Father Edward Lavelle
Hometown: Centralia, Pa.
Education: St. Ignatius School in Centralia, Pa., St. Joseph High School in Ashland, Pa., St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville, Md., St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pa., North American College in Rome, Italy
Current Assignment: Defender of the Bond, Diocesan Tribunal
Please tell us about your childhood and where you grew up.
I was born in Centralia on January 30, 1938. I went to St. Ignatius grade school for eight years, which was my parish, and then I went to a parish high school, St. Joseph’s, which was the second best thing that ever happened to me in life. My parish did not have a high school, so I went over to Ashland.
My father died when I was seven; my uncle, my mother’s brother, came back from World War II and lived with us. He died suddenly in 1963, but he was a great father image for us. My younger brother Jimmy is about seven years younger than me, it is just the two us, and my mother was a nurse. She worked hard at her vocation and it was a very, very important thing for her.
Did you begin thinking of becoming a priest at a young age?
In early high school, and a lot of us did in Centralia in the coal region, because there you either became a priest, a state policeman or a bum (laughing). You had only three choices.
Well, you did not choose being a bum, I’m thinking.
No I didn’t. I was thinking seminary, but I thought, “Nah,” so I put it aside until my senior year in high school. Father Woody Jones was my assistant pastor, and he was quite a character at St. Ignatius. He was ordained in 1954, in his forties then. He had worked in government in the state of Pennsylvania but then after Pearl Harbor, a few days after the attack, he joined the Marine Corps when he was in his 30s, and went off to war in the Pacific. Centralia was his first assignment as a priest and we were very devoted to him. He took me under his wing. He counseled me and led me in prayer.
I really did not have plans for after high school because college was not really affordable then for my family. He kept suggesting the seminary, but I was quite doubtful. Finally I said ok. You can always work it out in seminary, and if it does not work, you can go into the military and get scholarship money for college. And that made sense to me as an 18-year-old. So I went to St. Charles in Catonsville, Md., and I was terribly homesick to start out. I really was. That was the spring of 1955. But after the first year I got so well acclimated that I signed up to help at a summer youth camp in the Archdiocese of Washington, and for five years straight I did that. I got over the homesickness for sure.
After three years in Catonsville, I went to St. Charles in Overbrook (outside Philadelphia). Then I guess the biggest thing that happened to me in life besides ordination was getting the opportunity to study in Rome at the North American College. I spent four years in Rome, and it was an unbelievable experience, I will tell you that.
Tell us about your experience in Rome.
I studied under the Jesuits and I am Jesuit-educated, and I am very proud of that as I had an excellent education in Theology and Scripture. The guys were great there. You could not go home unless there was a serious medical issue or death, nor could you afford to go home. By the grace of God, while we could not go home, we could travel in Europe inexpensively, and we always had a month in the summer to travel.
The second year, we decided to go Paris, London and then up to Scotland for the Edinburgh festival with all the music and display. We decided then to head over to Ireland because my mother said that I have relatives there, given we are an Irish family. So I hitchhiked across Ireland; it took me a day, and I connected with family that I did not know I had. We connected and I kept going back for years and years to visit family, which is a large family. Mostly through my father’s side, but my mom’s side too. I really miss them dearly because I am not able to go over anymore. My last trip was 2012, and I asked God, “When it is my last trip, I do not want to know it is my last trip.” And that is what happened.
When were you ordained, and where were your early assignments.
I was ordained in Rome in December 1963, the 18th to be exact. I was ordained in a parish in Rome – there were 55 of us – so it was a fairly large class.
I was assigned parish work at St. Rose of Lima in York and I was there for four years. I was in Rome with several other guys from the Diocese who were my classmates – one being Father Dave McAndrew, who is now deceased. We came home and were assigned in the Diocese. I was there in York in the 1960s, which were turbulent times. In the spring of 1968, after being at St. Rose for about four years, I talked to Msgr. Bierster about going into school work. Lo and behold, I got a call in the fall of ’68 to go into schoolwork and I went to Lancaster Catholic. I was there until 1979 and I taught religion as I served as the chaplain also. I went into administration for a while also at Lancaster Catholic.
When I left Lancaster Catholic, my next line of work was with the Tribunal here at the Diocese. I did some work in that area while I was in Lancaster and York, so it was not new to me. They could take me here, and I am still here.
What year did you begin with the Tribunal?
It would have been 1979, and I retired in 2013. I still volunteer here. It is estimated, I think accurately, that I have done more than 10,000 interviews over these years. I saw it as a healing ministry. I was taking their testimony, helping them. At the same time, I was working in support groups for separated and divorced Catholics and I did that for a number of years. We did weekend retreats which were powerful, so that really kept me going in many ways. I was also vice-Chancellor for a while under Bishop Daley.
I started to see my work as a service to the priests, especially with dispensations. I got a real appreciation for that service from them. I am aware of the fact that the Lord plays such a place and point in my life. I was not always so dependent on Him as could have been or should have been. My whole life, the dark days, the bright days, the mediocre days, I am always aware that the Lord is present. Serving the priests was a great way for me to serve the people of the Diocese. It was the grace of God that allowed me to do the work I did for so many years. I was not trained to do this sort of work, but it has been a healing ministry, for sure.
You have had great impact, given all the people you have interviewed over the years.
I would come into the office in the morning, maybe early, and they came into the door and talked about their marriage or divorce and bingo – I would be ready to help. I was able to process what they needed to do.
What makes a good interview, in your opinion?
