Back in 1997 Bishop Daniel Ryan called me and asked if I would become the parochial administrator at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Quincy. He shared with me that the long-time pastor, Father Francis Damien Lee, was in the hospital and would not be able to return to his pastoral duties at St. Rose and would retire.
I arrived on the scene sometime around July 1 of that year and the parish had no staff at all. I began to celebrate daily Mass at the parish and met a few folks that first week. At most we had about 10 devoted St. Rose of Lima parishioners attend daily Mass and they were mostly retired folks. They began to welcome me to their parish and said they were ready to help me in any way possible.
Right off the bat I noticed a lady who never missed any Mass held at St. Rose. She was Miss Esther Baker. In 1997 she was 80 years of age, had beautiful white hair, a sharp mind and a welcoming spirit. She always had a kind word to share and always showed me her gratitude for having the Mass that day.
Soon I spoke to her and asked her to be the church sacristan, a ministry offered to help set up for the Mass with the vessels and all that is used during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
I remember her saying, “I have been Catholic for 80 years and I have never been asked by a priest to do anything. What is a sacristan?” I shared the ministry description with her and she thought about the invitation, and then said, “I’ll try my best.” I gave her a key to the church to have — and boy was she happy. Her love for this church — the only one where she had ever belonged — was so strong.
In the first month I listened to Esther, and to a small group of truly devoted parishioners, talk about their beloved St. Rose Church. They were truly wanting to “light a fire” in this small but loving parish family. It was a joy to hear them.
Right off they wanted to restore the sanctuary to the original terrazzo flooring which now was underneath the old and ugly carpet. We announced this to the parish at the weekend Masses and by 1 that afternoon we had over 50 folks there to take up the old carpet. One guy called and ordered a dump truck to carry off the old carpet. He was so excited, he even paid for it.
We then hired a man who worked with restoring floors, and he came and spent a week with his machines scrubbing, restoring, and waxing the floor. When he was finished it looked brand new — it was unbelievable.
I will never forget seeing Esther’s face when she, with the others, walked into the church for an open house on that following Saturday. Many tears were shed by that loving parish family.
For five years Esther Baker gave her time and talent each and every day and at each and every Mass held at St. Rose. She loved her ministry, which gave her more of a purpose belonging to St. Rose. Her new ministry helped her to understand the importance of “being a servant” and what “giving back to God” was all about. She always reminded me that I was to have her funeral at St. Rose.
Eventually St. Rose and St. John the Baptist parishes merged into All Saints Parish and then once again with St. Mary (Immaculate Conception) and St. Boniface parishes to become Blessed Sacrament Parish.
Since she lived much closer to St. Francis Solanus and her niece Barb was from that parish she would take her to Mass there — and eventually Esther transferred her membership. Later St. Rose re-opened (to provide the traditional Latin Mass) but at 92 Esther told her niece and many of her Catholic friends, “I never understood Latin when I was younger, I’m not going back to Latin now.” Now at 100, she has come to know and love the parish family of St. Francis, and reminds me she plans to be buried from there one day.
Since she turned 85, Esther has been to Rome. She joined a small group of 35 pilgrims who went there during the week Pope John Paul ll died and during his funeral. She stood in line for over nine hours to pay her respects to Pope John Paul ll. She has also visited Gethsemane Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, as well as Bardstown, Ky. She has even been to Wrigley Field, on a cruise to Cancun, and every day she has her fried egg, two pieces of crisp bacon, and her coffee with a little cream. She can always find room for a piece of cherry pie from Sprout’s Inn restaurant in Quincy.
On the weekend of June 24-25, though most of her cronies are gone, over 100 folks came to St. Vincent’s Home Catherine Kasper Center to celebrate Esther Baker’s 100th birthday. She celebrated with her family and friends on Saturday with an open house. On Sunday we gathered in St. Vincent’s Chapel to offer a Mass of Thanksgiving in her honor, followed by a meal at Sprout’s. On Monday, I met her at breakfast time on her actual birthday, June 26, and she celebrated with all the residents of St. Vincent’s Home all day.
When it comes to her Catholic faith, she has made God her main priority all throughout her 100 years of life. Though never married, she loves to share her good counsel about the sacredness of the sacrament of marriage. Her mind is sharp, and she has come to know “the way, the truth, and the life” and lives it daily.
Our church salutes Esther Baker. Like Pearl Hitchings (103) of Raymond, and Margaret Springs (101) of Highland, and I am sure there are others — our church has been so blessed to have these holy, happy, servants of our Catholic faith. As they share their wisdom, we continue to be blessed.