april 24

Friday, April 24th

Holy Cross College, Worcester, MA

St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, IT


Good morning, Good morning,

I was chatting with Fr. David Meng this morning and mentioned the recent parish letter on St. Kateri Tekakawetha and how her family died in the Smallpox Epidemic in upstate New York during the 17th century.  He added to the story… now added to this letter.  St. Kateri survived the epidemic but with multiple facial scars and damaged retinas.  “We know that ‘Kateri’ is her baptized name.  It means Catherine.  Tekakawitha is what the Indians called her after the epidemic.  It means, ‘One who bumps into things.’” A reference to her damaged eyes.   You just have got to love Fr. Meng.  He is one of our best priests.

The night before another priest stopped in the rectory.  He asked me to tell the others some of the stories of the priests from our past.  In particular, Msgr. Thomas P. Scannell, of whom I was honored to have known and served with.  This letter is offered to all of God’s priests in this world and the next. 


The website above is the obituary offered for the good monsignor.  It is well done and offers some insights on what the good priest did in his life in Arlington.  Now allow me to speak on who he was.  He was one of my great heroes in the priesthood.  In 1981, as a newly ordained priest assigned to Holy Spirit Parish in Annandale I would make it a habit to ride my bicycle over to see the great Monsignor of St. Michaels.  He rarely ever left the parish but I knew he would be a great source of information on the history of the diocese and many priests who served the good people of Northern Virginia.   As he had poor hearing I would stay for a half hour and simply listen.  Mrs. Betty Grogan, the cook, and now retired in my former parish in Warrenton, would always have a lemonade waiting for me in the fridge.  I was never disappointed in my pilgrimages to St. Michael’s.

Young Thomas Scannell was one of seven children.  His father was a New York policeman and his mother a homemaker.  Of his many siblings one would serve as a very successful Christian Brother Educator who authored a number of books.  Another brother, Richard, became a Jesuit.  Sadly, one of his sisters would be lost to a car accident in front of their Brooklyn tenement building.  In his early life the rough and tumble Thomas made his name as a football quarterback.  He entered The College of the Holy Cross  with an athletic scholarship.

In his first year at Holy Cross he blew out his knee during practice and would never play football again.  The Jesuit University kept him on scholarship but required him to work in the campus dinner hall.  He went from star to servant all in his first semester.  He was bolstered by his roommate, Louis Flaherty, future bishop of the Diocese of Richmond.  Those two hit it off and would share a great friendship as well as an interest in priesthood.  It must have been an interesting room on that second floor of the dorm just of McKeon Road in Worcester, MA.

 It seems to me that the seminary for Brooklyn was overwhelmed with young candidates when young Thomas graduated from the Cross in 1933.  With Flaherty’s zeal and influence it was the Diocese of Richmond that beckoned him to come South… with the promise they would send him East to study in Rome.  But first a road trip.

In 1933 Fr. Richard Scannell SJ, was the chaplain at the famed Alcatraz Prison, located in San Francisco Bay.  The invite to the younger brother went out over the wires.  An on he came.  Now graduate Scannell hitchhiked from New York to Kansas.  At the mid-section of America he met up with the hobos by the train tracks and they taught him how to jump trains


Please allow an explanation on the distinction between a hobo and a bum.  Hobos were men with trades and were to be honored at that time in the Great Depression.  Bums were just that. 


Back to the story.  New to the art of jumping trains no one ever told the graduate that it got very cold on top of the train at night.  He and a cohort ducked into the coal car and road with a moderate chill.  In the morning they were completely covered with coal dust.  He was not a pretty sight.

At the western end of the state of Colorado he jumped off the train and walked into town.  He spotted a YMCA.  He knocked on the door and mentioned he had been a member back East but no longer with hard times.  All he wanted to do was take a shower.   The door opened.   He took a shower with his clothes on and then with his clothes off.  By the end of the second shower his clothes had dried with the high mountain air which was so very dry.  He jumped another train and went off to California.   His brother introduced him to what was one of famed American Penal institutions.  He met the warden, the guards, and few nefarious inmates.  And there is a story in that.

Fr. Dick provided Thomas with a boat ticket back to New York, by way of the Panama Canal.  Of course, the ticket was lower than steerage, which meant he was required to spend the multi week trip scraping and painting the inner bulkheads of the ship.  Once home in Brooklyn he had two weeks before catching a ship to Rome.  He thought he and Flaherty were treated like the Royals. 

