Monday, December 17, 2007
Fred Sherrer, RIP
Tonight I received e-mail messages and phone calls from a number of friends to inform me of the death of Fred Sherrer. I knew Fred from my former parish, St. Paul’s, K Street, where he had been a member for many years. He was the sort of unique character that Anglo-Catholic parishes always seem to attract in far greater numbers than other churches, proof of both the inclusiveness and the pastoral nature of Anglo-Catholicism. Tonight at Evensong & Benediction, right after the Magnificat (Dyson in C Minor for you Anglican music aficionados), he lay down in the pew and became unresponsive. His doctor administered CPR and the curate administered the Last Rites before the paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Fred’s life began with great misfortune: As an infant, he suffered brain damage in a car crash. Based on stories he told me of his childhood, I would surmise that he was quite a handful as a child and was lucky to have survived some of his dangerous experiments with electricity. Still, Fred continued to tinker with electrical and mechanical devices all his life. Somewhere along the line he learned to unplug electrical devices before tinkering with them!
For some reason, Fred was attracted to Catholicism as a child, even though his parents do not seem to have been Catholic. (When I knew Fred, his mother attended a United Methodist church.) But, because of his mental disability, probably exacerbated by a cantankerous streak, he faced continual rejection by the Catholic Church. One priest refused to confirm him. Later in life he looked into joining religious orders but, for obvious reasons, he was never accepted. He finally gave up on the Roman Catholic Church and became an Anglo-Catholic, which turned out to be a much better fit for him. He was often distressed by the Episcopal Church’s descent into heresy and weirdness, but as often as the subject came up he would announce his resolve to stay at St. Paul’s.
I think Fred always dreamed of being a priest. When in public, he always dressed in black. He never confessed this to me himself, but I am reliably informed that he would sometimes don a Roman collar and try to impersonate a priest!
Despite his condition, Fred managed to remain fairly independent. Between Social Security disability payments, other public subsidies, and help from his mother, he managed to live in an apartment by himself and travel a lot. He would often take the train to Philadelphia, where his mother lived, or to Richmond, where he had a number of friends, and stay for a month at a time. In the Washington area he had friends at a number of churches who welcomed him to Bible studies, concerts, and dinners.
But St. Paul’s was where he truly felt at home. While some parishioners gave him a wide berth and Fred himself avoided others of whom he had formed a negative opinion, he found many friends who would talk with him at coffee hours and receptions and occasionally give him a ride home after church. He would stay in touch with his friends from St. Paul’s and beyond by frequent phone calls, in which he would often ask for clarification about some bit of ecclesiastical news or gossip that he had heard or read but did not understand. Whenever he was reminded of a story about another priest or church or an episode from his childhood he would recount his experience in great detail – there was clearly nothing wrong with the part of his brain that governed memory!
At one point early in my relationship with Fred, I was beginning to resent his neediness and his demands on me. I thought, Why me? But it did not take me long to realize that he liked me because I had the patience to deal with him, whereas most others did not. I started to look at my friendship with Fred as a opportunity for ministry that I was being called upon to exercise in my parish. Here was a need, and God had given me the gifts to address it. After that, while Fred would occasionally try my patience, my resentment evaporated. When my phone would ring at 12:30 AM – Fred’s usual time to call, since he found by trial and error that was the time when I was most likely to answer the phone, night owl that I am – I would nearly always answer. And, unless I had to get up early the next morning to serve at Mass, I would usually listen for as long as he wanted to talk. I could sense that he was rationing the number and length of his phone calls to me and not abusing this privilege.
A visit to Fred’s apartment could be an adventure. Fred loved clocks, and he had several that went bong, ding-dong, or cuckoo every 15 minutes. Besides the clocks, his walls were filled with various religious pictures and calendars, and his shelves and coffee tables supported various statues, such as one of Our Lady of Walsingham. In the last few years, after his mother died, perhaps as a result of my influence, Fred also began to acquire icons, which displaced some of the previous art from his walls.
Fred was never particularly healthy, but he began to deteriorate markedly over the past few years. His emotional health declined first, after his mother died, followed closely by his aunt. They were the only living relatives he was at all close to, and he had depended heavily on his mother’s love and guidance. Then his arthritis worsened to the point where he could no longer walk around as he used to, and the reduction in exercise further weakened him.
When he began to need help for routine cleaning of his apartment, my spiritual director, Bill, suggested that we could take up that task ourselves. So every few months we would meet at Fred’s apartment, where I would pick up old papers and trash from the floor and vacuum, and Bill would clean the kitchen and the refrigerator. Occasionally we would do additional things, such as clean the bathroom or help him decorate for Christmas. As Fred’s needs increased, last year several young men from church, including Fred’s doctor, joined our team. Fred appreciated not only the things we did for him, but also our company and our attention.
A few months ago Fred was hospitalized following a heart attack. He told me last Saturday that he never felt he had recovered from that episode. The following morning at church, he passed out before Mass and was anointed for healing. At that time he told the curate that when he died he wanted to die at a service at St. Paul’s. Tonight he got his wish, and, in the rector’s words, he “left this life fortified by the sacraments of the church.”
May he rest in peace and rise in glory.