Interview with Rev. Bill Korpi, Parochial Vicar
By Bob Clark
October 16, 2015
Editorial note: The following interview covers events following the death of Nativity pastor Rev. Richard Martin. To put the interview in context, the following timeline may be helpful.
- Saturday, May 3, 2014: Father Martin died in early morning hours. Two First Communion Masses were celebrated later that same day as well as the usual schedule of Masses over the weekend.
- Friday, May 9: Funeral Mass and burial were held.
- Saturday, June 7: Father Cilinski’s appointment as pastor was announced.
- Wednesday, June 25: Father Cilinski’s first day as Nativity pastor.
- Saturday-Sunday, June 28-29: Father Cilinski’s introductory homily to the parish community.
* * *
Nativity History Project: I’d like to ask you to recall for us in as much detail as you want the events during the transition from Father Martin’s passing to whenever you think the parish achieved a certain amount of stability in leadership after that. Perhaps we could start by asking you to talk a little bit about the immediate hours and days after Father Martin died and what you saw as the principal concerns or major issues that you had to confront, any problems that you had, your reactions, however you would like to characterize those times.
Father Bill Korpi: Well I guess it all started for me on Friday afternoon. Father Martin and I had split up the week to attend the priests’ retreat in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He went Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; and I went Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He’d left early because he was not feeling well, and I thought well that was odd. So I started my share of the retreat on Wednesday, and on Thursday I talked to him on the phone and he was laughing and making a joke about what a great retreat it was and how much I was going to enjoy it. I don’t know if he had enjoyed it himself, because I found out later that he had gotten very sick during the retreat. Many of his priest friends knew about it but they thought it was just food poisoning. So I got a call on Thursday afternoon to tell me “You know Father Martin’s at home and he’s pretty sick and you may want to think about getting back here early instead of waiting until Friday evening.” So I said “okay”. “Let me know if anything changes.” And they called me early Friday morning that it was very bad and I should drive back now. So I got up out of the first early morning meeting and drove straight back home to find that he had just been taken by ambulance. So it all started for me. I rushed up to the hospital. There were a couple of friends of his, Sister Karl Ann, Sister Francis, Scott and his niece, Joyce, and I can’t remember who else. We were going up to see him when he was capable of seeing us. By that time he was unable to speak really. For me the moment of giving Last Rites, which I’ve done for many, many people, even some people that I know, but I never thought about giving it to my pastor. So that was very, very difficult to do. And within about two hours right after midnight he died. The first person I called was the bishop because it occurred to me that I had a responsibility, that I knew what it meant for me as the parochial vicar.
I had called the bishop earlier and I called him again right after midnight to tell him Father Martin had died. There was a significant moment of complete silence on both ends of that conversation after I said that so he wished me well and said I’ll be in touch and we’ll talk about what we needed to do. So immediately I began to think about things, and my first crisis hit almost immediately right after midnight. I knew this was going to happen, the fact that he was sick in the hospital, the people I knew I had to tell that he was gone. The next day we had First Communion. This was always a big, big celebration for him. He loved that day so much, you know, the lamb that he had and all of that. So I put myself kind of into his shoes and immediately said I have to do First Communion and I immediately determined that we were going to do it in such a way that nobody would know Father Martin was gone. All they would know was that he wasn’t there. Early, early in the morning I arrived and went to the church and I gathered the staff together and I said this is what’s going to happen. He’s gone and the news is totally embargoed; you will not tell anybody that he’s dead. We had two Masses to do that day, 9:00 and 11:00. I told the bishop that was what we were going to do and he agreed that that was exactly what Dick would have wanted. So we just took a deep breath and put a big smile on our faces and went out and did First Communion. Once we were focused on that it was pretty easy to do. I don’t know why but it was, but inside you’re trembling. So we didn’t release the news to the congregation or to the public until the close of the second Mass. We had the lamb and everything like that because it had already been ordered.
