(Created: Friday, November 18, 2011 11:41 AM CST)
Father Harry Walsh says he’s “downsizing” his life, but those who know him best don’t believe it. They say the retired St. Henry’s pastor with the gentle Irish brogue and instinctive knack for writing and playing music is much too fond of staying busy to cut back his activities too much.
Still, friends gathered at the Monticello VFW Post on Saturday to honor Walsh in the wake of his announcement last month that he was leaving his post as music director at St. Henry’s Catholic Church, a job he had held for the past eight years.
“You developed close personal relationships with everybody and that gave us all the ability to trust you with all of our personal lives,” a parishioner wrote on a website set up in honor of Father Harry (www.musicello.com). “The need for that in these present times is of utmost importance.”
Walsh, who was raised in Tipperary, Ireland, arrived in Monticello in 1985 to serve as the pastor of St. Henry’s. He took a leave of absence from that assignment after six years and moved to San Francisco to earn a doctorate in human sexuality. Walsh said he had long felt that the method the Catholic church used to teach its youth about sexuality is “inefficient and negative.” He wanted to change that - at least with the young people he worked with.
Upon finishing his studies, Walsh returned to Monticello and began working part time with the Wright County Public Health Department as a consultant for at-risk teens. In that role, he works with young people who are incarcerated at the Wright County Jail in Buffalo. He also got a part-time job working with troubled teens through the school district’s Alternative Learning Program. He’s held both of those jobs for 13 years and plans to continue working at both.
“It’s not so much that I like it, but I’m good at it and they listen to me,” Walsh said of his work with young people. “They may not like what I say, but they listen.”
Gene Garman, a St. Henry’s parishioner who has worked with troubled youth alongside Walsh, praised his friend’s dedication and positive approach to each day.
“Whenever I greet him, Harry always gives me a hug. I think that says something about him,” Garman said at Saturday’s celebration. “The stories he told in his homilies - what he talked about - fit each of us perfectly.”
Walsh’s departure from his music director duties at St. Henry’s happened abruptly for both himself and the many parishioners that he worked with over the years. He declined to go into detail about what led to his departure, stating only that the new pastor, Father Tony VanderLoop, saw things differently and it was apparent that it was time for him to step aside.
“I prefer to be better, not bitter,” said Walsh. He added that he plans to look for something to take the place of that job. “I’ve got to keep the potatoes in the pot,” he quipped.
That optimism is a constant in his life, as is his love for music. Walsh said his knack for writing songs and playing piano do not come from formal training, but rather “from nature and from my mother’s milk.”
“As soon as I could crawl onto a piano stool, I was playing,” he said.
He tried to write a psalm and original music to go with it every month during his tenure as St. Henry’s music director. He also plays in a trio with Ketzel Domke, a drummer, and David Miller on bass guitar. Walsh said the group plays jazz and pop standards ranging from Duke Ellington to Sinatra and Nat King Cole. The trio played during Saturday’s celebration.
Looking back, Walsh said one of the things he’s most proud of is the creative work he’s done through the music program at St. Henry’s. He also is happy that he was able to build a strong ecumenical spirit between St. Henry’s and other Monticello churches.
As for his work with area youth, Walsh said he mostly works in a vacuum in those programs. He was having a slice of pizza in Buffalo once when a young woman walked up to him and said, “You were my savior when I was in jail.”
But for the most part, Walsh said, “I don’t have a way of knowing if I’m the reason someone decided not to get pregnant or to use a condom.”
In that sense, his work with troubled youth is a walk of faith, which is something Father Harry has been especially adept at.