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.


Sara K. said...

Thank you for this wonderful post about Fred. We met Fred on our first day at St. Paul's only a little over a year ago. As with all people, there is so much more to their life story than we can see. I appreciated reading this and learning more about Fred. Thank you!

We were there at E & B the night he died. It was a very sad and painful moment, but later discovering that he wanted to die at a service, changed how I felt. I now see it as a gloriius blessing and wonderful sending forth.

May he rest in peace and rise in Glory! -S

The young fogey said...

I was slightly acquainted with Fred for many years; last saw him about three years ago and learnt of his death shortly before Christmas.

All are welcome to come and pray in a Catholic church.

Thanks for this biography; as Sara wrote, there was so much I didn't know!


Lynn said...

I learned of Fred's death tonight. I was reading the Saint Paul's newsletter to see what was new. I could not even believe what I read- that Fred passed during E&B. I am glad to know that he died after the Magnificat- he really adored the Virgin Mary! Fred was very attached to his doctor; Fred died having Norman right by his side.

The first thing I said to my husband was, "Fred is with his mother now."

The last time my husband and I saw Fred was at a charismatic prayer group. He was so interested in our upcoming wedding. He also talked about how beautiful his mother was. We prayed for Fred to heal from all his emotional hurts- I'm glad we did that before his passing.

I have spoken with Fred on many occassions at Saint Paul's. Friends and I took him out to eat twice.

Rest in peace and rise in glory!!!

Stuart Louighborough said...

I want to thank you for this marvelous tribute to Fred. I knew Fred for many years including mnany years ago when he used to wash dishes at the Carmelite Huse on Webster Street. He also served at a close friend's first Mass. Later on I knew Fred as we both were at Saint Paul's K Street. I lkeft Saint Paul's in August 1990 but Fred was one person at Saint Paul's that I will always remember

Fr. Alban said...

Yes, thank you for this.
I was a curate at St. Paul's from 1979-1985 and Fred was certainly one of the great characters there. Your tribute is a blessing for all of us who knew him. May he rest in peace and light perpetual shine upon him.
Fr. Alban Waggener
Holy Trinity Orthodox Church
Lynchburg, VA

James Noel Ward said...

Thanks for this tribute to Fred, Roland. I'm afraid I'm shamed that I did not have the blessing of your patience for his telephone calls. But now he’s part of the Church Expectant.

Rest In Peace, Fred, and yes, I’ll pray for you as The Guild of All Souls is a Church Militant witness to the Catholic faith.

Bob said...

Thanks, Roland. I can't remember
how long ago I met Fred. I belong
to a charismatic fellowship
in Northern Va., and we used
to give Fred rides to and from
our meetings. He hardly
ever spoke at the meetings,
except to ask for prayers for
his health...and a jukebox!

His death was a real lesson to me. How I wish I had spent more time with him, had appreciated him more...had been less annoyed with his phone calls. He was a remarkable individual and will be missed by all of us.

Anonymous said...

Good old Fred. We loved Fred. He was such a hoot at our weekly prayer meetings. He would come into the church were the prayer meetings were once held, plop himself on the front pew, turn towards the music ministry and watch the music ministry strum their guitars and sing the songs. I remember each week my husband would ask him "how are you doing Fred?" he would always respond that he did not feel well and in which my husband would reply "but Fred you are looking good". Fred was a simple man with many needs and few desires- Jukebox, stautes, icons and icecream . He had once given us an icon of St. Patrick that he had thoughtfully gotten from one of his trips to Richmond as an appreciation of our friendship. God Bless you Fred, you are now in a place where you can feel well and be loved by all.