Halloran wraps up yearly visit to island

Thu, 10/21/2021 - 5:00pm
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He first arrived on Block Island in 1958, hired to be a summer chef.
He was not invited back. Everyone lost weight.
But maybe, just maybe, they should have followed his diet, as at age 85, Monsignor John C. Halloran still looks like he’s 50, and appears as fit and full of energy as he was when he was 30. He daily plies all the hills and trails that Block Island can throw at one, gets his own bottled water from springs off of Cooneymus Road, gulps enough coffee daily to make a Starbucks shareholder giddy, and still gets around on his motorcycle. Yes, 85 and still riding a motorcycle.

During his 60 years visiting Block Island on and off, (he affords St. Andrew’s Pastor Rev. Joe Protano and past pastors their yearly vacation), he has lived it all. From a first year curate “temporarily” housed for six years in a custodian’s closet at St. Matthews parish in Cranston, to stints as the vocation director and rector in Warwick and Providence, an educator teaching high school for 15 years by the gritty corners of Chalkstone and River Avenue in Providence, to multiple assignments in different parishes working his way up to pastor at St. Gregory’s in Warwick and appointed monsignor by the pope for all of his quiet work. Today even in retirement he is assisting at St. Thomas Moore in Narragansett saying Mass at both the main church and St. Veronica’s by Bonnet Shores.

During the decades, he has married hundreds of couples, said thousands of Masses, presided at countless funerals, and counseled untold numbers of Rhode Islanders. Along the way he has never lost his sense of humor, or penchant for pranks.

I first learned of his quiet competitive nature on the tennis court, although that spirit transcends everything he touches. Having grown up in a large family where sports and trophies held a reverential place, the first time he suggested “we bat the ball around” turned into a surprise workout, each of his “out” calls garnering a sly smirk as he covered the court like few others, 15-year-old opponent across the net be damned. Bat the ball indeed.
That competitiveness translated to high school where he challenged students, making them participate as actual named characters in the Nuremberg trials, names pulled out of a hat that required research. Classes recounted the horrors of the Nazi camps as if the students were the very individuals responsible for the atrocities. Read about it? No. You are going live those decisions. In one re-enactment, a Jewish mother from Belgium broke down sobbing, bringing the story in startling fashion into the students’ lives.

Perhaps his favorite assignment, the diocese tapped his boundless energy and assigned him to manage a deteriorated Tower Hill Camp in Narragansett, a set of peeling buildings with no hot water and one giant bunkhouse of military style bunk beds replete with WW II mattresses. Sourcing federal funds on his own, hinting the staff might want to visit the old Naval Air Station in Charlestown, RI when the Defense Department closed it one moonless night, to absorb what surely were ‘new’ surplus goods like swing sets and outdoor equipment before they were bulldozed, and discovering the federal food program covered families in the very zip codes the camp served, he transformed the place into a safe and welcoming haven for all kids, all nationalities, with a chef that churned out hot food all day long.
Now shuttered, the camp welcomed 6,000 kids during his nine-year tenure from what was then referred to as “the projects” throughout RI. For the kids who ranged from six years-old up to teenagers, it represented an unimaginable week’s summer vacation in a new-world environment of beaches, cookouts, amusement parks, and athletic activities like nothing they had ever encountered in their powerless lives. To this day, the campers and the staff that worked there still regularly socialize and have remained best friends for life.

Always ready with a big smile, Halloran will be on the island till the end of the month with daily Mass, and sermons on Saturday night and Sunday morning reflecting a kind, accepting view of the human spirit’s frailty, and yet power. He also will undoubtedly get out his weathered sketch pad and draw many unique Block Island scenes that make their way into a colorful, coveted calendar each year that raises money for the Mary D. Fund,
and other causes on the mainland. But we are unlikely to see his sketch pad of Block Island outhouses, the settings captured over many years in pen and ink before so many were destroyed - an enduring mental visual of simpler times gone away that far transcends the subject matter.