Father Joseph Champlin lives and learns through his ordeal with cancer
If Father Joseph Champlin ever had doubts about how much he is loved, they must have disappeared by now. There are large, cardboard boxes in his office and they are filled to overflowing with cards and letters from people whose lives he has touched in some way. The messages were written to buoy his spirits and give him hope as he faces his greatest challenge to date — a difficult battle with a rare form of bone marrow cancer, Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia.
For a 72-year-old man who is often seen jogging around Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse, the thought that such a disastrous blow could come concerning his health was somewhat shocking for Father Champlin. He said he rarely took an aspirin in all his 72 years. During Father Champlin’s recent rounds of chemotherapy, he has had to ingest 11 pills a day for one week. His therapy is repeated every six weeks. He explained that his cancer is treatable, but not curable.
Around this past Lenten season, when Father Champlin decided to reveal the state of his health to the parishioners at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception where he is rector, his friend and personal physician, Dr. Gary Tyndall spoke to parishioners. He explained Father Champlin’s form of cancer and the events that lead to his diagnosis. Dr. Tyndall is an emergency room physician and his wife, Ann, is a nurse. Their friendship plays an especially significant role in Father Champlin’s life today. He often called on them during the initial stage of his chemotherapy.
“He was concerned about what would happen when he took the medication, what the side effects might be, should he eat, should he not eat. I was able to come over and check on him,” Dr. Tyndall said.
Dr. Tyndall explained that the life expectancy of a patient with Waldenstrom’s is typically five to seven years. “But, most people who are diagnosed are over 65. A lot of patients die from other things besides the cancer,” he said.
Father Champlin is the author of approximately 50 published works and when the diagnosis came, he decided he wanted to write about it. His publisher at first thought it might not be worthwhile for Father Champlin to be so preoccupied with himself during this time. But, the people around him thought it might be a good idea. “People around here thought it could be helpful. Danielle Cummings said she thought it would be very helpful for others and Arlieta Wieczorek thought it would be useful, too,” Father Champlin explained. So, in his usual fashion and during a very difficult time, Father Champlin did what he usually does, he went to work.
He began the first chapter of his manuscript about a month after he decided to write it. The working title is “From Time to Eternity and Back.” There are several copies floating around so that friends can give him some feedback. So far, it’s been well-received.
Writing is something he does not take for granted. It is not a real pleasure for him, Father Champlin explained, but rather a “compulsion.”
“It’s work. I have a compulsion to write,” Father Champlin said. “The first chapter came very fast. I just wanted to get it down on paper. When I deeply experience something it tends to come out through my writing.” He also writes when he sees a need that he feels should be addressed.
Father Champlin writes everything by hand; no typing because he said he would use a three-finger method if that were the case. Instead, his typist of the past 25 years types out the manuscript and then he goes over it.
“I don’t need a big block of time to write or a special space or environment,” Father Champlin said. “And I almost never re-write. I think I have it in my head the way I want the chapters to be so I almost never rearrange things.”
Writing is a familial connection for Father Champlin as well. His older brother, Charles, is the retired entertainment editor and film critic for the Los Angeles Times. His career took off after one of his professors from Harvard recommended him for a job with Time-Life.
An accomplished author, a respected cleric and a man who never seems to run out of new ideas, Father Champlin is the sort of person who meets obstacles head-on. That is evident in the way Cathedral School has turned around during the past several years. Father Champlin has run in the Camillus Memorial Day race raising money for the Guardian Angel Society at Cathedral School for the past four years. This year, even though he was in treatment for cancer, he did the same. The first year he had 200 supporters onboard and raised $3,600 in donations. This year, over 600 people contributed move than $45,000.
The program raises money for the school and for children by providing scholarships for at-risk, mostly non-Catholic students who are from below-poverty-level homes. This program, which is nearing the $1 million mark, will benefit over 100 children who otherwise might never have an opportunity for a strong academic education. The group had its first-ever Sweet Cabaret around Valentine’s Day. That event was so successful that next year’s version is already being planned, according to Kathy Fedrizzi, director of development for the school and the Guardian Angel Society. Christmas cards designed by a student at the school brought in $50,000 last year. A luncheon is held in the fall with a special speaker. This October, Sister Mary Rose McGeardy, director of Covenant House in New York City, will give a presentation. The success of the campaign is remarkable. Fedrizzi said that it is Father Champlin who is responsible for its success. “He’s touched so many people over the years. He’s a good person and people want to give to this; they want to be a part of what he’s doing,” Fedrizzi said.
Sister Mary Jane Wilcox, DC, has been the principal of Cathedral School for 10 years. Her current position means she works closely with Father Champlin, but her siblings knew him years earlier when he was a young teacher and associate at the Cathedral. “He had my brothers and sisters in school,” Sister Mary Jane said. “We have many pictures of him in the school with his beautiful, black hair,” she laughed.
Father Champlin’s struggle and his ability to cope is grounded in his spirituality, Sister Mary Jane said. “He’s an amazing man. One of the most important characteristics he has is that he is very prayerful. He has a very deep spirit of faith that guides him. What he does is very successful because he puts it in God’s hands,” she said.
When the diagnosis came, she said, many people would have chosen to step away and take it easy. Instead, Father Champlin came back for Holy Week.
“God works through you. You don’t do anything, God does. Father Champlin has that ability to let God do it. The Guardian Angel Society, by this time next year, will have a $1 million endowment. People want to work with him. There is a spirit of prayer that emanates from him. There is something there and it is not of a material nature,” Sister Mary Jane said. Ann Tyndall explained that Father Champlin is responsible for bringing her and her family back to the church. “We were sort of lost sheep and he kind of corralled us and brought us back,” Ann Tyndall said.
Father Champlin’s friend Mary Dougherty who works at WSYR radio, is a parishioner at the Cathedral. He works with her on his one-minute inspirational radio spots, “Spiritual Suggestions for a Stressed-Filled Society.” The radio spots have been running for about year now and they have covered everything from marriage to self-esteem and addiction. She said his role as pastor is one that she admires tremendously.
“He pulls you into the church and he involves you,” Dougherty said. “The next thing you know you become a real participant in the parish. I really can’t say enough about him. He is a doer. He inspires me to try new things — to just ‘do it.’” Dougherty said she is impressed by how Father Champlin has taken his experience with cancer and turned it into a way to support other people.
“In his own way, he’s got to be dealing with so many things right now,” she said. In his book, Father Champlin covers everything from feeling a little sluggish and tired after he ran in last year’s annual Memorial Day race to throwing up during his chemotherapy. The book is not a sugar-coated version of his experience. It is a look at his reality.
At the end of the book, Father Champlin covers “Lessons Learned on this Journey.” His lessons are moving, human and truthful. He said his weariness and fatigue helped him feel more connected to Jesus on the Cross and that when he was what he calls a “sick puppy,” he became totally absorbed with himself and “oblivious to others and poor at prayer.” The 1,500 cards and letters he has received since news of his cancer came to light might not attest to Father Champlin’s last lesson. One high school senior wrote to him, “No matter what this horrible disease may do to you, in my heart you will live forever!”
Editor’s note: Father Champlin’s latest book has not been published yet. When it is, the proceeds will benefit the Guardian Angel Society, and The Catholic SUN will let readers know how to purchase a copy.