Thursday, July 31, 2014

Death comes for the Curate

Well, it didn't exactly come for me...but it sure called after me today.

It all started around noon-time. I had just finished a busy morning filled with phone calls, e-mails, and meetings...it just felt hectic. So I meandered into the rectory kitchen to prepare myself a little lunch...a nice piece of salmon and a bit of rice that I was cooking in my rice cooker. No sooner had I pressed the "on" button when along comes our secretary telling me that there's a patient at the nursing home who's not going to make it. She said, "I told them that you'll be there after lunch." I thought for a moment...it was tempting. I was tired and hungry, I really needed a little rest...but there was no way I was going to sit down and eat lunch knowing that someone was actively dying across town waiting for the priest. So I stopped the salmon, grabbed my oils, obtained the Blessed Sacrament, and soon I was on my way.


When I arrived at the nursing home I discovered an elderly woman who was sedated, but definitely having trouble breathing. To her right, sitting by her bed and holding her hand, was her sister...to her left, a family friend caressing her arm. I introduced myself and the icy-blank look on their eyes, the kind of look you're only capable of in the midst of intense grief, gave way to a flood of tears. The priest had arrived, and they knew what that meant...the Last Rites.

I embraced each of the women by the bedside, telling them how sorry I was. It's cliche, but there really are no words. I fumbled my way up near the head of the dying woman, opened my sick call kit, put my stole on, took a deep breath, and began. I offered her absolution and the Apostolic Pardon, I anointed her, and then I prayed the prayers for the commendation of the dying. I laid my priestly hands on her dear head and prayed with every fiber of my being that the Lord would take this beautiful soul to Himself. How I wish that she would have been able to receive Holy Viaticum, her Lord in Holy Communion as food for her journey, but she was simply too sedated. So I did all that I could do, and it was powerful...it was heart-breaking...it was intense. 

I took my stole off and once more embraced the two women keeping watch. I stayed with them for awhile...we continued praying and I gave them my blessing. Before I left I told them what a grace it was that their sister and friend would not die without the Sacraments and that the Lord was very near in this, her last hour. The nurse had said it would probably be a few hours yet, so I apologized that I was unable to keep watch with them and gave them my card and told them to call immediately when she enters into her last moments. They were grateful...not to me personally, but to Christ Who came to them in the person of His priest. I headed back to the rectory and finished my lunch, feeling a little heavy but also grateful that I could be there for that dear woman and her family.

And that's when the next call came...


This time no one was dying...death, that villainous fiend, had already struck. A woman at the hospital in Presque Isle breathed her last, rather unexpectedly, and she and I had a history. She had been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks back...there was nothing they could do for her because it was so far progressed, and so they gave her about 2 years left. She called the rectory after this in the hopes of being anointed. Right before I headed off for the ACTS retreat, she and I scheduled a time...when I returned from the retreat, I would immediately head over to her home, anoint her, and give her Holy Communion. When I returned from retreat, however, I got a message...she had been taken to the hospital and was in the ICU.

I rushed to the hospital, not knowing what was going on. She was more or less fine just a couple days prior...riddled with cancer, yes, but not close to death by any means. When I got to her room I found her sitting up in bed and in good spirits. Thank God. But why the hospital? Why the ICU? It was pneumonia. She told me that everything was under control and that she'd probably be going home in the next couple of days. This was great news, but given the severity of her overall condition I did not hesitate to anoint her. And then I gave her Holy Communion. She was so happy and so at peace, neither of us thought that she had just received Viaticum, her last Sacrament.

Late this morning death came for her...out of no where. She was still in ICU, but then rushed to the ER. The doctors couldn't save her...she was gone. And so the phone rang and the secretary gave me the bad news. We called up the hospital to see if the family was still there, but they were not. So I decided to go over to the hospital to attend to the body of my new friend. Security brought me down to the morgue and pulled her lifeless body out of the cooling unit. There she was, before my eyes. Days ago she was talking about how she was going to spend her final years. Sewing, she said, and being with her family. But no more. For the second time that day I breathed deeply, put my stole on, and pulled out my ritual book, this time offering prayers for the dead. I blessed her body, sprinkled it with holy water, and then left that sad room.

