Virginia Beach - Thomas Joseph Quinlan, "TQ" to all who knew him, was the eldest of 10 children born to Thomas J. and Marie Ellen Johnson Quinlan. He was born in Springfield (Chicopee), Massachusetts, in 1929, on April 23, the feast of St. George, whose existence TQ doubted – due to his being shrouded in too much myth and legend -- but TQ himself could give George a run for his money on that score. April 23 is the putative birthday (O.S.) of William Shakespeare, with whom TQ shared, shall we say, "a way with words." Shakespeare also died on April 23, as did TQ, although perhaps he waited into the wee hours of the 24th – just so as not to be too predictable. And April 23 is the "observed" death day of Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, a character with whom TQ claimed a deep kinship – in the windmill department.
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Visionary that he came to be, TQ, ironically, had terrible eyesight, from an early age. In fact, he was declared legally blind, and steered toward a lowercase- c clerical career, in the Depression-era's version of vocational rehabilitation, where, as a teenager, he was put to learn what we today refer to as "keyboarding." Ahead of his time, as always, he was one of the few young men in the early 50's who, if asked, " . . . but, can you type?" could have responded, "Of course I can." It was a skill that served him well his whole life through. When TQ sat down at the typewriter (or, later, the computer), get ready . . . There was many an adult education director asked every January, "Can we have a course on TQ's Christmas letter?"
As a young adult, TQ felt the draw of what used to be called, "the religious life," and he made a run at several religious orders. Among these was the Trappists – then famous for taking a vow of perpetual silence. Needless to say, silence was never TQ's strong suit. He was soon on the bus back to Chicopee.
Another formative experience of those years was his assignment, from which he begged, to no avail, to be removed, to work daily, plucking eggs and shoveling you-know-what, in the novitiate's henhouse. Instead of building spiritual character, which was perhaps the novice master's intention, it left TQ with a serious case of ornithophobia. This was something you would never have known – except if you made the mistake one day of trying to introduce TQ to your pet parrot. Your parrot would be fine, but you might need a new front door. His fear extended to birds in all forms, which explains his life-long aversion to fried chicken.
While on these numerous forays as postulant, novice and seminarian, TQ managed to absorb a great deal about the philosophical and theological thinkers of the past, and, before too long, he pretty well knew his way around the major landmarks of Western classical tradition. He took special delight in the fact that he, the son of a beer-truck driver, and who never actually got a college degree, could quote Aquinas, Duns Scotus, or any of the rest of them, and often did so, in Latin, when in "discussion" with "so-called traditionalists who don't know a damn thing about the tradition!"
In 1958, amidst the now-long-gone vocations phenomenon of northern glut and southern shortage, the Massachusetts Yankee came south, to the "missionary" diocese of Richmond, where he was ordained, and served as a presbyter (he wore the title of "priest" loosely, and rejected the concept of priest-"hood", or anything else that smacked of special class, higher caste, or "ontological status"), pastor, and prophetic voice, for 54 years.
Though known and appreciated by a broad community for his perspicacity, and the apodicticity of his prophetic convictions, up close, he was very much loved by the many, many people he served in many, many parishes, over many, many years.
As the Irish would say: "He was very good to people."
He recognized that pastoral ministry was a ministry of presence – the "sacrament of self" was what you brought – and he brought that presence, faithfully, to people of all ages, conditions, cultures and colors, levels of education, wealth, status, sexual identity, or anything else that comes with life in this world. If he was your pastor, he was there – with you; for you. He made you work. And you loved it. And you put up with his quirkiness because you knew, deep down, that he was the real deal.
He was tolerant of human weaknesses – of which he admitted to having a few – and intolerant of only two things: arrogance – especially in those who enjoyed power and prerogative – and ignorance – especially of the supine variety.
"There's many a truth that's told in jest," the saying goes, and he was a master at laying down challenges with a good dose of humor. "I always try to get a few digs in at the end if I can," he would say, with his trademark giggle.
With a tip of the hat to Judaism (in this and in many other matters), TQ was, "not too interested" in orthodoxy – but hell-bent on orthopraxis: "I don't care where you're COMIN' from," he would say; "I want to know where you're GOIN' to . . .."
