An Uncommon Priest: Father Joe Remembered

Friends and the people he served say Monsignor Joseph Desmond practiced his own brand of Catholicism – putting people before rules.

An uncommon practice in the top down Church.

The 89-year old priest was put to rest Tuesday.

Many mourners described Desmond, who served more than a dozen parishes over his 40 year career, as their friend.

Moira Valenti was just a kid, maybe 8, 9 years old.

She loved her church, St. Anne's in Manchester.

And one day she asked the man she called Father Joe a pretty complicated question.

VALENTI: “I approached Father Joe. And I asked him why there were no altar girls? Why there were just altar boys in the Church?”

And he gave Valenti a simple answer.

VALENTI: “He said, I don’t know Moira. Would you like to be one? And he allowed me to do that and then more girls came forward and there were several of us.”

Back in the 1970’s Father Joe was one of the first priests in New Hampshire to bring women on as pastoral workers.

All of a sudden tasks done exclusively by men – preparing people for weddings and funerals, visiting the sick in hospitals, were being done by women.

Sister Eileen Brady was one of them.

She says Father Joe said his parishioners needed more help than the priests alone could provide.

BRADY: “It was wonderful to work with somebody who wasn’t going to be constantly telling somebody what they couldn’t do, but what they could do....not all the rules, no, no, no, no, no. It was ‘how can we work with your situation?’”

Despite breaking new ground, former parishioners and friends describe Father Joe as quiet and humble.

Over the course of 40 years as a priest, he wasn’t a man known for jumping up on a soapbox preaching equality or patting himself on the back.

Father Rick Pennett says sometimes Father Joe was at the forefront, sometimes he was on the fringe.

But he says even when he walked out on the ledge, Father Joe could always justify his actions.

PENNETT: “He went back to the command of the gospel. To love as we have been loved. To forgive as we have been forgiven. And looking at the dignity of each person. That person’s right to make decisions. And to follow God and to understand the love and mercy of God and the promise of God.”

Ultimately, the man who became Monsignor Joseph Desmond will be remembered as the type of priest who could relate to the everyday problems of regular people.

When a child was born out of wedlock - something the Church frowns on – Father Joe’s primary concern was getting the baby baptized.

Moira Valenti says he saw himself as imperfect as the next person.

That’s not always the case with the clergy.

She remembers meeting with him after her divorce.

Father Joe had performed the service and counseled the couple before their wedding.

VALENTI: "And I went back to Father Joe to talk about that, and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m sorry. I felt somewhere in the back of my head, I should speak up...that I didn’t believe this was a good match. I did not. I feel the need to apologize to you.’"

Valenti, has since married again, but she didn’t get any counseling from her old priest this time.

GORENSTEIN: Did he go to your next wedding?

VALENTI: "Actually I was married in Vegas and married by Elvis, so no."

GORENSTEIN: What do you think Father Joe would have thought of that?

VALENTI: "Honestly, I think he would have been very glad I am happy. I don’t know how he would have felt about me being married outside the Catholic Church. But I know he would have been glad that I am happy."

And that, says Valenti, is all you need to know about the man most people called Joe.