I wept back upstairs and headed to the front desk...I figured that, as long as I was at the hospital, I might as well visit some of the patients. I got the list from the receptionist of newly-admitted Catholic patients, and spent the next hour absolving and anointing the sick. Again, it was powerful, heart-breaking, and intense.

When I got back to the car, I noticed that I had a missed call. I didn't even have to check...I knew what it was. Death had come again. The woman I had ministered to this morning was gone.

I went back to the nursing home to find a devastated woman clinging onto the lifeless hand of her sister. I held back the tears I wanted to shed for her, walked into the room and embraced her once again. I had only met this woman this morning, and yet it seemed like we had known each other all our lives. And, in a sense, we had...because it wasn't just me that embraced her, it wasn't just me that had come to tend to her and her sister, it was Christ. I knew that and she knew that. 

I went to the head of the bed and again put on my stole. Another body to bless. Another soul to pray for. More grief to comfort. More tears to wipe away.

When I got back to the rectory my soul was heavy and burdened. I unloaded before the tabernacle, desperate for our Lord to come to the aid of His people. After some moments of prayer, I came back into the house and noticed that it was dinner time. An entire afternoon had been spent journeying back and forth through the valley of death. Death came for the Curate of Caribou today...it came and made its claim on two beautiful people. But it is not death that gets the final word, it is Christ Himself. It has no victory...it has been robbed of its sting. Christ has conquered it. Deo gratias.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. And may their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Day in the Life of the Country Curate

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to give my family and friends an opportunity to "follow me around" so to speak...to allow them to see for themselves what I'm up to. Ever since I arrived in Caribou I have received any number of phone calls and messages from them asking me how I'm doing, how I like my new assignment, what life is like in northern Maine, etc. Whatever we end up talking about, there is always one question that everyone keeps posing: "so...what exactly do you do all day?" I think this comes from their fear that I'm sooooo far north that I must be twiddling my thumbs all day in boredom. After all...can there really be that much for a country curate to do?

Well, to alleviate all your anxieties, let me just say that I am in no way bored and have plenty to do! My days are full...sometimes too full...and they are very dynamic. So in order to make this a little more concrete, I've decided to share with you what a "typical" day is like for me.

The first stop of my morning: the chair.
5:30 AM - My alarm goes off. I immediately hit the snooze button and play the "just five more minutes" game for the next half-hour. It's pathetic really...there's just something about the early morning that makes my skin crawl! But sometime around 6:00 I get tired of being tired and manage to role out of bed to begin my morning ablutions.

6:30 AM - If all has gone according to plan, once I'm "put together" I'll mosey over into my sitting room and plop myself down into one of my really comfortable wing-back chairs. If it's a dark or rainy morning I'll turn my lights off, light the oil lamp that sits on my end-table, and bask in the glory of the morning bleakness. There's just something about a gloomy morning rain that does my heart good! Usually I'll turn on the news or the weather for 15 minutes just to help me get adjusted to the day.

7:00 AM - At this point I usually get around to beginning my prayers. I'll venture into the church to make a holy hour, say my Office, do some spiritual reading, and think about what I'm going to say during my homily at Mass.

Getting things laid out before daily Mass at Holy Rosary.
8:30 AM - Now the real fun begins...this is the daily Mass time-slot. On Tuesdays I'll celebrate Mass at St. Denis Church in Fort Fairfield; on Wednesdays at Holy Rosary Church in Caribou; on Thursdays at Sacred Heart Church in North Caribou, and on Fridays either at Holy Rosary or at one of the area nursing homes. After Mass I usually spend a half-hour or so meeting with some of the daily Mass attendees, checking in on how the Lord is at work in their lives.

9:30 AM - First, coffee. Iced coffee...and lots of it. I abide by the older fasting tradition of not taking anything except water prior to Mass, so by the time daily Mass is over I'm itching for some coffee. I'll fix myself a quick bowl of Cheerios and then head into the office to check phone messages, e-mails, etc. Surprisingly this eats up more time than you might think...I'm kind of scared to think what it'll be like when I'm more situated here and people think to call me! After doing all the necessary correspondence stuff, the morning could really bring anything. Maybe I have to do a committal at the cemetery; maybe I have a couple morning appointments (parish meetings, meetings with parishioners, etc.); maybe it's a little slow and I get a chance to work on my Sunday homily a bit. For the month that I've been here no two mornings have been the same...I imagine this will continue to be the case as things pick up come September.

