May 28, 2020
Miles Pfalzer has lived at St. Margaret Hall since 2014. He still likes to spin a good yarn.BY TONI CASHNELLI
Friar Miles Pfalzer is the master of the snappy comeback. He can deflect questions with deadpan humor or tell a tall tale so earnestly it sounds believable.
At the age of 99, he hasn’t lost his touch. Do him a favor and he’ll say, “You shouldn’t have, but I’m glad you did.” Ask, “What’s the best thing about being retired?” and he responds, “I’ve been retired ever since I was born.” Take your leave and he replies, “Come back, but don’t rush.”
“I notice he does use his sense of humor in interacting with the staff,” says Christie Lee, recently assigned as Miles’ social worker at St. Margaret Hall in Cincinnati, where he has lived in retirement since 2014. Top, Miles as a young priest; above, the senior of the provinceLike millions of other seniors, he is currently in isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today Christie is by his side for a phone interview in advance of an important birthday on June 5. God willing, Miles will be the first friar of St. John the Baptist Province to join the growing ranks of American centenarians.
He is unfazed by major events like his 100th birthday. In a life that began the same year Warren G. Harding was elected President, Miles has weathered the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and a raft of assignments that required true grit. Known for his dedication and calm perseverance, he has gamely tackled ministries from the Deep South to the Philippines to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, working into his 90s, leaving his mark as a teacher, pastor and chaplain.
Since his memory clouded, forcing retirement, Miles is more apt to answer questions with, “I don’t remember.” But in a recent hour-long interview, it’s obvious that the wheels of wit are still spinning. Miles leaves it to his listeners to discern the truth from the near-truth and outright flights of fancy.
Summing up his long life, he says, “I’ve always had lots of fun.”
FILE PHOTOSMiles with classmate Valens Waldschmidt at a provincial gatheringJuvenalRomanHuldaCarl
Social worker Christie confirms Miles’ boyhood love of sports. “You told me you got a new pair of roller skates for Christmas every year,” she reminds him. With no false modesty Miles says, “You’re talking to the best baseball and football player Louisville ever had.”
His propensity to stretch the truth has always been more endearing than exasperating. One of Miles’ favorite stories is how he helped the great Babe Ruth get to church.
From the early 1960s, with parishioners in Naval, Leyte, the PhilippinesSupposedly, “When I was young, one day these two men wanted to know where a Catholic Church was,” he says. “I wasn’t gonna show them a church that wasn’t Catholic and that wasn’t my own church. I said to them, ‘Follow me,’” and he led them to St. Brigid, his home parish. According to Miles, one of the men was Babe Ruth. Asked to name the other, he pauses for effect, then says, “Lou Gehrig,” one of the Babe’s New York Yankees teammates. Miles says he doesn’t know what brought them to Louisville. And Lou wasn’t even Catholic, which makes the story a little hard to swallow.
FILE PHOTOSTop, with brothers and fellow friars Roman and Juvenal; above, Miles was a pastor in Naval, Leyte.
In his teens, Miles followed older brothers Juvenal and Roman to St. John the Baptist Province and priesthood. His memories of St. Francis Seminary in Cincinnati are rosy. “It was happy days. There were a lot of other boys to play baseball and football with.”
But memories of his first assignment as a priest at Our Lady of Good Harbor parish in Buras, La., have faded. After nine years in the South, he joined SJB’s fledgling mission to the Philippines in 1956. “It was hot, hot, hot,” is his comeback to, “What was life like as a missionary?” An anonymous letter in Miles’ personnel file reads, “Fr. Miles was among the first four Franciscans to come this island, and he has done much to improve the conditions of the Church.”
That same letter, presumably written by an associate, recounts a harrowing experience in the late 1960s during Miles’ time as pastor in Kawayan on the island of Leyte. While inspecting repairs in a mission chapel, he stepped on a nail. Two days away from the nearest hospital, Miles gave himself first aid and returned to work. Thirteen days later, he was nearly dead from lockjaw. Discovered immobile in his room, he was taken by boat to an emergency hospital, where Sr. Annette, a Mishawaka Franciscan, kept a two-week vigil by his side. The recovery was slow and excruciating.
It’s one story Miles will never forget. “I was afraid I was gonna die,” he says. “You step on a rusty nail, you don’t have much of a chance.”
Miles says this photo from the Philippines was more for show than anything else.
