In the final years of his life, when his memory was fading but his strength remained solid, the Rev. John C. Flynn paced the halls of a Bronx nursing home, talking with the lonely, smiling to all – and swinging an imaginary golf club.
David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.
“The nurses thought he was crazy,” recalled his sister, Mary Ellen Loveless. “He was not. He just was practicing his swing, pretending to hit the ball!”
Father Flynn was nuts about sports. Through willpower, practice and hope – something of which he was in no short supply – he transformed himself from an asthmatic youngster into an athletic young man. Hockey, tennis, skiing, football or basketball, he loved them all.
There are still people from St. Raymond’s Roman Catholic parish in Parkchester, where he served in the 1960s and ’70s, who recall the tall, young priest darting about the court with a big grin and a spot-on shot. It was never just a game. On the court – or on the streets he loved – he was always talking and listening, learning who was in need, pain or trouble.
Father Flynn died last year, after 83 years of a life well-lived. And now, decades after he left Parkchester, he has returned – to the “Rev. John C. Flynn Rooftop Court” at St. Raymond Academy for Girls, where he once was a guidance counselor. It’s a simple space, fittingly, and just a half-court, actually, since boxy air-conditioning units had already taken up a good part of the roof.
That’s O.K. Father Flynn knew how to improvise his way around obstacles, and probably would have chuckled at the half-court honor. He then would have taken a jump shot or two.
“It makes me happy to think of him playing all those things that he loved,” his sister said. “He just thoroughly enjoyed himself when he did it. He was so happy, and really good.”
He wasn’t even a teenager when his asthma forced him to leave his family’s Yonkers home to live with friends in Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. The air was clean and cold – and good for ice hockey. When it was warmer, he played tennis. He returned to New York healthier, sporty and ready for high school, then went to college and entered the seminary. After his ordination in 1955, he served north of the city before arriving at St. Raymond’s.
Ms. Loveless said her brother loved being a parish priest in the then-heavily Irish-American neighborhood. But as in many love stories, a heart was broken.
“When black people started moving into Parkchester, Johnny suggested they welcome them and whatever,” his sister said. She paused and started crying. “And someone said, ‘If you like them so much, why don’t you go live with them?’ He said, ‘O.K., maybe I’ll do that.’ That’s when he left to learn Spanish and live in Venezuela. Many of the people at St. Raymond’s loved him. But some of them were angry with him.”
He spent much of the 1970s in Venezuela, ministering in the slums and perfecting his Spanish. He got sick, returned stateside, convalesced and went back to the Bronx. The South Bronx. When arson, indifference and drugs ravaged his parish, he walked the streets. He buried those who died too young, comforted those who had seen too much and worked alongside a generation of grass-roots leaders.
He did this six days a week. But Monday was off-limits – that was golf day. Rumored to have a single-digit handicap, Father Flynn took golf seriously (though, of course, with a smile). In fact, he first learned he had a heart problem a few years ago when he collapsed while playing with some priest friends.
That condition led to his retirement. It did not however, dim his love for walking the neighborhoods of the Bronx. And as far as St. Raymond’s, there had never been a dimming of his love even decades after those angry words from a misguided soul.
Sister Mary Ann D’Antonio, the girl’s academy principal, witnessed this when he returned to a gala a few years ago at Maestro’s catering hall.
“He was amazing,” she said. “He walked in and whole tables got up. He had a great time, talking and dancing.”
He died last September. During his funeral Mass at St. Martin of Tours Church in Crotona – his last posting – many St. Raymond alumni filled the pews. Soon, they talked about how to honor this man who had graced their lives with friendship and faith. Early this month, some of those same mourners were toasting his memory at the new rooftop gym.
Last week, girls from the academy filed in for a physical education class. They moved about their kickboxing class, sparring, sweating and laughing. A picture of Father Flynn, smiling, was perched on the windowsill.
“What do you say when somebody is just youthful and happy?” his sister had asked a few days earlier.
Ms. Loveless, you say this: In life, your brother Johnny found a simple joy as a priest on the streets of the Bronx. And now, whoever climbs those four flights to a modest gym will be that much closer to his spirit.