In my freshman year at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., the teacher in my very first class was Father Francis Grogan of the Congregation of Holy Cross. God could not have assigned a gentler and more calming pedagogue to allay my youthful anxieties.
He quickly convinced me that he was there to help his students and not to intimidate them. He was far too modest to talk about his duties as a sonar expert on a Navy destroyer during World War II.
I learned about this only when I read his obituary in The New York Times.
I recall the first paper he asked us to write. He would have no idea at that time how prophetic its theme would be.
It was based on an experience he had shortly after he was ordained, when he was filled with the kind of anxieties that are not entirely dissimilar to those of a conscientious first-year student.
He was a very young and inexperienced priest. While driving along the Merritt Parkway in southern Connecticut, an accident had brought the line of traffic to a standstill.
A state trooper, spotting Father Grogan’s religious attire, urged the callow priest to come to the aid of an injured motorist and perhaps administer the last rites.
Father Grogan exited from his car and ran to the scene of the accident, thinking to himself as he passed car after car that this was a crisis that arrived much too early in his priestly career.
Was he up to the challenge? Would he be the last person the injured party might set his eyes on? Should he be thankful that he can dispense mercy to a dying person?
He asked his first-year students to project themselves into this scenario and write an essay on how they might feel under such challenging circumstances.
How does one think and what does one do when coming to the aid of a person who may be on the doorstep of the next world? Could we be effective ministers in our own way in such a time of crisis?
The year after I graduated from Stonehill, members of the senior class dedicated the yearbook to Father Grogan, remembering him for his smile, his friendliness and his patience, and they praised him as a model and guide. I might add that neither his Irish good looks nor his royal shyness ever hurt his popularity.
His tenure as a priest was rich and varied. He served as director of admissions and registrar at Stonehill and was superior of the Holy Cross residence in North Dartmouth, Mass.
He spent four years with the Family Theater Productions and Family Rosary Crusade in Madrid, where he helped to produce Christian movies. He was an assistant pastor at Catholic churches in Bennington, Vt., Austin, Texas, and Easton, Mass.
On that fateful day, Sept. 11, 2001, a friend who worked at United Airlines gave him a first-class ticket on Flight 175. Father Grogan was going to visit his sister, Anne Browne, in Ramona, Calif. He may, like St. Maximilian Kolbe, have taken someone else’s place and thereby spared that life. He was 76 years of age when the hijacked plane drove into one of the Twin Towers.
One of his former high-school students at Holy Cross High in Waterbury, Conn., expressed my own thoughts perfectly: "I can well imagine him ministering to people until the final moments of his passing."
When I learned of his tragic demise, I grieved for the loss of an extraordinary priest: Natura il fece, e poi ruppe la stampa (Nature made him and then broke the mold).
"Father Grogan had such a positive way about him," said one mourner. "He used to take me and my brother for early-morning strawberry picking and then to McDonald’s for hotcakes. Might not sound like much, but it sure meant a lot to us, and we always looked forward to it. God bless him."
One might argue that that does not sound like "much," but it was just like Father Grogan to make the little things larger than life and worthy of remembrance.
I recalled the theme of my first essay in his class and how it was a rehearsal (or a premonition) for the final minutes of my esteemed English professor’s life.
Knowing this fine man, it is easy for me to believe that he was, indeed, ministering to people in their final moments. He was truly a priest forever, and his life and legacy will continue to inspire.