Newark We Hardly Knew Ye

On the Irish Waterfront

In spring 1998 my wife Kristina Chew was baptized, confirmed, and received into the one Holy, Roman, and Apostolic Catholic Church by a St. Louis child rapist named Gary Wolken. The conversion adventure was wholly K’s doing (looking forward to that testimony in print!) though as the lone congenital Catholic extant in this house, I remain bedeviled by the sordid legacy of a now long-incarcerated pedo-cleric. I do feel guilty of unwittingly if revealingly placing Kristina—and a then-infant Charlie, who Wolken once insisted on holding in his skanky mitts—in harm’s way, thanks to my self-short-selling, ‘here comes everybody’ Catholic localism and fatalist, rank and file mentality, which combined to sentence K. to a lame, seventh-grade-level season of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) catechesis, served up by an unctuous, sex-criminal parish priest whose heart was clearly not in the gig (would that he even had a ‘soul…’).

Gary Wolken had only recently arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes following a stint in a treatment facility for sex offenders, a lifelong status confirmed during his previous assignment at a parish in Chesterfield, a sprawling exurb in far West St. Louis County best known as a haven for professional hockey players and retired Cardinals (of the diamond not the cloth). Wolken had in fact launched his career in sexual assault at age fifteen; his first victim—like his last and God knows how many more in between—was a five year old boy.

St. Louis may well chart the most insularly Catholic terrain in all God’s creation. Though during seven years in residence I never was asked, “where’d you go to high school” (it was probably obvious to all that wherever it was, it was no place St. Louisans woulda heard of), the Gateway City’s reputation for muted tribalism was as well deserved as it was inscrutable to this Irish Jerseyan. At night the streets of the city run empty, all precincts. It finally took a slightly tipsy N. Jersey Irish-American nun, who’d attended grad school at Saint Louie U., to edify me during a conversation on a street corner in a different city, where we’d crossed paths at a history conference not long into our heartland stint. “The Germans,” Sister Mary knowingly leaned in to confide to me “do their entertaining in the home.”

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