Reflection: Remembering the Departed

James Vacco, OFM Features


For the holy days of All Saints and All Souls, marked on Nov. 1 and 2, a friar who visits an area of New York with significance to him and many members of Holy Name Province describes these commemorations of hope and assurance.

Most every summer, I take 10 days in August to vacation in the western region of the Adirondacks. The more senior friars of the Province are familiar with the location in that area for it was a part of their early formation: St. Stephen’s in Croghan. I spent my post-Washington formation in 1981 as a deacon at St. Stephen’s. My experience there was such a positive one that I go back yearly to refresh friendships and do some hiking along the endless miles of sugar-bush trails and river trails.

For 35 years, I have traveled to Croghan for vacations, weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Some of the people I have known are now buried in the parish cemetery. Along with these friends, five friars from Holy Name Province are buried there: Bernardine Kohn, OFM, who died in 1972, Hugh Radigan, OFM, (+1947), Antonine Buch, OFM, (+1927), Gilbert Monroe, OFM, (+1958), and Ambrose Buckingham, OFM(+1986) a native of Croghan. Part of my yearly sojourn to Croghan is a stop to pray at the graves of those I’ve known, and also at the graves of our friars.

Celebrating Our Connection With the Deceased
One of my visits to Croghan and the cemetery sticks out in my memory. On an August evening after dinner, I took a walk toward the cemetery and saw Harold Martin getting out of his car in the cemetery driveway. He had an aluminum pie pan in his hand and was walking toward one of the gravestones. As I made my way into the cemetery driveway, I saw Harold take something out of his pocket (I later discovered it was a fork) and he began to eat from the contents of the pan while looking at the gravestone. He looked up and saw me walking on the cemetery drive and shouted out: “Oh, Father, is it ok to eat in the cemetery?” in a nervous tone of someone who just got caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. So, I walked over to him and noticed that the grave stone he was eating over was that of his wife who had passed away over the winter. I said to him: “Harold, I didn’t know your wife had passed.” He replied: “Yes, in November during our first snowfall. She loved the snow. She’s been sick for a couple of years now. I found her dead in the bedroom at this time of day. It was a shock but not completely unexpected.”

Then he went on to say: “When we were raising our kids, we had this family custom that on the first snowfall she would make Johnnycake. We would soak the Johnnycake in maple syrup and have that for dessert at the evening meal. Well, the two of us kept up that custom even after the kids grew up. When it started to snow earlier the day she died, she made a Johnny cake for our dessert that night, but she never had any because she didn’t feel well to have dinner and then later at around 7:30 p.m. when I found her deceased. I come here quite often around this time of day to have that Johnnycake with her. Is that okay ?” “Okay?!,” I said, “It’s more than okay.”

During times of crisis, we hear how people sooth their anxiety with “comfort food.” During this time of year, we hear of how in some cultures, notably the Mexican and Latin American cultures, the family ritual of going to the cemeteries and having picnics at the graves of relatives (the ‘Dias de los Muertos’) is an expected event. In England, during the medieval period, the poor went from door to door on one of the three days: All Hallows eve, All Saints Day, or All Souls Day, and would sing the carol: ‘Soul, soul, soul cake! Please, good people, a soul cake… One for Peter, two for Paul, three for God who made us all.’ (Some of you may recall this refrain from the mid-1960’s folk song – Soal’n – based on this medieval carol which was made popular by the trio Peter, Paul, & Mary). Dining as a way of commemorating the lives of the deceased is a way of celebrating our connection with those no longer physically among us. Somehow it seems so natural to connect through sharing a meal.

Commemorating Hope and Assurance
At one time, Nov. 2 was generally referred to as Poor Souls Day. That was never the official liturgical name for the day. It was and is: “The commemoration of all the faithful departed.” The prior day, Nov. 1, is All Saints Day. The Gospel for that day, as well as one of the choices for the gospel reading on Nov. 2, is the Beatitudes. How appropriate if on both days we heard proclaimed: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted.” The poor souls are those who are seeking assurance within the struggles of life. The faithful are those who celebrate life in spite of death. And the Gospel message of Jesus echoed both in the liturgy (a meal), and in the beatitudes is: To them belongs the Kingdom of Heaven and the promise of being comforted.

All Saints and All Souls – commemorations of hope and assurance. They are festivals soaked in the grace of bonds forged. Days of longing for the eternal. Days that confirm for us the mystery and paradox that our desire for communion is “more than ok.” They are days of prayer that lift up our hearts to give thanks and praise for those bonds which have been made, and are waiting to be refreshed.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.

An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,

any good thing to make us all merry,

One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all.

Now to the Lord sing praises all you within this place,

and with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace.

This holy tide of Christmas of beauty and of grace,

Oh tidings of comfort and joy.” – Peter, Paul, & Mary

Soal’n (1965)

jamesvacco— Fr. James is pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish in Allegany, N.Y., and an instructor at Christ the King Seminary in Buffalo, N.Y. He lives at St. Bonaventure University friary.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or another seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at The newsletter’s previous reflection, about St. Francis, was written by Gary Maciag, OFM. Additional seasonal reflections by friars can be found on the Spiritual Resources page.  

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