So we got through the First Communion and made the announcement, and they were all shocked as we were. Once again we knew immediately that we had to get through the Sunday Masses. I made up my mind that it was not going to be possible to preach so I got up at each Mass and I made the announcement. Whether I was celebrating the Mass or not I personally went to each Mass to make the announcement and then we just sat in silence. At this one particular Mass this woman sitting down in the pews on the right hand side right in front of the presider’s chair was just inconsolable and sobbing, and it occurred to me to get up and give her a hug, and I said you look like you need a hug. It certainly wasn’t planned; my thought was just to sit and suffer in silence. The next thing that happened the whole church got up and started hugging each other. I think Dick would have loved that. That was for me one of the most profound moments, the big group hug of the whole church. We had a thousand people in the church; I’d never seen a thousand people hugging before. Everybody was walking around hugging each other; I thought I wasn’t going to be able to get back to my seat.
As soon as that was behind us it began to dawn on me that we had a funeral to plan, all of those issues to take care of, his family on their way down had to be involved in all of that. And I would say this: the whole Nativity staff even under the stress they were under, responded with a sense of calmness about themselves to do what they needed to do. And everybody began to say “We need to do this, we need to call these people, we need to arrange for all of this stuff.” We talked with the funeral home, we talked to the family and of course honored their wishes in everything. And we began to plan the funeral around talking with the family. And that whole process of just planning the funeral that had to take place three days later, was amazing because at the funeral we had the viewing of Father Martin in the parish. I knew immediately we had to do that because there was no way we were going to get the crowd that I was thinking about – I was thinking about a couple of thousand people minimum coming through there, maybe five thousand – there was no way that could be done in a funeral home. That will never happen in that confined area, we decided to hold it in the church, which is appropriate for a priest or pastor anyway. When the day came it was all well planned out, the music people handled the music, everybody checked everything with me and it was all beautiful, it was perfect. Everybody just stepped up, the whole staff was marvelous. They all just knew what they had to do and their role could be what they were capable of doing. It was a thing of beauty. I got a lot of credit for it but I have to say that my brain was scrambled so if it hadn’t been for the staff it wouldn’t have happened. There was this calmness about doing what had to be done. Well it turned out that on the day of the viewing we were supposed to start at 11:00 and by 10:00 there were people who couldn’t even get into the church and they were standing outside. By the end of the day the line was wrapped around our building a couple of times. We had to make a kind of spaghetti chain of people that went up and down the aisles. We were trying to get them inside because it was a blistering hot day. We had to order a truck full of water because these people were parched standing outside two or three hours to get in. The funeral director estimated that 20,000 people came through that day. I thought we’d get 5000 and we got 20,000 people. And the last person through – I remember that we officially did start at 11:00 even though a lot of people were already there; we brought the casket down front and the viewing started at 11:00, and the line never ended the entire day, there was never even a small break in the line – came through at 11:00 at night. People were still coming in when I said “Okay that’s it.” It was the most amazing thing.
And the funeral was the next day. We had planned for overflow with simultaneous broadcasting downstairs to the parish hall because we knew we’d never get everyone in the church for the Mass. The bishop came and celebrated the Mass and it was all perfect. It really was amazing. And once again, like I said, people gave me a lot of credit for it but I thought that was totally unfair because it was really a corporate effort to do this. Somehow people just knew what to do.
After that came the sobering reality that he’s gone and this parish has to function. At what point does that notion become a reality, and for me it was Sunday afternoon and I understand that I have a role because in canon law the bishop has to appoint a pastor, a parish cannot be without a pastor, ever. So the bishop immediately had a responsibility to either send somebody or to name somebody, and he named me to be acting administrator of the parish. Fortunately we already had that month scheduled for Mass assignments so we just had to fill in for the parts that Dick had assigned to himself with either Father Wilson or myself taking some of the Masses, and bringing in some other people. We had collected the names of priests who were always willing to help us by celebrating Mass. Josefa and I basically took the schedule out and we said okay we’re going to get through these first few weeks. In the meantime we had a disaster in the house just from what had happened in the house that caused him to go to the hospital. So we got a company to decontaminate the entire house. That was a disaster because that’s where we were living.
