Once upon a time, we had daily Mass at the office where I work. I must admit, I had my streaks – those runs of several weeks on end where I made each daily Mass and was a better person for it. I also had my absent streaks – those days where my morning routine prevented me from making it to the office on time until eventually, as we got heavy into the home building, my absence from the 8 a.m. Mass became nearly permanent. There were three things I absolutely adored about going to Mass at work: First, the morning sun streamed in through the east-facing windows in the most glorious – almost blinding – fashion (that is, when the shades weren’t disappointingly drawn). Second, our Bishop’s homilies are the perfect blend of humor and inspiration. And third, I loved seeing the people who came to Mass at our little in-home chapel. We had just a handful of “regulars” whose presence you could count on as much as the priest’s. One of those regulars was Mr. Cassiere.
Pushing 90 years young, Mr. Cassiere drove his small, old pickup truck to the Catholic Center every day. He sat at the back half of the chapel, right-hand side, second pew, aisle end. I sat directly in front of him. (It’s funny how in just about any church setting, large or small, we tend to claim a permanent spot.) Most mornings he was already seated by the time I walked in, meditating from his small, worn prayer book. He had two or three rubber bands which secured the book closed when appropriate and served double-duty as pamphlet holders. His pamphlets, prayer cards and tokens would be spread on the pew beside him, together with his tweed beret. He wore a coordinating tweed sport coat whether it was nine degrees or ninety outside.
I entered the chapel one day and knelt to pray just before feeling a small tap on my shoulder. I turned around and Mr. Cassiere was leaning over the pew, holding a card out to me. “I want you to have this,” he said. It was a prayer entitled “The Cross in My Pocket,” typed on white cardstock and laminated. A few days later he tapped me again, and gave me a prayer booklet on the Divine Mercy. He showered me and others around us with prayer cards every chance he got. One day, after a lengthy conversation in which he showed me a photo of his family and learned about my two rug rats, he gave me a Prayer for Children and told me the best thing I could do as a parent was pray for them. I believed that already, but hearing it from this dear old man whose children were already grown put it into a new perspective for me.
Mr. Cassiere was one of our Greatest Generation, a veteran of World War II. He shared some stories with me one day after Mass and I couldn’t wait to tell Dom all about him that evening. I imagined my own grandfather’s experience in the same war. And I was sure to tell Mr. Cassiere how much I appreciated his service. He said he was just grateful for the opportunity to serve his country.
One Friday morning he held out a yellow and white pamphlet to me and asked me if I wanted to pray the Way of the Cross with him. It sounded like a lovely idea, and we both opened our pamphlets as we moved across the chapel to the first station. He told me that the version of prayers and recitations in this pamphlet he gave me was his favorite, and that it had been replaced with an updated version so that he could not get duplicates of this exact one any longer. “You’ve got the last one. Use it well,” he said. I realized that he ordered all these pamphlets from a Catholic organization – regularly and at his own cost – just to give them all away to those of us on his path. We proceeded with the prayers, taking turns to recite the prayers for each of the fourteen stations as we moved around the chapel. And each Friday following that day, if we were both in Mass, we would pray the Way of the Cross together. Fridays were my Starbucks run days, and sometimes I would pick up the coffee extra early or wait until after Mass to fetch the coffee, just so I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to pray with him.
We would chat often after Mass, usually about prayers, blessings, and his ministry as a Eucharistic Minister. He would talk to me about his wife, how she had been gone a few years already, and how he missed her so. At the end of every conversation, he would place his hand on my head and recite a blessing: “May the Lord our God, Creator of the universe and Master of all time and eternity, bless you and keep you now and forever. Amen.” I would smile, thank him, and say, “See you tomorrow!” to which he would reply, “If it’s the good Lord’s will to wake me up in the morning, I’ll be here. But, if He calls this old man home, well…” His eyes would gleam and he’d shrug his hunched shoulders as a wide grin spread across his face.
As a Eucharistic Minister, Mr. Cassiere took on the added responsibility of distributing Communion to Catholics at a local nursing home. We talked about this at length, and I told him that I was debating doing the same thing in my own parish. It didn’t really seem like something I’d be good at, and I was nervous about the idea, but I felt drawn to it just the same. Mr. Cassiere assured me that I would do just fine and offered to take me with him on one of his nursing home trips so I could see what it was like. We never got that opportunity, as winter set in and we saw less and less of him at morning Mass. When I commented on his absence, he said, “Some days the cold just keeps these old bones in bed until later in the day.” So began the tapering off of his attendance at the 8:00 Mass. Still, when the opportunity came for me to join a team of Eucharistic Ministers at my church who take communion to the nearest nursing home, I jumped on it, fueled by the inspiration of this sweet man’s generous spirit.
Mr. Cassiere passed away on Wednesday. I learned through his obituary that he was a lifelong educator, and through the sentiments expressed online by fellow mourners that he was a source of gentle guidance and inspiration to many in our community. Though I had never considered or asked his profession, it made perfect sense when I pictured him in the role of some of my favorite teachers. I spoke with our receptionist, Linda, about his passing and she said, “You know, it’s sad, because he was such a good man. But he missed his wife so much, you just can’t help but be happy for him.”
I am writing this on the day of his funeral. The sky is overcast, the threat of rain in the air. But I know that just above those clouds, the sun shines as brightly as it did through our chapel windows, and Mr. Cassiere is home.