Kenneth Westhues

Chapter 18 in K. Westhues, ed., Where We Belong: Historical Essays for the Family of Olive Conran and John Westhues, Glasgow, Mo., privately published, 1997. Published on the web in 2003 in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage.

It did not initially occur to me to include in this book a chapter on Father William J. Drimped, Pastor of St. Mary's Parish from 1950 to 1961. I remember him as pastor, not relative. We addressed him in our family by his surname, unlike the priests among our kin, who were called by their given names—Father Fritz, Father Jack, Father Joe, and so on.

Then Gene, my brother, suggested publishing this brief memoir here, reminding me that Father Drimped was indeed a sort of relative. Mom's first cousin, Mary Conran, with whom she has always been close, married Jim Drimped, the priest's brother. Father Drimped was thus, I suppose, our cousin-in-law.

This kinship tie probably helps account for this particular pastor's unusually important place in our family. He did more than officiate at milestone rituals like Jim's and Dolores's weddings, and the funerals for Grandpa and Grandma Conran. His presence in our farmhouse anchored many family gatherings on summer Sundays and helped our family get through its crises of the 1950s.

Come to think of it, Father Drimped always called Mom's parents "Uncle John" and "Aunt Lena." At the priest's own funeral, Mom, Dad and Dolores sat in church not with the local parishioners but with the Drimped family. I guess Father Drimped counts among our ancestors after all.

It is easier to describe the kind of man he wasn't than the kind he was. He was not a high-achiever. He was not like the Westhues priests—the hard-driving, energetic, athletic founders of parishes, builders of churches, earners of advanced degrees, who move up in the ecclesiastical organization. Father Drimped was overweight, slow-moving, and in poor health.

He was not a financial whiz. It was widely believed that in the one building project he undertook, the north addition to St. Mary's School, the parish got taken to the cleaners.

Nor did Father Drimped resonate with rural life. Born and raised in St. Louis, he was an Irish city kid. His idea of a treat was dinner in a restaurant or a show at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre. A plowing match meant no more to him than the price of hogs.

Father Drimped's sermons may have captivated some parishioners, but I never heard anyone say so. His voice did not project. Grandpa Conran claimed he couldn't make out well enough what Father Drimped said to know whether he liked it or not.

But this priest was not a sissy either, not the kind one suspects of emotional immaturity and sexual perversion. I suspect Father Drimped was not unlike the protagonist in Graham Greene's 1982 novel, Monsignor Quixote: "I have sometimes thought, may God forgive me, that I was specially favoured because I have never been troubled with sexual desires. ... No, not even in dreams."

Father Drimped's gift was to exude a sense of pure, unselfish interest in the other's well-being, genuine pleasure in the other's existence, forgiveness of the other's faults, resignation to the mystery in the other's life. That is how he came across to me, and I think to most people.

Marg always spoke with deep appreciation of his counsel to her when she was estranged from the church and mixed up with a high-flying crowd in Kansas City. I don't recall her ever telling me what advice he gave her. Maybe he didn't give her any advice at all. But I know he listened to what she had to say and impressed on her that she was a child of God.

It was the same with Dad when, in the fall of 1957, he fell into a depression so deep that neither his own will nor Mom's love was enough to get him out. Father Drimped's respectful, prayerful presence, more than anything he might have said, was a lifeline at that time for Dad and all of us.

I was six years old when Father Drimped arrived in Glasgow, and almost seventeen when he died. During this period he made himself a mighty presence in my life, but it was not by doing anything heroic or unusual. It was by the way he would slowly and deliberately turn his eyes toward me, project a slight, demanding, affirming smile, and speak to me by name, "Good morning, Kenny." His look and words bespoke not just his confidence that I could make something of myself, but his demand in God's name that I should.

I had no way of knowing what that something was. I used to daydream of sailing to Africa or China as a missionary and converting "pagan babies" to the One True Church. Father Drimped guided me instead to the Hannibal seminary, where I would study for the diocesan priesthood. This alternative excited me much less, but I embraced it.

I'm sure Father Drimped never knew how heavily my adolescent sense of self depended on him. "I'll remember you in my prayers, Kenny," he would say. More than once I came upon him, alone in St. Mary's Church, kneeling in the pew near the side door, as if time had stopped. I was sure that every now and then, in the midst of his Latin murmurings, my name would cross his lips. I held on to that knowledge the way a child holds on to a parent's hand.