Well, you have to take into account the history of things, the positive and negative, and see the history of the married life. Many of them were hurting, so you listen and help where you are able. But this is a very good office here now, great people, and it was good when I was here as well. It’s always been good.
You love to travel. Tell us about your experiences.
Ireland was always big for me, as mentioned. I had to save up to go, but when I could, I would. My appreciation for Australia led me there as well. There are a lot of Irish down there, which gives me a healthy appreciation. I took a sabbatical outside of Sydney in 1998 and it was one of the most delightful times of my life. I met the Australians, got to know them and made a lot of friends. I studied a course at a spiritual house outside of the city. I would go to see movies because they were from all over the world. I went to the theater also and it was a great, great thing. One of the men who was in charge of the program of study there in Sydney became a bishop while I was down there. We became friends and I also helped him out at the Cathedral there in a diocese south of Sydney. That was a great experience also.
You have traveled in the U.S. also, correct?
Oh yes, I just love Montana. We had Lavelles who went out there in the 1890s, and we knew we had family there. I had a classmate who I was close to who lived in Helena. In Rome, I was talking to him when we were classmates and I asked him if he knew any Lavelles, and it turned out that one worked in the Post Office and lived right behind my classmate in his hometown. I went out to Montana to see my friend, but my relative had died a few years earlier. My brother and I found relatives in Nebraska, but there were a lot of Irish in Butte, Montana, where there were copper mines.
My brother and I became friends with an author who did a book on the Irish in Montana. We spent a week with this author and learned an awful lot. Butte is a very rich area in gold and silver, and when that was cleaned out, copper mines took over, which go very deep into the ground. Copper was a huge boom when wiring became big in this country.
On the topic of mining, you grew up in one of the more famous, or infamous, towns in coal-mining history you would say?
Yes, for sure. What happened in Centralia (mine fire starting in 1962) was depressing. It was hard to watch the town die and the fire spread all over. My mother was living alone and I went up to pick her up on the very day that they were going to tear the house down. My mom wanted to make sure the kitchen was clean, even though the demolishing crew was coming in the afternoon. It was sad, and I brought my mother down here to live. Most of my peers were not still up there. It never crossed our minds growing up that we would work in the mines. Never. It just was not something we looked at as a future. This was the 1950s, so much of the anthracite coal was done anyway and we knew that. We had a friend, a few years ahead of me, who was a great ball player who was killed in one of the independent mines. That was a real loss. So we had no intention of going down into the mines.
You retired but still help and work quite a bit.
One of the greatest things that happened to me after I retired in 2013 was that Lancaster Catholic asked me to come down and work on a self-evaluation of the school. I had not set foot in the place in 33 years, and that was very nice to be invited back. I was at the table with two former students, and it was great. And then soon, I started going down to hear Confessions for the students and that was the start of it with LCHS. I took some Masses for their Kairos retreats and I had not been working with students for some 34 years. I have retired from doing their retreats because I just cannot do it anymore; I just do not have the stamina. But working with the kids keeps me young.
I am proud of all our schools all over.
Do you have any favorite books or movies that you would like to share?
My favorite all-time movie is The Deer Hunter, 1978. That was my introduction to Robert De Niro. All my other favorite movies are ones that De Niro starred in or made. My favorite book that had a huge impact on me was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I have read it four or five times. I started reading it in college and then re-read it since. I like it for the perseverance in virtue of the character. It’s just incredible.
You also have a hobby, baseball.
I played when we were young, but we played every sport when it was in season also. It was small town sports, and we played Mount Carmel, who were our rival. My uncle came back from the war in November 1945, and he was a miner. He had to take off two weeks over the Fourth of July because the mines closed down. When I was eight years old, he took me to Philadelphia, and I remember walking up the stairs into old Shibe Park which became Connie Mack Stadium, and I looked out on that field and I will never forget that experience of seeing the green grass. It was like a park. So when they would say, “Hit it out of the park” on the radio, I now understood what they meant.
My uncle’s son was rooting for the Philadelphia Athletics, and he and I did not get along back then and I did not like him too much, so I said I will root for the Boston Red Sox. I got hooked that day and have been since. I am a Red Sox fan which began around the Fourth of July, 1946. The Red Sox’s lost 5-2, but I was hooked for sure. If there would have been any justice, my Guardian Angel would have come down and said, “Son, they are not going to win a World Series for 58 more years.” It was 2004, and when they did, oh my, it was great. I love baseball because I loved playing it. I was a first baseman and some outfield.
Talk about Fenway Park in Boston.
Oh boy, I have been there quite a few times – maybe a dozen. My first trip to Boston, I was there with a priest friend, and he was from Providence. He said that he had tickets to see the Red Sox. “You got to be kidding me,” I said. We were going on a Sunday, but Friday we found out that the umpires were on strike. Well, I am from Centralia and you do not cross picket lines in the coal regions. My friend said, “Let’s go anyway and we will just see the ballpark.” That day there was no picket line so we went in, and I saw the Red Sox beat the White Sox. Man, was that just great. What an experience – it was 1978.
Your favorite players were/are?
Ted Williams. I loved him, worshipped him as a ball player. I have read a lot about him, and I saw him his last year in Washington, and he was still hitting the ball just as he did as a rookie. I liked Yaz (Carl Yazstremski) and Bobby Doren also – a second baseman who is in the Hall of Fame.
Is there anything you would like to add that I have not asked you?
All the joy and happiness that I have comes from a relationship with a lot of people. Whether in helping people in healing, in my schoolwork, the people here, all this joy is due to a relationship with Jesus Christ. I owe him so much. Amen, Amen.
(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)