By Tom Maguire | Associate editor
Even the doctor cried.
Father Charles M. Major died Sept. 5 at age 85. The neurosurgeon was so moved by the faithful group of people in the hospital room that she excused herself, said homilist Father James D. Mathews.
Hundreds of mourners packed St. Joseph the Worker Church in Liverpool for the Mass that Father Mathews called a “homecoming.” In keeping with Father Major’s huge personality, the church bubbled with greetings, applause, and laughter.
“The rules and the rubrics” for a farewell celebration, and the term “funeral,” were out, the homilist said. So he did a Q and A: “You know what? You say ‘what.’”
“What?” the congregation asked.
“We’re going to get through it in grand style.”
“Charlie was a great man of spirit,” St. Joseph the Worker Pastor Father Daniel J. O’Hara said, so the ceremony reflected that aura. The congregation belted out “Hallelujahs” and broke out into delirious hugging. “I’m suggesting that you just stand up, turn around, and tell the person nearby that you are important, you mean a lot to me, and we need each other’s friendship,” Father Mathews said. “You want to do that?” They did, and it went on for quite a while.
Father Mathews observed that nobody had hugged the presiding priest, retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello. So MaryBarbara Lovas, who delivered the welcoming remarks, went up and corrected the oversight, to applause. Bishop Costello’s assistants for the Mass were Father Peter Major (a second cousin of the deceased), Msgr. Jack Heagerty, and Deacon Steve Manzene.
“It’s a tough day for all of us,” said Father Mathews, but he acknowledged the “wonderful spirit here today.” He seemed to draw solace from the answer-me-now dialogue that he had established with the assemblage.
He credited Father Major, his friend of more than 60 years, with touching the lives of thousands of people, far beyond the confines of the Syracuse community. Ordained Feb. 2, 1959, Father Major had various posts before arriving as the pastor at St. Joseph the Worker in August 1977. He retired in May 2011. “He will always be a blessing to St. Joseph the Worker,” Father O’Hara said.
“This is really holy ground right here,” Father Mathews said, “this is sacred space. … We’re here. That’s enough to make it sacred. But also this is where Charlie celebrated the liturgy, celebrated the Eucharist, he preached the Gospel. … He was here 35 years.”
Father Major had a vivid imagination and was always filled with surprises, he said: “You didn’t know what he was gonna say or do, or when he’s going to show up. … If you traveled with Mayj, he always had a shortcut. … ‘This will save you 45 minutes, guaranteed.’ And invariably, it would take less. That was Mayj.”
Father Major played golf all his life. When he hit the ball into a sand trap, he’d say, “‘You know, and I know, I did not intend to hit the ball there.” A great cook, Father Major also added great conversation to dinners in the rectory, his longtime friend said. “Your 60 years of faithful priestly service was a great inspiration for all of us,” Father Mathews said.
Lovas recalled that Father Major let her be an altar server, “and it was such an honor, and I will remember that he did that for me. … His confidence in us was contagious. He empowered us to be the Church. … He gave advice, and he did take your advice. … You cooked, he ate. … He went to parties and events. He disappeared from parties and events. … My cousin Chris called it the Irish Exit.”
She noted that Father Major’s death is a medical mystery: “He loves that.” He donated his body to science, she said, because he once wanted to be a doctor. Now, she said, he is finally in med school.
A GRATEFUL FAMILY
Father Major’s goddaughter, Caryn Deptula, read to the congregation a letter that her parents, Mikell (“Mike”) and George Deptula, had written. The couple, who were unable to attend the ceremony, were longtime friends of Father Major’s. “On August 21st of this year,” they wrote, “we celebrated with you by phone that same date 53 years ago when you ‘witnessed’ our marriage. During the span of those 53 years, you were present for nearly every significant milestone that happened in our family. You ‘witnessed’ the marriage of each of our five children, baptized nearly every one of our eleven grandchildren, buried each of our four natural parents, and joined with our family in countless gatherings and celebrations.”
“Charlie was always fun to be around,” said his cousin and “most special friend,” Bill Cuddy, who noted that “golf was in Charlie’s DNA.” His cousin had a number of good assignments in the diocese, he said, “but it was his assignment to St. Joseph the Worker in 1977 where he found his niche and a community of people becoming a Vatican II church. Their accents would be on hospitality, social justice, and lay leadership.
“In preparation for this new role he attended a sensitivity-training program. This program ended with each participant in turn lying down next to a coffin and letting go of all their identities, to let the identity that they discovered for themselves in the workshop emerge. For Charlie his new identity was cheerleader.
“He became known for his wagging index finger — calling people to the altar during the Mass to give them a task … like, ‘Could you go over to the rectory and in my closet get the book Man at Play?’ In ten minutes the person would return and ask Charlie — ‘Which closet?’”
Cuddy asked: “Who is Charlie Major? For many of us, he is that giant of a man, physically, spiritually, and socially, with a heart as big as all outdoors, who never lost that fun-loving, infectious little boy in him, who connected so well with people, universally!”
Father Major’s second cousin Father Peter Major, a golf buddy, recalled that he had gone to see his cousin at St. John the Evangelist Church in Syracuse.
“And I said, ‘Charlie, you know, [I’ve] got this dream about becoming a priest but I don’t think I’m worthy of it.’ And he said … ‘Look at me.’ He said, ‘I’m a priest.’
“And that was the thing I saw about Charlie: He was a good ordinary person. But, in the ordinary, you see the divine.”