I recall a dinner with Father Mark Shinn, pastor of Saint Andrew’s Russian Orthodox cathedral, and his wife, Shelia in their rectory home in Northern Liberties.

Going to Father Shinn’s house is always a memorable experience. No matter the subject — art, woke politics, the varieties of French wine — one could always be sure of a discussion that will lead to something significant. 

Father Shinn is also one of those priests who aren’t afraid to show the world that they are priests. Whenever I’ve eaten at Father Shinn’s house or whenever we’ve gone to a local Asian restaurant together, he will wear his cassock and cross, a marvelous thing in this secular world where practically the only uniform one sees are the skinny black yoga pants popular among millennial hipsters. 

Walking into a restaurant with Father Shinn, it’s always interesting to view the reactions of people chin-deep in their Tom Yam Kung or Napa Cabbage soup. 

In many cases, these looks suggest that the diners have never seen a priest wearing a cassock in public, a sad thing to be sure. One sees the Roman collar of Roman priests of course, but in today’s world even that is often exchanged for the anonymity of the open Polo shirt. As for nun-spotting, well, you can forget that. Nuns — the Roman ones anyway — have long ago abandoned their habits except for a minority of contemplative orders that rarely get to mix with the outside world.

My humble contribution to the dinner was a tiramisu cake from my local grocery store. After all, we were to dine with two other guests, Father George J. Johnson and his wife, Jill, who teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Father Shinn had often spoken of Father George in the most interesting terms. Father George, you see, was once officially Roman Catholic but somewhere along the line he switched over to Orthodoxy — Orthodoxy being the Eastern expression of the ancient faith before Christianity itself split into a zillion and a half denominations. 

When Father George was Roman, he worked with the homeless in parts of New York City. He was also a part of Dorothy Day’s NYC Catholic Worker House. Day, along with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in 1933. As a college student, Day was a fiery radical-literary-journalist who drank with Eugene O’Neil and marched in women’s rights and support-for-the-unemployed protests. Social protests alone, however, were not enough for Day who hungered for more. In 1927 she converted to Catholicism, incorporating her new-found faith with her social justice activism. (That never extended to abortion or extreme forms of feminism, however. Until her death, she was a staunch conservative Catholic.) 

Father George also knew Thomas Merton, the Roman monk and writer at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of the best selling religious classic, The Seven Story Mountain, In fact, Fr. George was on such familiar terms with Merton that he referred to him as “Tom” during the dinner party. Fr. George recalled how, as a frequent visitor to Gethsemane, Merton would seek him out. Fr George went to Gethsemane as an Orthodox priest, which didn’t matter one iota to the Cistercian monks there. There was even one occasion, Father George said, when a dying monk who loved the Byzantine Rite, requested Eastern prayers at his bedside, and Fr. George was called to do the honors. 

Fr. George told us that he felt very close to Dorothy Day, and that the two of them had many private conversations, the contents of which he said he could not reveal. He told us how when Dorothy died, he shed more than a few tears. Yes, he added, she was that memorable a woman! Of course, I already knew this to be the case because an Episcopal priest friend of mine once related how Day came to the rescue of poet W. H. Auden when the latter was arrested on a morals charge in New York and needed bail money. Day, who had heard of Auden’s misfortune, went immediately to the police station with the money in hand and the famous poet was released. 

Here was a woman without judgment, a holy woman who, while strict in her religious beliefs, was still not of the Pharisaical frame of mind. You had to love her, as they say. 

There was a lot of levity during dinner. We discussed (and ate) Shelia’s tasty blanquette de veau, crescent-wrapped asparagus and bitter herb salad. The marvelous red and white wines on the table fired up the conversation in a delightful way. Prior to dinner, of course, we said grace (a lost devotional “art” in many homes) before Fr. Shinn’s icon wall. After that there was no stopping the conversation, with Thomas Merton’s name coming up again and again, whereupon I offered my own experience of reading all of the monk’s journals, including the most controversial parts where Merton writes about his love affair with a nurse from a local Louisville hospital. This experience brought Merton to the outer limits in terms of feeling guilty, not to mention his sketchy behavior as he snuck calls to his beloved in the monastery kitchen. 

It’s also interesting, I think, that Joan Baez — a friend of Merton’s and an occasional visitor to the monastery — advised Merton to elope with the nurse and start a new life somewhere far away.

After telling the nurse story, which all the dinner guests knew anyway, Fr. George was quick to say that “Tom” had just fallen prey to human nature, and that human nature holds us all in sway, and that one shouldn’t — Fr. George implied this — let this tarnish the good monk’s reputation. After all, a thorough reading of St Augustine’s Confessions will show that Augustine was once a gallivanting Henry Miller and Jean Genet rolled up into one. What the nuns never told us in eighth grade Baltimore Catechism class was that the saint even had a male lover.

Fr. George then told us how, when he attended Dorothy Day’s funeral, he asked the undertaker if he might take the crucifix affixed to the lid of her casket. Now, as anyone who has ever been to a Catholic or Orthodox funeral knows, there is usually an external cross affixed to the lid of a casket which is easily removed. 

When my great aunt died in the 1990s, I also asked the undertaker if I might take her cross so I could bring it home and hang it on my study wall. Casket crosses are so easily removed that one cannot imagine them staying put for long in the ground where they might be subject to earth tremors or whatever else goes on down there. 

Fr. George also happened to be wearing a cross from “Tom” that he showed us during dinner. When I saw the cross I immediately recognized it as the Cursillo cross that was especially popular among Catholics in the 1970s. The Cursillo movement was founded in 1944 in Spain as a “little retreat” venue — three days of religious training and contemplation with separate retreats for men and women. The original Cursillo cross was a beautiful thing although I cannot say for certain whether the cross has morphed into a modernist contortion in recent years. My father gave me his Cursillo cross before he died, which I then foolishly lost, but seeing “Tom’s” cross put me in mind of my father in a profound but fleeting way. 

When dessert was served we discussed the recent marriage of one of the Shinn daughters to a rock musician. Their wedding ceremony was performed by Fr. Shinn and captured in a stunning book of photographs, resplendent as only Orthodox weddings are with Byzantine crowns being held over the heads of the bride and groom. Years ago I attended the marriage of another one of Fr. Shinn’s daughters at Saint Andrew’s, where I took great delight in seeing the startled faces of the Irish Catholic members of the wedding party who seemed mesmerized at the high Orthodox ceremonials. 

With Shelia’s mildly sweet home baked dessert came a tea that proved to be an instant hit. I don’t think I drank as much tea in my life. By this time we had depleted our talk of Dorothy Day and “Tom,” although another personage would soon emerge: Walt Whitman. 

That’s when Fr. George took off his black cap and revealed that many people have often said that he resembles the Great Gray Poet. Fr. George’s white beard is an extremely modest version of Whitman’s massive crumb catcher but the two do look somewhat alike when it comes to the eyes. 

A prayer and the sign of the cross ended the dinner party. Then there was the long good-bye in the living room, with Fr. Sinn remaining seated and commenting how when people stand to say good-bye nothing ever moves and nobody ever leaves, it’s just more conversation that threatens to go on and on…necessitating, of course, another round of tea and desserts. 

(Father George J. Johnson died on May 14, 2019)

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *