By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CHARLESTON — It has been a bittersweet summer of change at St. Mary of the Annunciation. Just over a month after the retirement of Msgr. John A. Simonin and Deacon Joseph C. Kemper, a July 15th fire damaged the church which was already undergoing renovation.
Loyal parishioners were scattered to the wind going to Masses elsewhere but as Deacon Joe says: “put God first, and everything else falls into place.”
Like a forest after the scourge of fire, new life works its way through the ashes. St. Mary’s will not close, Msgr. Chet Moczydlowski will take over as pastor. The church fire, caused by a faulty light which ignited insulation, caused repairable smoke damage. Brides are already planning their walks down St. Mary’s aisle this weekend, and infants will be baptized to the Catholic faith in her font.
After 50 years of devoted priestly ministry, Msgr. Simonin is relaxing at his sister Rosemary Simonin’s house in Mount Pleasant. They live just across the street from his other sister, Dolores Puckhaber, and his brother, Leo, lives on James Island. He is taking trips, concelebrating Masses every so often, praying, performing sacraments and spending time with his friends.
At age 77, his health is good, after two heart attacks. His second was a minor one last year followed by a bout of pneumonia, but that didn’t stop him.
Looking back at a life’s ministry that bore so many fruits, Msgr. Simonin says quietly: “I feel very blessed to be in the priesthood.”
His parishioners have experienced those gentle blessings too. Robert Bell, of West Ashley, is effusive in his praise.
“He’s one of the most people-oriented priests,” he said. “He is there if you need him, and he’s there if you don’t need him. Msgr. Simonin is very compassionate and never asks for anything. He is a priest in the true sense of the word. When he’s with you, whether it’s at Mass, for dinner, or a boat ride, you have the feeling of an angel being present. He’s just wonderful.”
Larry Montano, of Peninsular Charleston, has known the monsignor since 1974.
“Msgr. Simonin is the kind of priest that the parishioners really take to, he imbues loyalty,” Montano said. “I went to benediction on Tuesday evenings and got a lot out of it. He inspired me. The participation of the parishioners was so good because they wanted to serve the church and be a credit to him.
“He is an extremely effective priest. He justifies everything he asks of you. There is nothing he asks of you that he wouldn’t do himself. I know it’s right if he suggested it. He’s like a rock.”
On that rock was built a church. The carpenter and quarter-century co-worker and friend of Msgr. Simonin, was Deacon Joe Kemper, one of the first three permanent deacons to be ordained for the Diocese of Charleston in 1971.
Since their first assignment together in 1974 at Nativity Parish on James Island, the two men have been known for their collaborative ministry.
It is no simple coincidence that this 90-year-old carpenter, like another of his ancient trade, St. Joseph, has a steadfast devotion to his faith. His every breath is an exhalation of the Lord’s goodness. He believes everything, every event, dovetails from faith. He takes no credit for his accomplishments because it is the work of God.
“I’m the hammer; I’m the saw; I’m the boltcutter,” he explains. “I am an instrument. I have no control. The Holy Spirit, I know, has run my whole life. I was born on the vigil of Pentecost. I was dedicated to the Holy Spirit by the prior at the Benedictine monastery. I have always been guided.”
Guidance probably came from rising at 3 or 4 a.m. and spending the first four or five hours of his day in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. That is his only regret in retirement, being away from that daily presence.
“I can pray and come in and read my office (readings), but He’s not here,” he said wistfully.
Retirement is not a word in Deacon Joe’s vocabulary. When Bishop David B. Thompson informed him that it was time to stop, Deacon Joe responded: “I love you, and you represent God to me, and you’re telling me what to do, and I will do it.”
But he didn’t stop after he and Msgr. Simonin were officially retired June 5. He now accompanies Our Lady of Mercy Sister Mary Cyril Murray, director of senior ministry at Christ Our King in Mount Pleasant, on some of her work.
He assists as deacon at six Masses a month at the nursing homes and retirement villages she serves, holds a Communion service every Tuesday at Sandpiper Village where he lives, assists teams at Sandpiper Courtyard and Clarebridge and is writing a syllabus for religious education teachers.
“He is a very simple man, a wonderful holy man, who lives a life of faith,” Sister Mary Cyril said. “One of his former parishioners in one of the facilities commented that he’s ‘a good prayer.'”
Msgr. Simonin considers him a good friend too.
“We are very close friends,” he said. “He has been a real blessing in my life as far as a fellow worker in the parish. I always had real confidence in him. He has saved the diocese many thousands of dollars with the work he did. He used to tell me: ‘don’t buy anything without talking to me first.’ He could fix anything.
“In the parish, I allowed him to do everything a deacon was allowed to do in this diocese,” he continued. “He visited the sick, read Scriptures, gave instruction. He is extremely cooperative and very helpful.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Father Simonin is a rare person, very rare,” Deacon Joe said. “He is all priest. He’s very flexible in saving souls. Once during confessions he was an hour late coming out, but he told me it was worth it. We are very close. The priests I’ve worked with, the two bishops and the people, they are my life.”
This fall, when parishioners file back into St. Mary’s Church, they will find much changed and many will miss Deacon Joe and Msgr. Simonin. But both are always quick to remind people that nothing is different in the house of the Lord.
As Msgr. Simonin said: “God loves you very much, place your trust in God. What else can I say.”