This was never more the case than with his mantra that the church had to, " . . . serve the poor, or forget it!"
His style got him in trouble at times. Five years ago, he was sent off for a psychiatric evaluation, at a reputable Catholic institution, in a conservative Catholic town (Philadelphia). When he was discharged with a clean bill of health, he waved the document in the air, and gleefully boasted that he was "perhaps the only priest in the United States with an official certificate of sanity . . .."
At his request, this certificate will be placed in his hand, in his casket, lest anyone forget.
Along with that, there will be nestled one other item that he especially cherished. A few years ago, while he still had a car, he had to go to the DMV for a vision test, required for renewal of his driver's license. For reasons known only to God – or, perhaps, someone who knew someone who knew someone who thought the world of TQ – he passed. He was never so happy to return home that day, croaking, "Thank God I won't have to do that again for ten more years!" That done, and in the interest of public safety, he had the good sense to quit driving.
Probably because he knew what they would tell him not to do, TQ avoided doctors for most of his adult life. He came late in life to appreciate the skill of numerous physicians, though, after surgery for lung cancer ("the doctor said I shouldn't smoke any more – but he didn't say it too strongly . . ."), skin cancer on his scalp (which required him to wear a bandage that looked like an ornate medieval wimple – he told people he had "joined a new order of cloistered nuns"), and several aortic stents (which he referred to as, "my two hysterectomies").
There was nothing TQ liked better than a good liturgy, and, of those, the best was "a good funeral." So, while still in good health, he went ahead and had a couple for himself. The upcoming will be his third.
Something TQ said he learned over the years from the Black community was: when it comes to funerals, take your time. "You've got to wait for the relatives from Carolina to get into town . . . so just slow down." In this case, to give his hundred-or-so first-degree relatives ample time to come into town from "up north," we will wait a leisurely week before the rites begin, which surely would please him ("White people always want to stick you in the ground right away . . . what's the rush???")
TQ was predeceased by his parents, by his sisters, Catherine Lemere, Joan White, Maureen Guilmain, and his brother Daniel Quinlan. He is survived by a sister, Veronica Shore, four brothers, , Jimmy Quinlan, Jackie Quinlan, Francis Quinlan, and Gerry Quinlan, and, as we say, "a host of nieces and nephews" unto the third generation -- he could always tell you the exact number, all their names, and what they were up to.
You are invited to celebrate TQ's life – now in a new dimension – at a Joyful Mass of the Resurrection (the phrase he told all the funeral directors to start using back in the 70's) – next Friday evening, May 4, at the Church of the Holy Family, Virginia Beach. Visitation will begin at 5:30 PM, and the liturgy at 7:00 PM. Following the liturgy, there will be a "Meal of Mercy" – as TQ's Lebanese friends would call it -- in the parish hall.
After this, according to his wishes, TQ will be cremated, and his ashes poured into a jumbo "Chock-Full-O-Nuts" coffee can, which will be placed in the columbarium of St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish, Poquoson, following an Evening Prayer service, on Wednesday, May 9, at 7 p.m. H.D. Oliver Funeral Apts., Laskin Road Chapel is handling arrangements. Online condolences may be made at www.hdoliver.com.
Nearly ten years ago, when he first arrived in Virginia Beach as pastor, TQ asked a Haitian bishop to identify the poorest, most out-of-the-way parish in the diocese that might be interested in twinning with Holy Family. This began their relationship with the Church of St. Jude (That's called "labeling!"), in Baptiste, a small village in the hills, at the end of the road, on the border with the Dominican Republic. Now a committee of 50+ parishioners facilitates the Haiti outreach, and the Thomas J. Quinlan school stands in the middle of Baptiste. Education was first. Next on the list is the construction of a Mother-and-Baby clinic, to bring basic healthcare services to that corner of the western hemisphere's poorest nation. In memory of TQ, you are invited to contribute to this project. Make checks payable to: Church of the Holy Family, and write "Haiti Ministry" on the memo line. Send to: Haiti Fund, Church of the Holy Family, 1279 N. Great Neck Rd., Virginia Beach, VA 23454.
Let's rock the GDP of Baptiste, Haiti, everyone. TQ would love it!
Published in The Virginian Pilot on Apr. 29, 2012