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A Helping Hand Through Death and Divorce

The story of Father Virgil Cordano’s supportive role in my family over the past half century is one that hundreds of other Tri-County residents doubtless could recount. When I think back as an adult on Father Virgil, I remember his erudition and humanity and a genuine ability to speak to – and to reach – others both regardless if they were card-carrying Catholics, agnostics, Buddhists, or practitioners of other faiths.

He had a wicked sense of humor, even at some of life’s most demanding and delicate moments. After our mother’s death, he told my sister and I – consumed with worry about which cemetery plot and view to choose – that “she already has a better view than any of us. Feel free to choose the sea or mountain vista that best suits you.” Touche! On the material world.

When we came to Santa Barbara as eastern transplants in the 1950s, Father Virgil first became a presence to me at Marymount School up on Mission Ridge Road, where he served as pastor, confessor, retreat master, and general counselor for decades. Following Vatican II in the mid-1960s, when many nuns and priests started choosing other spiritual paths, I remember Father Virgil strolling slowly in his brown robes through the school’s rose garden with one or the other nun. Hands folded behind his back below the corded belt of St Francis, he was the picture of serenity and patient insight.

He did not advocate excommunication or banning of books or people who strayed from the standard Vatican line. He told me he would have no problem marrying people of different faiths – and this was in the mid- to late-’60s when rules were rigid and often required that divorced people be banned from receiving the sacraments or a Catholic Mass and burial.

When our little brother, Tommy McQueeney, died at age three from a brain tumor, Father Virgil presided over the family’s Mass of the Angels at The Old Mission with dignity and compassion. He helped my parents, and the four surviving siblings, through a wrenching period of loss. He did not spout platitudes about “God only takes the best ones,” or “it’s all part of God’s great plan.” But, rather, he understood intuitively the terrible pool of sorrow into which we had all fallen.

The same can be said about the way he took care of our grandmother who, once widowed, moved west from Connecticut to live with us. “Gram” immediately took her millinery and seamstress skills to the Sewing Guild at the Mission and the Council of Christmas Cheer, making old dolls good as new, and binding up and repairing all sorts of altar cloths and priestly vestments. Father Virgil was there to help my parents through the difficult decision to place her in the Santa Barbara Convalescent Home, and he was there to send her on to a better place – as he had done 20 years earlier for Tommy.

There is not much that makes my particular family’s case unique. This kind of pastoral care made up the bread-and-butter of Father Virgil Cordano’s spiritual calling. But I must say that when my brothers got in trouble, he tried his best to intervene and to get them to embrace a life of sobriety. He was not above writing letters, visiting the S.B. Detention Center, or just listening over the phone.

He helped our parents through a painful divorce, without condemning anyone. He could be seen walking the halls of Cottage Hospital, and the now-gone St Francis Hospital. In fact, he administered “last rites” to my mother there more than once! They had such a good rapport, built over 50 years of sorrow and commitment to community service, that mom quipped once when she saw Father Virgil coming: “Is it time for him already?”

It turns out it wasn’t, and so Father Virgil agreed to visit mom occasionally at home during her last four years with emphysema and COPD. And yes, he did preside at her funeral service.

What can I say? When my adult children met and talked to Father Virgil at an afternoon tea/wake following mom’s death in December 2001, one of them told me, “Mom, that is the first positive spiritual encounter I’ve ever had in the Catholic Church.”

Such tales are a small part of the legacy of Father Virgil Cordano. Santa Barbara will long miss his guiding presence, his sense of history and humor. And his spiritual gravitas.

A journalist who lives in Washington, D.C., Joan McQueeney Mitric grew up in Santa Barbara in the 1950s and 1960s.

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