11:00 AM - Funerals. Most of the funerals that occur within our parish are scheduled at this time. This is very helpful in terms of having enough time to get out to some of the more remote churches and getting to the funeral home prior to the funeral Mass if you didn't get a chance to go the night before. During my first two weeks here I was inundated with funerals...I had one almost every day! Sometimes people don't realize just how involved a funeral is on the priest's end...there's the preliminary meeting with the family of the deceased, the vigil prayers at the funeral home, the preparation of the funeral homily, the funeral mass itself, the burial, and then the funeral luncheon. Here in northern Maine funeral luncheons are big things...we have some amazing ladies at all of our churches who work on putting on a really splendid luncheon (with fantastic spreads, I must say) for each and every funeral. It's really quite amazing. I always go to the funeral luncheons, not only because Father is expected to be there to say the prayer, and not only because I get a hearty lunch, but because it's a prime time for evangelization. I've already had a couple experiences at funeral luncheons where someone who hasn't been to church for awhile will pull me aside to talk to me - sometimes it results in confession, other times a strong, but kind invitation for them to return. Needless to say, funerals are part of the (almost) daily life of this country curate, and as work-intensive as they are, it's all worth it. 

1:00 PM - If I didn't go to a funeral luncheon, I'll usually pop back into the rectory kitchen to make myself a quick lunch and to rest for 15 minutes or so. I'm in the habit now of just sitting at the kitchen table listening to some nice soothing music as I wolf down a sandwich. It really does help the rest of the afternoon go smoothly. Soon thereafter, though, the afternoon appointments start showing up. And when I don't have any appointments, I'll either be working on my homily, visiting the sick at the nursing homes or hospitals, or doing some home visitations. 

5:00 PM - Depending on what's going on, I'll usually stop to take a breather and to say some more of my Office. The evenings are just as up-in-the-air as the mornings and afternoons for a country priest though...on any given evening there might be a meeting to go, marriage prep to do, funeral homes to go to, etc. At some point I work in dinner...although I must admit that many of dinners are of the microwavable genre that I can eat at my desk. I do have to get better about this...

The setting sun now dies away
and darkness comes at close of day...
8:00 PM - By this time, things are usually done for the day...unless an emergency call comes through. I like to spend these last few evening hours reading, making phone calls to friends and family, perusing the wonders of the Internet, taking in a movie, or now...blogging! I'll retire to my quarters upstairs, pour myself a cup of sleepy-time tea, and relax so that I can be ready to go in the morning. By 10:30/11:00 I'll say Compline and put myself to bed.

So there you have it...a little peak into what my life is typically like. For some, it's too hectic...for others, it's not hectic enough. But it's the life of a priest, the life of a country curate, it's my life...and I'm glad it is.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Retreat Weekend...A Manifestation of God's Power and Love

This weekend I had the amazing opportunity to serve as the spiritual director for the Teen ACTS Retreat that took place at the Christian Life Center in Frenchville, Maine. (If you want to know more about ACTS, go to www.actsmissions.org) This is a role that kind of just fell into my lap when I arrived in Caribou...I knew nothing about ACTS and so I had no idea what to expect going into this. And being a priest for only 59 days, I have never had the experience of being a spiritual director on a retreat, so needless to say I went into this fairly blind.

As I drove up to Frenchville on Thursday for the retreat (an hour north, if you can believe it!) I was unsure of myself...would I be able to relate to 35+ teens? would I have anything to say that would be worth their time and attention? would I be able to be an instrument of God working in their lives or would I just get in His way? The drive seemed short as I turned to God in prayer asking Him to help me just be a good priest this weekend.