And then we were waiting patiently to see when the assignments were going to happen. I will say this: we all know that Father Martin was going to retire the end of that year, he would be 75, and he was expected to put in his retirement. So he and I had many conversations about this; and on the one hand he had always expressed a desire that I would be named pastor and that would keep his hopes and dreams for Nativity alive. He and I both agreed that Father Cilinski would be our choice, our mutual choice for pastor. I said to him “Dick of course if they were to give it to me I would take it but the ideal person for this job, there’s only one man in the entire diocese that would be best (of course there’s no such thing as a perfect person) for the Church of the Nativity, a man who was a friend of Dick Martin’s, who knew Dick Martin many years before I met him, a man who shared his vision of how the church should be, and a man who has a lot of experience running a major parish, and a man who would be here for fifteen years (at the time he was 15 years away from his own retirement; I myself am only five years away from retirement). And I knew that that would be best for the parish. One of the magical things about Dick Martin was his longevity; he grew into what he was; at the end he was a highly respected pastor. And Father Bob would have time to do that.
So I went about my business; I checked in with the bishop’s office, sought permission to do certain things. I felt I should have permission if I was going to spend for certain things. The bill was $20 thousand to rehabilitate the rectory so it could be lived in, and I needed permission from the diocese as an acting administrator. Even a pastor, even Dick Martin would have needed that permission to spend more than $5 thousand. So I had all the support up there [i.e. the diocese] that I needed. We were in the middle of a building project which I had already been significantly involved in anyway so I knew that had to be continued. So we managed to keep that alive. And the month went by.
We started on May 3, my appointment date, and the first week of June we learned that Bob Cilinski would be named our pastor. And I was just thrilled beyond myself. I will say that I was prepared on the basis of conversations I had had with Father Martin that I might become the pastor, and in fact I was for a short period of time. So even though I was not hoping for that I had begun to think that if it happened I should be prepared to hit the ground running, and this is would I would need to do. So I made a list of things I would do if that happened. So when Father Cilinski was named I found out on the day of the ordination [i.e. of Father Rich Meserindino] of the new priests. So I said to him that we’ll talk and he came over and we sat down and had our first meeting.
And I shared with him the list that I made of things I would have to do in the eventuality that I became pastor, and I said to him here is a list of things I think I would do in the first few months as the pastor. Over the next few months Father Cilinski did every single one of those things, which I was very pleased about, obviously. They weren’t big things, you know, but they were things that I think some people wouldn’t have expected me to do. I won’t go into those things but they have all been very well received by the parish at large. Always my vision was that Father Martin’s dreams for the future would be kept alive, and I’m very happy that Bob Cilinski had the same thoughts, without any prompting from me. He recognized that he was stepping into some very large footsteps, and the one thing that he wanted to do was to keep those visions alive.
If we talk about when the transition seemed to be over, the transition was more uncomfortable for the staff than for me. I knew Bob Cilinski very well. When I was a seminarian five years earlier my second year assignment in seminary, which would have been 2006, I was assigned to his parish as a seminarian deacon. I was of course going to seminary in Boston so I had only gotten that as a summer assignment and whenever I had come back to visit at Christmas and Easter. So I knew him very well. I knew him before that because he was a friend of Dick Martin’s and he hung around with that circle of friends that Dick hung around with in the priest community, so I knew him even as a deacon. I was very delighted to be assigned with him in 2006. I remember the first time I was appointed officially to him as a deacon seminarian. I drove into the parking lot of All Saints and Bob came out to the parking lot to greet me in my van. He said “This is a nice van” and I said “Thank you very much.” The he said “How do you feel about going to work camp” and I said “I love work camp and I’ve been there many times with teenagers at Nativity; I’d love to do that.” And he said “Don’t unpack too much because we’re leaving tomorrow morning to go to Niagara Falls. I’d like you to drive this van and I’ll ride with you.” So we left the next day with a bus load of children and a couple of other cars. Bob rode with me and a couple of teenagers were selected to ride with us. And we all drove up to Niagara Falls for a week of work camp. And the fact that pastor was going to this work camp was special, and he and I on that long trip up and back, and we spent the whole week together, and we really bonded so well. I don’t know if he remembers it as well as I do but it was a wonderful, wonderful experience for me.
