity that we've never had a pope from Saint Ignatius High School." Somehow the glory of Michelangelo's dome could never quite overshadow for him that beautiful tower on 30th & Lorain.
I'm the president who succeeded Fr. Welsh. When my tenure began in the year 2000 many people said, "It must be hard to follow a legend." In truth, succeeding him was never hard. Fr. Welsh never wanted to be a legend. His legacy was to give and not to count the cost and I reaped the benefit of his hard work. Yes it's true, countless people told me repeatedly how much they loved him. And I can say in all humility, whenever I heard this, I was brought more deeply into the heart of Christ. It was in Our Lord's Sacred Heart that Fr. Welsh lived and moved and had his being. He shared that heart with everyone he met.
For the past four years I have spent Holy Week with Fr. Welsh in Michigan, and for the past two, he has forgotten my name. While some think of this as sad, I see it as heroic. Father prayed the Suscipe every day asking the Lord to take his liberty, his memory and his entire will. How much the Lord loved him to grant him all that he asked for!
Father Welsh, I want you to know something. I prayed for you in Italian at Mass with Fr. General this morning (or as you would would say EYE-talian). I also made an unconventional edit to a Roman document. On your official posted notice of death I wrote "apostrophe 54" next to your name. It will probably drive the Archivum Historicum Societatus Jesus crazy, and may even get me tossed out of Rome. To which you would say, "Well Timothy, if that's what it took to come back to Cleveland, you did well!"
You now live with our Holy Founder Ignatius, his first companions and the company of Saints & Blessed of the Society. You are safe in the heart of our Lord and the love of his Blessed Mother.
Where you have gone, we hope to follow!