At Rome he met his new roommate, Frank Bradican.  Bradican, also a seminarian for the Diocese of Richmond, hailed from Dunmore, Pennsylvania.  Both men were as different as night and day.  Bradican was lace curtain Irish who just arrived from the collegiate seminary in Louvaine, Belgium He was a contemporary of a graduate student from Illinois by the name of Sheen.  Scannell grew up in small apartment with eight other people in scenic Brooklyn.  As one had a doily on his end table the other would have a pair of sneakers on his. 

They were not easy years on seminarian Scannnell.  He suffered from football injuries inflicted upon him years earlier.  An Italian surgeon, friend of the North American College, took on the former star quarterback and performed the back surgery.  All was thought to be successful, but far from it.  It seems someone left a sponge inside, next to the spine.  The pain was more excruciating than before the surgery.  And things got worse still.  A visiting graduate student who was in residence at the NAC took it upon himself to serve as Dean of Men.  He waltzed into the hospital an announced to the doctor to patch up young Scannell.  They were sending him home.  The doctor may have liked the North American College but he had no great admiration for some of the Americans.  Especially the grad student.  To whom he dismissed from the ward and kept patient Scannell.  Surgery followed, sponge discovered, and back to class for seminarian Scannell. 

A good forty years later, at an Alumni gathering, hosted in Las Vegas, for the priests from the North American College Fr. Scannell met up with the graduate student priest and chewed him out royally.  “Hey, You almost had me thrown out of the NAC and here I am.  God bless the Italian doctor.”  The other responded, “Good for you.  You made it.  God bless you… and he walked away.”  It was the last conversation Fr. Scannell would ever have with John Patrick Cody, who, in a matter of months, would be named the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago.

Fr. John Patrick Cody

Back to the story.  The world would see many changes in the short years that followed the ordination of young Fr. Thomas Scannell.   The ugly face of Fascism was introduced to Europe by former altar boys in Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Germany.  War would follow.

In 1943, during the war to end all wars young Fr. Scannell entered the chaplaincy service for the Army Air Corps.  He served in England.  He was chaplain to the B-17 Squadrons with their infamous day light bombings over enemy territory.  He would hear confessions and say Mass for the crews in the very very early mornings, before their briefings and take offs.   He would serve with distinction and return to the Diocese of Richmond in 1946. 

In coming home he was given the duty of starting up  an office of Catholic Charities in Northern Virginia.  It was all designed and created under the roof of St. Charles Rectory, in Arlington.   At first, all he had was a file cabinet, not even a chair for his desk.  What he also had was a good friend in a priest named Flaherty.  They were still thick as thieves.  Flaherty, found him a chair, a typewriter, and a good secretary. Director Scannell was off to the races. 

Years later, the director became a pastor.  In 1953 he started a parish in Annandale called St. Michael’s.  With that the entrepreneur skills of the young pastor came alive.  He was bright, articulate, and on the socio-political cutting edge.  The Protestant Ministers, themselves new to the area, would seek him out for financial advice.  He even gave his cassock to the new Lutheran pastor down the street.  The fraternity with the Protestant pastors came be a blessing hundreds of times over.  When he asked them to join him in promoting a petition for open and fair housing for the Black families who wanted to settle in Annandale they responded in the affirmative.  Nonetheless, if you took all the signatures raised in the non-Catholic churches they didn’t come close to the number of signatures from St. Michael’s.  With the uproar that followed the Catholic pastor of St. Michael’s was later publically referred to as the “Communist Pastor of St. Michael’s.

The Monsignor started to build and never stopped.  A rectory, school (two-classroom buildings and gymnasium). A convent for the Immaculate Hear Sisters from Philadelphia would follow.  Than the Church, the piece de resistance… built in the round.  The only other church in the round known to the hierarchy/clergy of the Commonwealth was found in Rome.  It was called the Pantheon.  The former library for the Roman emperors.  

The Pantheon, in Rome.

 https://www.skylinewebcams.com/en/webcam/italia/lazio/roma/pantheon.html?fbclid=IwAR27n_wlCOZeiViwE3QLvo4cyB_-MSk_VwxCZv7IJTx2H-18Zu-hfw965IA   After almost one and half millennium they still have weekend Masses at the Pantheon… as they do in Annandale.

With the rise of the great parochial empire in Annandale came the title, “Monsignor.”  Msgr. Scannell was far from done.  One long forgotten story dealt with the old African American janitor that all the mothers loved so much because he worked so very hard and was so very polite to them.  Seems the old janitor was a newly released murderer from his cell in Alcatraz.  Some Jesuit chaplain gave him a bus ticket to Annandale, Virginia.  For a long time he lived down stairs in the rectory.  

There was a plan for adding a high school on the property… but the Precious Blood Fathers, staffing St. Anthony Parish, next door, in Falls Church, appealed to the bishop to stop the project.  They were worried about losing their teenagers to the Annandale Parish.  The project was stopped and St. Michael’s established their own bus service. 

