Back in the day, at the “old” Catholic Center housed in a square two-story building on Line Avenue, the secretaries of various departments would share what we called “phone duty” in which we were assigned a rotation of days to relieve the receptionist for her lunch hour. This ensured that the phone was always answered by a live person between the working hours of 8:00 to 4:30. On one such day, as I sat at the reception desk during the lunch hour, an elderly gentleman came to the office to pay on his stewardship pledge. While he stood at the reception window handing me his check, Bishop Friend strode casually through the front door. The man before me turned to see who had come in behind him and, upon watching Bishop Friend enter his passcode into the security system which would open the interior suite door, turned back to me, eyes wide.
“That’s the Bishop!” he whispered excitedly to me, as if we’d just seen a mythical being and didn’t want to frighten it away.
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“I’ve never met him. Do you…do you think…well…” His voice trailed off as the wish formed and vanished like mist before he could finish speaking it.
“Would you like to meet him?” I asked.
“Really? Meet the Bishop?” He could barely contain his awe. His eyes danced with excitement and wonder. “Surely he’s too busy to meet me,” he mused, his doubt lined with a tangible hope.
“Hold on just a moment. Let me see if he has a little time.” I left the gentleman at the front desk and went to Bishop’s office. As I approached his always-open door, Bishop Friend was removing his hat, an ivy cap which he frequently wore. I knocked gently on the door frame and tentatively asked, “Bishop?”
“Ahh, hello, Lori. Do come in! I was just fixing my hair.” (These comments always elicited smiles, as Bishop Friend was “follicly challenged.”)
“Bishop, there is a gentleman at the front desk who just came in to drop off his pledge payment, but he seems very excited just to be standing in the same building as you, and well, I wonder if you might have a minute to say hi to him? I think it would make his day.”
“Oh, Lori,” he replied with that grandfatherly smile. “No good deed shall go unpunished. Please bring him in. It will be my pleasure to meet him.”
And so I did. As I led the man to Bishop’s office, his feet seemed to not touch the ground. I lingered at the doorway just long enough to see the gentleman reach for Bishop Friend’s hand, his head bowed in reverence, as Bishop Friend shook his hand enthusiastically and began conversation with him.
The brief meeting lasted for a few minutes, long enough for me to resume my post at the front desk and field a couple of phone calls. When the gentleman exited through the same door he had seen Bishop enter, he waved happily to me and said, “Thank you! Thank you so much! Oh, my wife will be so happy to hear that I met the Bishop! Thank you!”
I thought it amusing at the time, that this man was so excited to see a figure I had the pleasure of working with every day. I turned my head to see Bishop Friend walking toward the kitchen for a cup of coffee, or perhaps for the purpose of visiting any employees who were lunching in the staff lounge. Bishop Friend looked over at me and winked as he walked by, and I smiled gratefully at him.
That is my favorite personal memory of Bishop Friend. I recall vividly several snapshot moments… the wide grin on his face as he greeted us each day, his head-thrown-back laughter as a large group of us dined together on his return visits after retirement, his smile as he watched a toddler-size Victoria play with the telephone on his desk.
There is no shortage of Bishop Friend lore. The impact of events in which he participated seems as large as he was tall. My favorite story took place before I ever met him, at a time when Shreveport was rife with gang violence. The Crips and the Bloods held our community in a vice-grip, incinerating the inner-city in turf wars. Bishop Friend called a meeting of the two gang heads. As the story goes, the leaders of the rival gangs came to the Catholic Center to meet with each other and Bishop Friend. On behalf of our Catholic elementary school that served the inner-city, Bishop implored the gang leaders to pledge to keep the violence away from the schools in the war-riddled neighborhoods. Through a long and tense meeting, an agreement was struck and the school children remained out of harm’s way. Few people would have placed themselves in the middle of such a potentially volatile meeting in an effort for peace. But such was the character of our Bishop.
I worked under Bishop Friend for ten years and six months. In all that time, I never saw him in a bad mood. There was but one time that he was noticeably upset, when he pulled us all together to tell us that there was no budgetary way to offer pay increases for one year. Otherwise, he was the same happy man every single time I saw him, every single day. That’s not to say that it was always easy. He was a leader, and leaders can never please all people at the same time. I heard him answer attacks with blessings; I watched him pray for people who cursed him. There were days that surely must have tried his soul, but he did not show it. Each and every one of his decisions was made in prayer with the good of everyone else’s soul in mind. He was the first man I ever knew to be made of this precise fiber.
When Bishop Friend retired in 2006, I felt the absence of his calm and easy-going nature throughout our building. Since then, we at the Catholic Center have taken many opportunities to regale each other with memories and stories of our beloved first Bishop. But now memories and stories are all we have left of him. Our hearts will forever know the boldness of his laugh, the softness of his voice. Most Reverend William Benedict Friend, Bishop Emeritus of Shreveport, passed away just this morning. Our hearts are heavy, our memories are stirred. But it is fitting, at least to me, that he would leave our earthly realm on Holy Thursday. As he himself died with Christ, he rises again with Christ this Easter. Bishop Friend was a man of great faith, a man who walked the walk, a man who led his assigned flock with humility and gentleness and love. I believe his homecoming is well-timed.
I keep on my desk a card that was given on the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a Bishop. The reverse of the card cites a prayer from St. Augustine, and it summarizes best the man whom I knew:
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may always be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy.
Guard me then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy.
We pray for the peaceful repose of Bishop Friend’s soul, that he who “Lived in the Spirit” may also rest in the Spirit. And we take comfort in knowing that he will continue to pray for us, as he always promised.