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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 389-391
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Memories of an Old Country Priest
Memories of an Old Country Priest. By Francis J. Weber. (Mission Hills, California: Saint Francis Historical Society. 2000. Pp. viii, 691.$35.00.)
The only thing that is confusing about Monsignor Francis Weber's interesting memoir is the title, Old Country Priest. In fact, by his own account, Weber is anything but a rural pastor. By contrast, he has spent the totality of his priestly ministry in one of the most heavily urbanized Catholic communities in the United States: The Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Here the lines between development and hinterland had been erased long before the Weber family migrated westward in the 1940's.
One is struck by how typical the Webers were of the thousands who came to California after World War II. Like so many other Californians, they migrated from the snowy Midwest to find work and new opportunity in the Golden State. The elder Weber went to work for a family-owned business, the Ritz Plumbing Company, which provided a good wage and a respectable middle-class existence. Young "Frankie" was able to supplement his meager allowance with earnings from a Los Angeles Times paper route. Fortune smiled on the ambitious lad, for among his grateful customers were Buffie Chandler, one of the owners of the paper, and Archbishop James Francis McIntyre. During his high school [End Page 389] and college years he worked for the Pierce Funeral Home, where he happened to meet the legendary Catholic benefactress Estelle Doheny. These early contacts paid off. McIntyre would advance his clerical career, and Doheny's foundation bestowed some money for historical research.
The core of this narrative is about the priesthood. Weber writes the book as one "who has always enjoyed being a priest" and with a desire "to tell the world how priesthood looks from the inside by someone who never wanted to be anything else." His vocation to the priesthood developed under the watchful tutelage of the nuns and priests of St. Brendan's parish on Third and Van Ness. In 1946 he entered Los Angeles College, the preparatory seminary of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1959 by his former paper-route customer, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre.
Weber's career as a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was in many respects typical of clergy elsewhere: daily and Sunday Mass, "door" duty, sick calls, confessions, counseling, and convert instructions. But his priestly ministry also had a distinctively Southern California twist. At St. Victor's parish in West Hollywood he came into frequent contact with a handful of Hollywood stars who sought spiritual ministry. He gave convert instructions to the second wife of the legendary Jimmy "The Schnozz" Durante, and was an occasional meal-time guest of Loretta Young. He shared the rectory with the famous Monsignor John Joseph Devlin, who had devised the codes of the Legion of Decency. Among the other luminaries that passed through Weber's life were figures as diverse as historians Will and Ariel Durant and the bubbly blonde comedian Goldie Hawn.
In 1961 McIntyre sent Weber to the Catholic University of America, where he worked with John Tracy Ellis. At Ellis' insistence, he wrote extensively on Los Angeles subjects—areas of historiographical interest that remained outside the scope of the "mainstream" of American Catholic historiography. Weber's published corpus includes substantial studies on virtually all the bishops/archbishops of Los Angeles. In imitation of Ellis' work on Gibbons, Weber penned two hefty volumes on Cardinal McIntyre that appeared in 1997.
But before he could write, Weber had to do the hard task of assembling archival records. Given a small space in a cramped chancery annex at 9th and Green Street, he single-handedly rescued many documents from oblivion (at one point hiding some of them in his long-suffering father's garage). He parlayed his rising prestige as a local historian to press for more and more room and resources. Any archivist reading this account...