Sunday, 12 July 2020 15:39

Father Comerford looks back at years as chaplain to Cardinals — the baseball team, that is

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 When Father Chris Comerford was a boy growing up in Decatur, the warm months brought with them a plethora of good times — school was out, he celebrated his birthday on June 9 and best of all, Cardinals baseball was under way.

“One of my favorite joys of the summer was going down to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play. I’ve always been around the game of baseball. It’s my favorite sport,” he says.

Many young boys dream of playing professional baseball, but young Chris had different aspirations. “I played some, but I was horrible,” he says with a chuckle. “Growing up I wanted to be a broadcaster for the St. Louis Cardinals. Jack Buck was my hero. Then I had the calling to the priesthood, and I was ordained in 1996. Back then I joked that maybe I could be the team chaplain.”

Flash-forward about 13 years and Father Comerford was named pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish in Granite City — a great place to reside, especially if you are a fan of the Cardinals. His parishioners knew of his allegiance to the team and it was one of those folks who stepped in to further strengthen that bond. “One of my parishioners was an usher at the home games — in fact, she still is,” he says. “She asked me if I’d like to celebrate Mass at Busch Stadium.

“I am sure at that point my mouth literally fell open to the ground,” he says. “I really didn’t know they even had Mass at Busch Stadium. So, I connected with Father Dave Walter (now deceased) who was the long-time chaplain for the Cardinals. He was having some health issues and needed some help. He and I hit if off. Celebrating Mass there at the stadium was like a dream come true.”

For many years, usually about once a month, Father Comerford has taken turns celebrating Mass at Busch Stadium, in a place called the “first pitch room.” Usually 50 to 60 people attend the Mass — which includes front office staff, ushers, and a few baseball players from either the Cardinals or the opposing team. John Mozeliak, president of Baseball Operations for the St. Louis Cardinals is always at Mass, Father Comerford says. David Eckstein attended Mass, too.

Saturday home game Mass is celebrated shortly after the early games and several hours before the late games. Most of the time, Father Comerford has watched the game while he is at the stadium, often with a family member or friend. However, sometimes he has been required to leave to celebrate Mass at his parish — at St. Elizabeth and more recently at Blessed Sacrament in Quincy. “My parish work always comes first, and at times it has taken some juggling, but I enjoy it a lot, so that makes it easier to deal with,” he says.

Like any true baseball fan, Father Comerford has his favorite players. “Ozzie Smith (shortstop for the Cardinals from 1982 to 1996) was my all-time favorite player,” he says. “I think the player that I’ve become closest to is Jeff Suppan (pitcher for the Cardinals from 2004 to 2006 and then again in 2010). He was there at Mass on a regular basis and I’ve even been to his home in California.”

He has his favorite memories, too. “I was involved with the team when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011. I was there for all the home games except for Game 6, which was a big one. But I was at the party at the stadium after they won.

“I’ve had some other highlights,” he says. “I’ve concelebrated Mass with the Cubs chaplain in Wrigley Field and at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. And I always enjoy spring training.” Throwing out the first pitch at a home game is great, too.

The year 2020 has been a difficult one because of the coronavirus, Father Comerford admits. “For example, this year I flew to Florida for spring training, like I’ve done for years, and the very next day I had to fly back. I was in Florida less than 24 hours,” he says. “It’s been a depressing year without baseball.”

With professional baseball set to return for an abbreviated season on July 23 or July 24, much remains unknown about how the staff and fans will be affected. And, for Father Comerford, who has just returned to his hometown of Decatur to become pastor of Ss. James and Patrick Parish, his future as a Catholic chaplain for the Cardinals is “still up in the air.”

No matter what happens with his chaplaincy, Father Comerford has great memories of his time with the St. Louis Cardinals — and it is something he has never taken for granted. “You give up a lot of things as a priest, but now as a priest, I’ve been involved in baseball like I never would have been otherwise — in ways I would have never dreamed. If I had sought this out, it never would have happened. It found me, which is even more amazing. I always say that for me, celebrating Mass in Busch Stadium must be what heaven is like.

Celebrating Mass and baseball — it can’t get much better than that!”