Only in the days following his death did I discover how major a prop Father Drimped had been for my emerging identity. I knew he was in St. Joseph's Hospital in Boonville on that Monday, June 5, 1961, when I drove into town for 6:00 AM Mass. But Father Drimped was always having health problems, and things were hopping on the farm. Dolores was there with her children, spending time before her impending move to New Jersey. Babies and farmwork preoccupied us all.

The sacristy bell rang and Father Marvin Bowles, the young assistant pastor, came out for Mass. But instead of approaching the altar directly in the usual way, he turned toward the fifteen or twenty parishioners scattered through the church.

"Father Drimped died this morning," he said. The young priest's voice cracked, and from his throat there escaped a sob so deep and loud that it echoed around the church. All during Mass the widows and old farmers wept. I waited till I got home, then lay across the bed upstairs and cried.

I was not alone in thinking the whole world should stop. A saint had died: a man of prayer, patience, and such total acceptance of God's creation that surely all creation should be notified. An aging farmer named Frank Hanke was the church janitor. He and his wife lived in a little brick house beside the school. He was a man to whom even simple messages took a while to get through, but he was kind and dutiful.

I was with Father Bowles in the rectory later that morning when Mr. Hanke came in looking lost. "I'm going to toll the bell," he said. He meant the off-key one that was rung at funerals. The rope for it in the belfry had a special loop at the end and was pulled off to one side, away from the three or four ropes used for ringing Sunday chimes.

Mr. Hanke's tolling of the bell seemed to go on forever. Was it for half an hour? An hour? Pulling that rope was the kind of repetitive task Mr. Hanke took in stride. I pictured him in the belfry, waiting just long enough that Glasgow citizens might turn back to work, and then pulling the rope again.

But the world did not stop. During the next few days leading up to Father Drimped's burial, I learned a distinction that has stayed with me ever since: the distinction between people and institutions. Father Drimped put people first, institutions second. He was not disloyal to the church, but his caring for people went beyond church policy, and sometimes around it.

His placing the person ahead of rules, the human spirit before politics and bureaucracy, had undoubtedly been noticed by officials in the church hierarchy. Father Bowles spoke to me with much bitterness, on that day of Father Drimped's death, about the lack of honor and recognition our late pastor had received from the diocese. Father Bowles, in some ways cut from the same cloth as Father Drimped, would later leave the priesthood.

Because I knew Father Drimped's holiness so well from my own experience, I was shocked—even heartbroken—by how little fuss the church made over his death. I don't mean the parish. The people of St. Mary's mourned his passing with great sorrow. The Sisters insisted that his body be clothed for burial in the finest vestments the parish owned. Groups of parishioners took turns keeping vigil when his body lay in state in St. Mary's. I could tell that Elmer Friemonth, the local undertaker and thus a man who had much experience with death rituals, was personally shaken and put off-balance by this one.

The bishop of the Jefferson City diocese, on the other hand, was otherwise occupied and did not attend Father Drimped's funeral. Since, for the sake of protocol, there needed to be some bishop in attendance, an auxiliary bishop from St. Louis was brought in for the occasion. I chanced to see him when he and his retinue pulled up to the rectory in an expensive black car. I watched people genuflect and kiss his ring when he got out. His self-important air contrasted sharply with Father Drimped's shyness and humility.

After the funeral, our late pastor's body was taken to St. Louis for burial in the priests' section of Calvary Cemetery. Mom and Dad let me make the trip, so that I could be present for the interment. I expected to see all kinds of church dignitaries, but there was not a single one. Only a handful of people were present, so few that I was enlisted to help carry the coffin from hearse to grave.

A few weeks later a new pastor arrived at St. Mary's: a former army chaplain named Father Bernard Mers. He was a nice guy: fatherly toward me, friendly toward Mom and Dad, and helpful in the arrangements for Marg's marriage that fall. Father Mers encouraged my studies for the priesthood, which I continued for a further five years.

Even so, Father Drimped's death, and the contrast between how local parishioners responded to it and how church officials did, marked a turning point in my attitude toward Catholicism and toward life itself. Little by little I came to understand the distinction between people and institutions, and to accept Father Drimped's priority on the first of these. Following rules is no substitute for caring. Better to call one person by name and respond to his or her concerns than to lecture a crowd on abstract principles.

Accepting this great truth and putting it into practice are, of course, two different things. As hundreds of university students can attest, I still lecture a lot.