Thursday, June 25, 2020

Remembering Pastor. Preacher and Forty-Niner Faithful: Father Ken Westray

About five years ago, I stumbled upon a great gift: the 8:00 a.m. Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Church in San Francisco. I had been a long time parishioner at the much beloved St. Dominic's Church on Bush and Steiner; the 5:30 p.m. Sunday mass is known for its wonderful music and a vibrant faith community full of young adults. I had a home at St. Dom's; nothing was broken or remiss, but I needed to account for a change in my life. I started playing golf on most Sundays. Evening mass was too late; their 7:30 a.m. mass was a little too early. Fortunately, I found a solution.  SVdP offered an 8:00 a.m. service. With my clubs in the back of my car, I headed down the hill to Green and Steiner Streets. I found a church full of young families, tons of kids, elderly folks and a warm, gentle and energetic pastor, Father Ken Westray. 

I have grown to love my parish, so much that when people ask me why I don't move closer to where I work, I list SVdP and the Olympic Club as two primary reasons I do not want to leave. Sports and Spirituality isn't just the name of this blog, it's a metaphor for my life, and the life of Father Ken. He died in his sleep on June 24, 2020.

Father Ken never said a homily that lasted more than five minutes. Much to my surprise, I infrequently wished he would preach a little longer. He had a deep, resonate and cheerful voice. Truly, he proclaimed the Gospel. Like a father, he spoke from the heart on how we could live it. I can see him now, pointing his finger and shaking his head, smile on his face, telling us what we needed to hear. Thank you, Father!

After Mass, whether he was the presider or not Father Ken always stood outside the church to greet the congregation. Over 75% of the time, he did so wearing his clerics and an old school Forty Niners jacket. One couldn't see this near maroon and gold thread jacket and not know he wasn't a fan; this served him well in ministry. Talking football was often the pathway for beginning a conversation he was willing to take elsewhere. And, it should come as no surprise that on Super Bowl Sunday 2020, he put smiles on everyone's face when he offered a prayer at the end of Mass for the Niners to bring home the win. 
At this time last year, Father Ken was on sabbatical. An interim pastor was put in place who helped me appreciate the warmth and inclusivity of Father Ken and his leadership. This other priest was judgmental and never looked me in the eye. On a regular basis, I left mass legitimately affected by his homilies and insensitive remarks (and as a high school teacher, I'd like to believe I have a fairly high and wide tolerance). I have never been a person to base my experience of parish life on the priest alone, but this experience certainly challenged that reality like no other. I gained an understanding for those who may live in places with a priest who difficult. I hope you stay and keep your faith; I know how hard that can be. I don't often write about something that negative, but it can't be swept under the rug. We were lucky. Father Ken returned and when he did, it was with arms wide open. The warmth that had been frozen filled the hearts and halls of SVdP again. Father Ken's care, his smile and his presence made us come back to life. We say all the time that leadership makes a difference. This is but another example of that truth.

I have written about why being a parishioner means something to me, in a reflection on the late Coach Moran Wootten. Feeling the loss of a priest like Father Ken in the way I do, has me thinking it means more than we might ever know. 

The Notre Dame Book of Prayers says, "As much as we experience God in the everyday moments of our lives, we also encounter God in a special way in our Church. The parish is where Catholics gather regularly to praise God and to seek support from others in living the Christian life. It's also where we celebrate significant milestones: new life, life-time commitments, and death. Lots of other things happen at parishes, from Bible study to Bingo. But the most important event is the liturgy, where we encounter God in the Eucharist and in the People of God."

Thank you Father Ken for sharing those everyday moments with us—at the Cioppino dinner, donuts on First Sundays, our annual picnic, the Women's Club and breakfast after Thanksgiving Day mass. Thank you for witnessing the big events in our life and sharing the sacraments. I hope you spirit will stay with us for years to come. You left us and this world too soon. I will miss that jacket and your short homilies, life lessons and love of the Lord God you gave to all of us.

Let us pray for Father Ken's family and the work of pastors.

Prayer for Parishes
We thank you now for this house of prayer
In which you bless your family
As we come to you on pilgrimage.

Here you reveal your presence by sacramental signs, and make us one with you through the unseen bond of grace.

Here you build your temple of living stones, and bring the Church to its full stature as the body of Christ throughout the world, to reach its perfection at last in the heavenly city of Jerusalem., which is the vision of your peace. 

In communion with all the angels and saints we bless and praise your greatness in the temple of your glory. —Sacramentary.

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