When I arrived that afternoon I immediately celebrated Mass for "the Team" (which is comprised of adults and other teens who have already made their ACTS retreat.) The morning had been so busy that I hadn't even had a chance to look at the readings for Mass, never mind prepare a homily...so when I got to the sacristy I pulled out the lectionary and was thrilled to see that the first reading was again from the Prophet Jeremiah. On Wednesday we began reading from Jeremiah 1, wherein we heard the frightened young prophet protesting his new rank because of his youth, to which the Lord responded, "Say not, 'I am too young.' To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.'" I love this passage...in fact, it was the reading at my ordination...and yet I am so quick to join up with Jeremiah and say the same thing: I'm too young...I have no clue what I'm doing...this just isn't going to work. It's funny (and providential, no doubt) that the day before I head to this retreat, with all my fears and anxieties, we get this reading. On Thursday the lectionary plunged us into Jeremiah 2...here Jeremiah gets his first task: to go to the people of Jerusalem and to decry their infidelity to the Lord, exclaiming that the Lord remembers the devotion of their youth. These readings from Jeremiah turned out to be the perfect backdrop for a youth retreat and were a pure gift to an unprepared homilist. But as much as I challenged those teens, I think I was the one who was challenged the most. Just as He did on the day of my ordination, our good God put before my heart the example of Jeremiah and asked me, begged me, to just trust in Him. It was as if He was saying, "Put your worries aside, Kyle...put aside all of your fears and anxieties, and let Me be God." And that's what He did...and it blew me away.

While I can't get into specifics about the retreat for the sake of confidentiality, I can say that the whole experience was amazing. I was privileged to be a first-hand observer of the amazing power and love of God at work in the lives of His beloved youth. I talked with them, laughed with them, played with them, prayed with them, cried with them, absolved them...I journeyed with them and did my best to help them realize what I am so often slow to realize: you're never too young for God to do amazing things in, with, and through you.

And by the way, for you retreatants reading this...listen closely to God's call. Some of you are being called to the priesthood. Seriously. Listen.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Country Canine

So I have to admit that, despite how truly wonderful my assignment is, it's easy for me to feel a bit lonely and isolated. Part of this is simply the transition out of the seminary and into the "real world" - I quickly went from having 90 other seminarians around all the time to living in a rectory with one other priest. Father Labrie, the pastor of our great parish, is really a gem of a man and has been very warm and hospitable towards me, but I do miss having my seminarian friends around to hang with, to study with, and to pray with. I knew this was coming, so I was more or less prepared to make this transition. However, another reason for my bits of loneliness and isolation is that, well, I'm far away from everything I've ever known and experienced. My entire family is 5+ hours away...some of my long time childhood friends (with whom I'm still very close, thank God!) are just as far. It'll take me some time to get settled here and to make new friends, so I really just have to deal with this new transition in strides and trust that with a bit of grace and some effort on my part I will soon begin to feel like I'm home. 

But you know, in the meantime, God really does provide...and that's where Nate comes in.

Nate sitting by my desk in the office
Nate is a handsome Golden Retriever, the faithful companion of our pastor...and my new housemate. He's a playful and gentle pup, always ready and eager to greet any parishioner who comes to the office with his friendly puppy dog eyes and his wagging tail. I was unsure about living with a dog at first...after all, anyone who knows me knows that I'm pretty particular when it comes to just about everything, not excluding dog smells, hair, barking, etc. But I have to say, this pup has grown on me. From the moment I arrived he's latched on to me...whether it's when I'm sitting in my office and he plops himself down in front of my desk or when I'm outside grilling and he's keeping me company. Maybe it's just his friendly disposition, or maybe it's because he sensed that I needed a friend...whatever it is, Nate hasn't left me alone since I got here. And I'm glad.

Nate making sure the grill is nice and hot
I haven't had a dog since the time I was a small boy. Roxie was half German Shepherd and half Rottweiler, so she definitely had a wild side to her. As she grew from a puppy to a full-sized dog, it became apparent to my parents that she wasn't the best fit for a household in the suburbs with small children. She nipped at my sister one day, who was only about 3 or 4 at the time, and that was Roxie's last day with us...my dad gave her to one of his friends and we never saw her again. I was heart-broken and made the boyish determination that I would never get attached to another pet again. We never got another dog, although my sister had some cats...none of whom I ever got along with. 