From 1971-1988, Miles was a hospital chaplain in Kansas City, Mo., Baton Rouge, La., and Hamilton, Ohio. “I don’t remember,” he says, asked about its challenges. What he will say is, “The nurses were all very, very good at their jobs.”
What followed was his favorite assignment, in the wild and woolly Upper Peninsula of Michigan. “I liked the cold weather,” he says. “I enjoyed the snow,” all 300 inches per season of it. When the friars left the UP, Miles moved to St. Francis Retreat House in Easton, Pa., providing sacramental ministry for most of the 13 years he lived there. (He is fondly remembered; see Page 3.) Now he spends most of his time people-watching at St. Margaret Hall. “His room is near the elevator and nurses’ station,” says Christie, “so he’s got a lot of traffic. He’s mostly in his room, relaxing in his chair.”
What’s striking about the interview is what Miles doesn’t say. He seems to have no complaints and no regrets. When he is asked, “What’s the best thing about being a friar?” he replies, “There’s nothing bad about it.”
He readily shares his personal philosophy: “Mind your own business.” And his secret to longevity? “Mind your own business.” But when the question is, “What’s your greatest accomplishment?”, Miles is not kidding around. Without hesitating he says, “Serving the people.”
Left, Miles in Easton, Pa.; above, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth (standing) with the Colonels in Louisville in 1928
Postscript: Remember the story about Babe Ruth? We Googled “Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Louisville.” A picture popped up from R.G. Potter’s book, Memories, Louisville’s Family Album. Taken at Parkway Field, it shows the Louisville Colonels minor league baseball team with guests Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. They were photographed Oct. 24, 1928 – so Miles could very well have met them.
(Nearing retirement, Miles was helped and supported by two special people at St. Francis Retreat House in Easton, Pa. They shared these memories.)
Ed Demyanovich, OFM
When Miles could no longer drive, Ed Demyanovich took him everywhere.
“The last five years [2009-2014], I probably took care of him 90 percent of the time. I took him everywhere; every time he needed something I would go and get it. I made sure he went to bed, had clean clothes, took his medication, came for meals, went to the doctor. He never called me by my first name. He gave me a nickname, which was, ‘Damn Canadian’, since I was a foreigner.
“He loved to stretch the truth. We didn’t know if he was making up a story or if it really happened. He would say, ‘The Pope calls me all the time; sometimes the Cardinal calls me for questions on theology.’ I would ask, ‘Which one?’, and he would say, ‘If you don’t know who the Pope is, I’m not gonna tell you.’
“It was for me a learning experience. What I learned from Miles was patience. He was always gracious. Every time I helped him out or did something for him, he would say, ‘Thank you.’ He never forgot that.”
Sr. Regina Ann Rokosny, OSF
Above, Marian Douglas had served with Miles in the Upper Peninsula; right, Regina Ann Rokosny, OSF“Miles came to Easton shortly after the provinces [SJB and Holy Savior] joined. The following year Fr. Marian Douglas came. They were a pair and a half. When Fr. Marian’s health was getting poor, he left and Miles stayed. That’s when he became my little associate.
“He would wait for me every day on a bench by the chapel. I would give him things to do, like putting stamps on envelopes or counting money from the Sunday collection. I think he looked forward to it.
“I have a plaque on my window sill they gave him for his 75th anniversary of being a friar. He said, ‘I want you to keep this. When I die, you are to put it on my casket so they know who is inside.’ He was always so quick with his responses. I would say, ‘What do you do, sit up all night thinking of things to say?’
“Oh my God, could he ever spin a tale. Some of it had truth, but there was an element of Miles’ vivid imagination. I remember at lunch one day he told us when he was in the Philippines he was the secretary or confessor to a couple of Popes. We were like, ‘Really?’
“We had good times together. He was a rascal, so down to earth you couldn’t help but love him. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to have those years with him. Sometimes I look at the chair across from me and say, ‘Where are you, Mister?’ I still miss him.”
BY MARK SOEHNER, OFM
Jesus breathes on the disciples and gives The Great Commission, by Sri Lankan artist Nalini Jayasuriya, 2002.Henny Youngman
We are celebrating with our brother, Fr. Miles, his longevity. On June 5, 2020, Miles Pfalzer will turn 100. Miles can also be remembered for his own one liners and love of joking, and quick quips. I can imagine that he might have come up with such an answer to the question of his longevity.