So I had no concerns at all about Bob coming but the others didn’t know him that well. He is different from Dick Martin, so they were all nervous and worried about what he would be like. So that period of getting to know each other I was kind of observing from the outside. I already knew that this man was as lovable as anybody else, as Dick Martin ever could have been, and they were just going to have to get used to him. He speaks differently to us, and now I can see that the transition was slow.
Father Cilinski knew we had to do something for the anniversary of Father Martin’s death, which was May 3. And so along came May 3, the one year anniversary of his death. It just happened to fall on a Sunday, so it was his idea to invite the whole parish to his grave site, and it fell on us to make things happen. So we ordered a tent out on the grounds at the grave site. We knew we were going to be coming into a cemetery with not just half a dozen people, but five hundred or more, and that’s about how many showed up, including the Knights of Columbus. We had the choir out there; we arranged with the cemetery to have loudspeakers brought in and wiring and stuff like that. So we had this beautiful service.
You would think that would have been the end of the transition but it wasn’t. Father Cilinski and I spoke just last night, the end of October. We sat on the couch after our first parish assembly. He had appointed a parish council which we never had before. We had the parish assembly because we wanted the input of people, how are things going. And the question he put on the table was on a form that was handed out: “What are your dreams or visions for Nativity for our future?” One of the beautiful questions was “If you could give one piece of advice to your pastor what would it be?” People were filling out these forms and people had a chance to get up and talk, and for the most part the talk was very positive: “We’d like to see this happen; we’d like to see that happen.” They had some things we hadn’t thought about, hadn’t considered. And he said this is what I want to know. We’re not saying we’re going to do all these things but we want to know what you’re thinking, what you would like to see us do. And there was so much support for our new pastor, Bob Cilinski. The most often repeated answer to the question “What advice would you give your pastor?” (this is after a year and three months) was “Keep on doing what you’re doing.” There was other advice as well, but the most often repeated phrase was some variation of that and many of them repeated that exact language. And last night he said to me “I think the transition is over.” He said “A man came up to me and said ‘Father, why do you keep referring to yourself as our new pastor. I think you should stop that. You’re not our new pastor; you’re our pastor.’” That was nice and the man was right, and it was a beautiful moment for both of us. And an exclamation point was put on the meeting last night: “Keep on doing what you’re doing.”
Well, that’s a beautiful story about the transition.
Nativity History Project: Let me ask you this: Can you summarize this by saying what you think the most important change has been in the parish, or perhaps the most important thing is that it hasn’t changed; I don’t know. How would you describe the impact of the transition on our parish, parish life, parish community?
Father Bill Korpi: Well, I think being an experienced pastor, as Father Cilinski is, in other parishes was important. We have to remember that when he moved into his last parish at All Saints he didn’t move into a nice, easily managed situation; in fact he walked into a hornets’ nest out there. The former pastor left the priesthood abruptly and the parish was large and in great turmoil; another tragic situation. And he pulled them together with his slow, steady hand, became a beloved pastor in his own right. I can’t tell you how many people called from All Saints and said oh, you guys are so lucky, you’re taking our pastor away from us. And we have some new members who are from All Saints, and that’s not an easy drive; not a lot of them but there are some that have come along with him.
