Agony of Sorrows

In the heart of South St. Louis, a parish loses its priest because of stricter standards on sexual sin

Judy smiles.

"He was a very good man, and he had a very big job to do," she says. "To sit with him as a friend and then hear him celebrate Mass and preach wonderful homilies and just know that everything he said was true because we saw him living it ..."

She breaks off. Brennell's heart failed when he was 48, and they still feel the loss. But the Rev. John Dempsey came, and he was an extraordinary pastor. Then, in 1995, Campbell replaced him and won their hearts.

Our Lady of Sorrows, in South St. Louis
Jennifer Silverberg
Our Lady of Sorrows, in South St. Louis

He was prayerful and funny and kind.

And he moved the angels.

Three tiny stone angels started appearing in different places in the churchyard. Sometimes they ringed an oak tree. In summer, they showed up in Cardinal ball caps. Campbell tended to the smallest details of parish life -- all for the larger purpose.

He had a sweetness about him -- at 9 p.m., when they locked the adoration chapel, he'd excuse himself, saying, "I've got to go put Baby Jesus to bed."

Yet he tackled head-on the cliques and factions that had sprung up among the parish's 88 organizations.

"There was a lot of scrabbling for places to meet and 'who's more important'" says Doug. "Campbell set that friction apart and made us feel more like a community."

Judy says: "He didn't just expect other people to do things, either. He'd get into his T-shirt and shorts and pull weeds from the cracks in the sidewalk. He wanted the church to be immaculate -- to be perfect."

When doctors found a spot on Judy's lung, Campbell didn't just toss out the usual "I'll pray for you" -- he came back every day to make sure his prayers were being answered.

On Sept. 11, he remembered that the Brolemans had a son in the Air Force and another who was a cameraman in Washington, D.C.

"You felt he really cared about you," says Doug. "He had a compassion, first for God and then the parish and then the neighborhood. He was constantly working to get the slumlords out and make this a conservation area. He had a way of being in control of everything but not making you feel like he was above you. Instead of preaching to us, he became a part of us."

Judy: "He was ecstatic to be here. It's the largest parish in the city, the core of this neighborhood. He believed he could make a difference here, and he wanted to be here for many, many years. He talked about it from the pulpit. He made us feel like it was an honor for him to be here to serve us."

Tears stream down her cheeks without warning. Unable to continue, she raises her fingers to her lips, pressing her palms together in prayer.

On Saturday, March 2, the entrance hymn for the 5 p.m. Mass was "From the Depths We Cry to Thee."

The first reading was from Exodus.

And Bishop Timothy Dolan talked about crucifixion.

He said the church was on the cross, and its priests were on the cross, and its people were on the cross.

He assured them that Campbell was not a pedophile.

He read Campbell's letter of apology.

Doug and Judy don't go to 5 o'clock Mass.

Judy sings in the choir for the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday. Doug ushers, and sometimes they act as eucharistic ministers.

Saturday night, they were sitting in their TV room, watching the 10 o'clock news.

"When the bell tower of our church came on TV and then they said the name, my mouth dropped open," says Judy. "I kept thinking there must be another Michael Campbell at another Our Lady of Sorrows."

It had never even crossed their mind that Campbell was gay.

"I'm the most naïve person in the world," says Judy ruefully.

Then she gets up and leaves the room.

She returns with the parish yearbook.

"Look at him," she urges, flipping to the pastor's photo.

"What is it the girls say -- 'What a waste'?" chuckles Doug.

They point out his distinguished white hair, indulging the pride Catholics take in a handsome priest: walking proof of a sacrifice worth making.

Doug confides that for years he struggled with people who had "a different sexual preference." Finally he decided that "God didn't make us all alike, and maybe it's God's way of strengthening us in our life, by accepting those differences."

Judy says, for the third time, "The bishop made it absolutely clear that it was not pedophilia. All we know is, he slipped once, made a mistake, went forward and confessed his mistake, took treatment, went where they told him to go and did what they told him to do."

If she saw him now, she wouldn't even ask him about all this.

"I would just ask him, 'Are you OK?'"

"And we're praying for him," adds Doug.

By Monday, March 4, Campbell had resigned his mayoral appointment to the Housing Authority Board.

He'd put the angels back in their place.

He'd packed and left the rectory.

"The way it was presented, it was like when Judy's dad died," says Doug. "It was like Campbell died instantaneously, like having somebody very close to you just drop over and then having it slammed in your face.

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