O’Connell High School was a restricted school in the early years.  Students from “six” parishes were accepted in the school.  St. Michael’s was outside the boundaries so the parish would transport kids to Visitation (girls) High School in Georgetown and Gonzaga (boys) High School in Washington, on North Capitol Street.  And it was all paid for with the work of the great pastor who rarely left his parish grounds, except to play golf on the Ponderosa golf course down the street on Braddock Road.  

The legacy of St. Michael’s would always hold the single admonishment Monsignor offered to thirty years of students in his Catholic School whenever he would say Mass.  There was no exception, from his first Mass to his last Mass he would say:  “Children, what must you never forget?”  And the students would respond, “I am a child of God.”   Many years later when I was out recruiting candidates in the seminary in the various universities around the Commonwealth I would occasionally meet up with a student from St. Michael’s.  And every time I would ask them, “What must you never forget?”  And almost every one of them responded, with a smile, “I am a child of God.”

Of course there was the legend lost to the memories of most priests in the Arlington Diocese involves the parish sites Monsignor picked out in the growing diocese… Holy Spirit, on Braddock Road.  And St. Bernadette’s on Old Keene Mill Road.  They would serve as two of the largest parishes in the Commonwealth. 

The best example of the Scannell financial genius involves St. Clare’s Church in Clifton.  Many may not remember but Clifton was considered a possible site for the future Dulles Airport.  During the Second Vatican Council, of which Fr. Heisler so eloquently likes to speak, Monsignor called Bishop Russell in Rome and informed him he had a line of two hundred acres in Clifton, Virginia.  The cost, one hundred dollars an acre.  The Bishop said take ten and the Monsignor insisted two hundred would be better.  The Bishop won out for the time being.  When St. Clare’s Parish was established in Clifton many years later they had their ten acres waiting for them… surrounded by a hundred and ninety acres under the name of Thomas P. Scannell.  The cost of each acre at that time was in the many many thousands of dollars.  Not many years later the money from that Clifton investment helped to build the library and gymnasium at Christendom College. 

And now, allow me to skip to the end of the Scannell saga.  When I was assigned to be pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Arlington I sought him out to join me.  At that time he was in a rectory where the pastor had recently restricted him from saying a public Mass because a well-known political family did not appreciate his homilies.  I encouraged him to come with me and three times, in the same lunch, he turned me down.  I said to him, “If you want to stay and rot in this little hole over here you can do just that.  But, if you want to come alive again in your priesthood you will come with me at St. Agnes.”  He politely excused me from the lunch and I went home.  Two weeks later he announced to everyone that he was coming to St. Agnes.  And he came alive again.

Every night at nine o’clock the priests of the rectory would stop in the kitchen for ice cream.  He just loved the guys in the house.  And they loved him.   And then the priests and seminarians, from other rectories, would stop in unannounced.  The monsignor became the center of attention.  And then one of the fellas decided we needed to have a series of Cary Grant Movies… every Monday night.  Monsignor was front and center for each video with his bowl of popcorn in hand.

In the final chapter of this story I offer one of my favorite memories with the Monsignor when were stationed at St. Agnes.  I was called to perform the funeral Mass for the mother-in-law of the owner of the Washington Redskins, Jack Kent Cooke.   At the wake, Mr. Cooke came over to thank me for taking the funeral.   I told him he owed me a favor.  “A favor Father?”  I told him I had a eighty six year old monsignor with whom I couldn’t give the Sunday Noon Mass because he had to be in front of the TV for the one o’clock kick off.  I asked if he would mind saying hello to the Monsignor.   He agreed and met the good Monsignor at the back door of the rectory.  Later in the afternoon, the call came in from Redskins Park, and the Monsignor and I were invited to the Owner’s Box for the Sunday night game against the Jets.  At the end of the game Cooke shook hands with monsignor and said, “You old Monsignor, you’re three years older than I am.”  I presented Mr. Cooke with a miraculous medal as a sign of our appreciation.  He grabbed my arm and said we were welcome back to the box for any game we ever wanted.  Quite sadly, the poor man died shortly afterwards.  It was 1997.  It was his time.  The old monsignor would live for another eight years.

Toward the end I would stop in to the Camelot Nursing Home to see the monsignor.  On his final day I sat next to his bed and fell sound asleep.  As I woke up he looked over and smiled.  I felt like a rookie cleric once again in the presence of the great monsignor.  All I needed was a glass of lemonade. 

Copyright 2021 St. Francis DeSales | Login

Contact Webmaster