He didn’t come in and make a lot of major changes right at the beginning. The best thing he brought to us was in the new building. Up until his arrival, up until that moment, I had been shouldering the burden of the building project. Father Martin always said he wasn’t interested in building buildings. That’s why that project was put off for ten years and we had gotten to the point where we had to move, we just had to, we had made so many promises to people. So we started the project and I was principally the person who had to negotiate with architects and I had never, ever done that. I had been involved in small building projects but nothing in the range of eight million dollars. Father Martin was helpful in raising the money; people would respond to him. So the two of us worked together on that part of it; but the day to day business – that room’s going to go here; that room’s going to go there; how we’re going to put all of this together – kind of fell on my shoulders. And like I said I had zero experience at that level of construction. So I did felt a little over my head.
The day Bob reported for duty, his very first day, out of our control the diocese had scheduled the bidders conference, meaning all of the major contractors who are capable of handling a building our size in this area, and had some experience in that were coming together if they were interested in bidding on the project, and there were like fifteen bidders on the project. They were coming in for a walk-through of the property, to see the plans from the architects, and given a certain number of days to produce their bids on the job. That was the day Bob Cilinski arrived. He walked into what could literally be called a pastor’s nightmare because he knew nothing about it. He knew we were doing the project and I had given him a copy of the plans so he knew the project was under way, but he didn’t know that one of the major events of the project was going to happen on the day he reported. He walked in and there were lots of people in hard hats walking around the property. And the we sat down with the diocese and with them and the beautiful thing was that he had built an entire church and the complex around the church two years earlier at All Saints, the biggest church in the diocese, it seats 1500 people, and it’s a work of art. The building itself is magnificent; simple, elegant, everything that you would want a church to be. And that was one hundred percent him.
So he kind of knew what to do. And he would start to do things immediately, and I was watching this now from the sidelines and loving it; I learned so much that first couple of months. After they had begun construction of the gym he walked into the gym one day, it was his first time actually in the gym, and the floor had just been poured and the walls were going up, and he walked in there and he came out and he told me immediately “I stood in the middle of that gym and I called the foreman of the construction crew over and I said we’ve got a problem.” And he sensed the problem, and he had the gym measured and he found out that that gym was built for an elementary school and it wasn’t big enough for our kids who were going to be in CYO basketball. They would never have been able to have a home game; it was eight feet too short. I would never have known that in a million years. To me it looked like a gym. But for him, he knew immediately, just standing in the middle of it that it was too short. Of course, he’s a basketball player. He sensed it; he didn’t even know for sure. But they measured it out and sure enough it was too short. So we had to go to the diocese and say we need this changed for this building to be done. And today sure enough we have a gym that we absolutely need, not just for the basketball games but just for the size of it for the other events we’re planning for the parish. And his hands-on experience from the past brought him to be able to do that.
He knows so many things like this and he has a soft and gentle way of communicating. He’s a man who prays so easily, and his prayers often with the staff are right from him. He doesn’t open up a book; well, sometimes he does, he prays a formal prayer. But we’ll start a staff meeting and he’ll just begin to pray from the heart, and you can tell the man has a real personal relationship with a man named Jesus Christ. And that’s what he brings to the parish. We never do anything without prayer now, and that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s the other thing, the fact that he’s such a prayerful man.
Our staff has the gift of laughter. They really, truly love their work. That was with Dick Martin and now with Bob. And he’s begun to experience the fun side of our staff. And they’re beginning to see the soft, fuzzy side of him; and they’re becoming themselves again. And he can laugh, and laugh, and laugh with them because they are an unusual group of people and they really enjoy working together, they really do. It’s really amazing. I’m thinking primarily of our front office staff. They are an amazing group of people, they really are. And it didn’t take Father Cilinski long to see that in them.
Those are the things that he brings to the table that will serve him well. And the fact that now he’s been accepted by so many people in the parish assembly. (It was a stroke of genius of his adding two teenagers to be on the parish council. And they are both really unusual people. They’re ordinary teenagers and they have a lot to offer. The adults on the council as I am, we just watch them and we’re amazed they have such confidence and maturity. That was his thinking; he wanted to make sure there were some teenagers on the parish council.)