Skip to Content
Search Icon


New Title, Same Boss

Remembering my grandfather's extraordinary life.


In 1956, my grandfather had just gotten out of the Army. He was living with his family in South Boston and he wanted to get married—he’d met a girl at Boston College, they’d written letters while he was at Fort Hood, but he couldn’t marry her without a job. Union Carbide had an office in Boston and his first-round interview went well, so they put him on a train to corporate headquarters in New York.

He interviewed alongside a number of engineers, but my grandfather wasn’t an engineer. He was a natural businessman, with a quick wit and a wily grin, a knack for seeing an opportunity and the tenacity to realize it. He wasn’t leaving New York without an offer. He convinced the brass to put him up in the Sheraton in Flatiron so he could meet his otherwise engaged would-be boss the next morning.

So he was strolling down Fifth Avenue in late 1956, and he stopped at a traffic light, when he noticed the man next to him in clerical attire. It was easy to recognize him; h was very famous at the time: it was Fulton Sheen, on the way to the T.V. studio to broadcast Life Is Worth Living.

“Monsignor,” said my grandfather, before correcting himself, “I’m sorry, I mean Bishop!”

“That’s all right,” said Sheen magnanimously, “New title, same boss.”

“Well, I’m hoping for a new job myself,” said my grandfather, explaining his situation.

“And do you want the job very much?”

“I do want the job.”

“And why do you want the job?”

“I met a lot of people there today, and they seem like good people. A lot of Catholics.”

Sheen considered and said, “Tonight I’ll pray that you get this job.”

He got it. My grandfather married my grandmother and they had my father, then six more children, moving every two years for three decades at the behest of Union Carbide. Everywhere they went, this unruly family with unintelligible Boston accents, they lived in rambling Victorians, which my grandmother had no patience for keeping and my grandfather no interest in maintaining, and usually they had another baby. In Westchester they lived in Frank Nelson Doubleday’s house; in Indianapolis, they lived in Kurt Vonnegut’s. They lived on a chicken farm in Maryland; they lived near a hillside in San Juan Capistrano where Basque shepherds kept flocks. There was no money and too many kids and a lot of angst over Vatican II, but my grandfather is naturally sanguine: every day, a new adventure.

My grandmother’s disposition wasn’t so sunny, which is mostly another story, except for this part. She had nine sisters back in Boston, most of them troubled in some way or other. A number of them became nuns, including Jean. It had been a touch-and-go affair for poor Jean, a heavy smoker with an unstable personality, but she’d seemed to find her place with the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx in the Eighties, and the family was very proud.

Mother Teresa herself came to New York a few times to check on the new outpost, usually involving a welcome Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. My grandparents, technically Sister Jean’s next of kin, were invited to one such Mass and were told that Teresa had requested an audience with them afterward.

My grandfather’s chief memory of Saint Teresa of Calcutta is that she was diminutive: an impossibly tiny, quiet, ancient woman. It is hard to imagine my great-aunt Jean accosting her in the halls of the convent (as Saint Teresa privately explained to my grandparents) because she was dissatisfied with the location of her sleeping mat. Impersonating Saint Teresa’s trembling Albanian accent, my grandfather quotes: “I believed she was going to strike me!”

Saint Teresa was a class act, as you might expect. She felt that the order wasn’t a fit for Jean, but she’d found her another job and a place to live, effective immediately, which is where my grandparents came in. It worked out for a while, until Jean went to visit another sister in Arizona, which lasted six years and ended in the amateur euthanasia of the sister’s dog. (I met Jean once, at a garden party hosted by my grandparents in the mid-Nineties. She was much nicer than anyone had made her out to be.)

The story of my grandfather’s meeting with Saint Teresa became a family game of telephone. I thought as a child that my grandfather had heroically saved Mother Teresa’s life from a violent attack; later I came to believe that no version of the story could possibly be true. I was surprised to discover that I had been wrong, and to learn that the facts were much closer to the gleaming heroism my larger-than-life grandfather had projected in my youth.

As I said, my grandfather had a good eye for opportunity, along with historically charmed timing. When he got tired of moving for Union Carbide, in the mid-Eighties, he learned of a small family business in Pennsylvania that sold industrial gases and equipment. The owner was old and sick and his sons were layabouts, incapable of keeping up with the business’s demand, and my grandfather thought he and his own sons, who in truth were only slightly less derelict, could do better. He placed a call from a payphone to my mother, in college in New Hampshire, to persuade her to convince my father to move south and join the business. After all, a man couldn’t get married without a job.

The family flourished in Pennsylvania, mostly. My grandfather lived in a canary-yellow Victorian with a Marian garden and a rope swing. He only drove Cadillacs. He never wore jeans. They found a parish and adopted a young priest, fresh out of seminary, to minister to our growing needs: baptizing our babies, visiting our sick and our imprisoned, burying my grandmother. He’s the bishop of South Bend now, from which post he writes to my grandfather, asking after us, the forty grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. I hope he’ll come back for the funeral. I hope he knows it will be soon.

My grandfather has lived longer with stage-four lung cancer than you might think a person could, but then his whole life has been rather charmed. He’s at the point where he’s giving away his things with an air of extravagance: he’s made my uncle promise to create a card catalogue for his enormous library, so that all of his descendants can borrow his books. He gave my brothers his vintage tuxedos. He gave me his easy chair. He tells us his stories, about the Army and the moon landing and his old friends from Southie and his pilgrimage to Guadalupe. He ignores the warnings and goes to Mass, where he returns a very old favor by praying for Fulton Sheen to get a new job. This time, it’s a job for which he’ll be applying, too.

Mary Kate Skehan is a contributor to the Spectator and other publications.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?
Mary Kate Skehan is a contributor to the Spectator and other publications.