Father Koenig put the gloves on me when I was ten years old and directed me toward the kid who was my same size but some two years older. That kid – Billy McLaughlin – kicked my butt. But I never cried or gave up as I swung wildly at him in efforts to land my own punches.
I learned that I could take a punch and hang in there when things got tough. It was a great lesson to learn at such an early age. Despite the head banging I got.
The good priest had ushered us kids into the church auditorium and given us treats for attending church the first Friday of every month during the summer time. We’d have fun mixing it up with others from the old neighborhood who were being raised in the Catholic School called St. Ludwig’s, a German parish in the Brewerytown section of North Philadelphia.
There was a touch of the old country about the church, with its beautiful stained-glass windows, brought over from Innsbruck, Austria, at the turn of the century. I recently learned that up to 1958, sermons were given in German, and at one time German was spoken in the school. In 1975, attendance had declined to only 50 families and the Philadelphia Archdiocese had to close the church.
Father Joseph Koenig had also taught us that you didn’t have to be a saint to be close to God. You see, the parish priest had a short temper and it sometimes showed when he was saying Mass. The lid to the chalice wouldn’t unscrew properly no matter what he tried in the sacristy of the church. As an altar boy, I’d hear him struggle and then witness what some people would claim to be blasphemy.
He would curse.
It wasn’t a nasty curse but a mild one that most men of that age would use when things were not going their way. The good pastor would eventually loosen the lid and get back into his priestly role. I learned that I too could curse a little in my working life and not feel the wrath of God hanging over me.
Father Koenig would drink a little. I’m not talking about sacramental wine, but something much stronger. You’d smell alcohol on his breath when you’d show up for a social event mostly for adults at the church auditorium. It was grand to see such a religious man being so human.
He’d often go unshaven for days on end. You’d see the stubble as he got close to him wearing his black priestly suit and the white collar surrounding his neck. He looked cool! He was the type of a guy who could let it all hang out and not try impose a strict way of life for us boys to follow.
Thanks, Father Koenig. You taught us how to live life without the fear of truly living it.