The Country Canine
And so here's Nate...coming into my life 20 years later. Typically first priestly assignments don't last long...a couple of years on average...so I don't expect that Nate and I will be life-long friends. But for the time being, while I'm here and while he's here, we can be friends. Good friends. I can see now why people love their pets as much as they do...in their own way these creatures help to make life just a little bit sweeter for us. So yes...this Country Curate is grateful for the companionship of Nate, the Country Canine.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What puts the "Country" in the Curate?

One of the things that I have enjoyed the most since my arrival (other than what directly pertains to my ministry as a priest, of course!) is becoming acquainted with the countryside. We are constantly "on the go" here...and since the parish boundaries are 800+ square miles, that means  a lot of driving (I've already put more than 500 miles on my car just doing parish things!)...but it also means that I am quickly getting to see one of the most beautiful countrysides that Maine has to offer. Whether I'm making the 24 mile round-trip drive to Fort Fairfield for daily Mass or trucking it 90+ miles for my weekend Mass rotation in Portage and Ashland, the views are spectacular and very diverse. At any given moment I can find myself in the middle of the dense forest surrounded by a thick array of coniferous and deciduous trees and then, in a blink of an eye, I will be in the midst of beautiful farmland stretching for miles over the rolling hills. There are rivers and lakes all around...and some of the most charming old grange halls, churches, farmhouses, and cemeteries. There's an old world feel here...a simplicity of life...and the landscape reflects it. I definitely think that I'm going to have to get a really nice camera...

Priest's typically get one day off a week, and it's never on the weekend (for obvious reasons.) My day off happens to be on Monday, which is nice because it helps me to recover from the busyness of 4 weekend Masses. I've always preferred to spend my free time either indoors reading or in the heart of a big city taking advantage of whatever cultural/art opportunities I can. But there's not too much of that here...I'm going to have to branch out and dive into what the area has to offer me. Maybe I'll take up hiking or fishing. I definitely have to visit the plethora of farm stands and farmer's markets. Whatever it is, I need to let the countryside guide me on those Mondays, not vice versa. After all, I am a country curate...I better start acting like one!

My Arrival...

Greetings from the northern countryside of Maine! (And yes, before you even bother to ask, there is Internet here and no, it's not dial up...)

I'm Father Kyle Doustou...a brand-new, 26 year-old baby priest for the Diocese of Portland in Maine. You might not find it surprising that yet another priest has decided to enter into the blogosphere, but from my end it's a shocker. I've never been the blogging type...never really felt compelled to share much with the Interwebs. But now, things have changed...

This past June, only a couple weeks after I had been ordained a priest, my bishop gave me my first priestly assignment. "Kyle," he said, "I'm assigning you to Caribou." The look on my face must have priceless. Quite frankly, I was completely and utterly stunned. (If you don't know where Caribou is, just think north...very north.) After having spent the last seven years of my life in the seminary in Washington, D.C., I have to be honest: the thought of going to northern Maine scared the living day-lights out of me. If you've never been to Maine, it's really very big...deceptively big. Just for the sake of perspective, New York City is about as far away from my hometown in southern Maine as Caribou is...about 300 miles. But there's more...

Several years ago in our diocese we began the gigantic task of "clustering" our parishes. This was not your stereotypical clustering process where two churches in the same town simply came together to share a priest...we completely reconfigured the entire diocese. Most of the parishes were suppressed and then merged with others to form brand new parishes. Some are on the smaller side, consisting of two or three churches...others are large, consisting of five or even six churches. And then there's Caribou. The Parish of the Precious Blood in Caribou is not merely large...it's enormous. The City of Caribou just happens to be the epicenter of the parish, not the totality. This parish has ten churches and its boundaries extend 863.24 square miles (that's just a little smaller than the State of Rhode Island.)

Despite my fears and concerns, I was glad to accept my assignment and during the first week of July I loaded up my car and headed north. And to my amazement, life has been wonderful ever since. I may be far from my friends and family...there may not be much for a "city boy" to do around here...there may even be an ungodly amount of cold and snow for 6 months out of the year...but the people here are wonderful. In the short time I have been here, I have been to any number of their houses for dinner...I have laughed with them and cried with them...I have offered Mass for them and absolved them of their sins...I have anointed them and buried their dead. Together, priest and people, with God's grace, we'll grow in holiness. And that...that's worth writing about.

And so here I am...the Curate of Caribou...and I have a story to share.