Breathing is essential. Many who have been infected with COVID-19 talk about their labored breathing as if someone had parked a Mack truck on their chest. And for some 100,000 as of this writing, their breathing ceased. They died. Without breath, we all face physical death.
PHOTO BY Istock.comHow am I breathing in the Spirit?
We are grateful for the humor and jest of Fr. Miles, which might be considered a “gift of the Holy Spirit”. And while we celebrate this one brother, we also marvel at the ways that the Holy Spirit has been manifested in this brotherhood. Francis himself noticed the gifts of the Spirit when he described the perfect friar minor: “faith and love of poverty of Br. Bernard”, the “simplicity and purity of Br. Leo”, “the courtly bearing of Br. Angelo”, “the charity of Br. Roger”, “the bodily and spiritual strength of Br. John of Lauds”, etc. (Mirror of Perfection, Chapter 5)
While we are celebrating Fr. Miles’ birthday, we also remember that Pentecost is the Birthday of the Church! That’s not much of a one liner, but makes me wonder: How am I breathing in the Spirit? What gifts has the Spirit unleashed in me? To whom and what is the Spirit directing me now? How are we being sent to the present condition of this world? Let’s all take in a deep breath, thank God for the gift of our own lives, and not waste this one beautiful, difficult opportunity.
EWTN produced the docudrama on Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich.
Al Mascia explores a wide range of topics at The Friar Place on YouTube
PHOTO BY PIXABAYThe bottom line: Masks may help flatten the curve. It’s the hot topic of conversation now that we are opening up businesses and going out in public. Should we wear masks and do they really protect us? Surgical masks, and improperly worn N95 respirator masks, do not offer perfect protection from COVID-19. But if the stated goal is to “flatten” the curve (as opposed to eradicating the virus), we have to abandon the black-and-white thinking.
We can no longer claim that masks “are not effective.” We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. What if even partial protection afforded by leaky surgical or even self-made masks reduces the risk of transmission similar to that afforded by social distancing or “not touching our face”? It could then double the impact of non-pharmacological intervention on flattening the curve.
So I say, wearing a mask is a good choice for added protection along with good handwashing, avoiding your face, social distancing, and avoiding crowded places, especially if you have underlying health problems.
I am keeping you all in my prayers and hope to get somewhat back to normal in the near future.
Michelle Viacava, RN
Send comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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FILE PHOTOSMiles with classmate Valens Waldschmidt at a provincial gatheringOf his childhood in Louisville, Ky., he says it was “one big, happy family, with five boys and two girls. Clarence was the oldest brother and Marie was the oldest sister. We used to say, ‘five boys and two dishwashers,’” although it was never said within earshot of the girls. All of his siblings, including friar brothers Juvenal and Roman, have since gone to heaven. “I’m the last of the Mohicans.” Mom Hulda was a homemaker, “a good cook,” and dad Carl, a sheet metal worker. With mom, “Our father always came first, and then the children.”
Miles says this photo from the Philippines was more for show than anything else.There’s a famous photo of Miles crossing a river in the Philippines on the back of a carabao, an Asian water buffalo. For years it was used as a recruiting tool by the friars. He did indeed ride the carabao, Miles confirms. “The buffalo had horns I could grab onto.” But, he confesses, the “river” in question was about 6 inches deep.
Jesus breathes on the disciples and gives The Great Commission, by Sri Lankan artist Nalini Jayasuriya, 2002.Back in the day, Henny Youngman was a famous comic, known as the King of the One Liners. When Mr. Youngman celebrated his 91st birthday, a party was held and attended by a host of relatives, friends and media persons. During an interview at a party, the first question asked was, “To what do you attribute your longevity?” Without missing a beat, the comic replied, “Breathing!”
PHOTO BY Istock.comHow am I breathing in the Spirit?In Jesus’ appearance to the disciples this Pentecost Sunday, he breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. Just as God breathed into the nostrils of Adam and changed a lump of clay into a human being, now Jesus is breathing on the disciples his Risen life. And they are different. They become a community of forgiveness, just as they were forgiven. Jesus gives them his Spirit of self-sacrifice, his spirit of concern for the poor, his spirit of service. The Church caught its breath, found its voice and took to the streets. These folks who were full of fear, now speak openly and even speak in tongues. They’re breathing the pure oxygen of Jesus’ own Spirit.