In early December of 1991, I received a call to anoint someone. It was my first year as a priest, an associate at St Ignatius. So I drove out to Mobile Infirmary, and I found Harry Wolcott there, suffering from pneumonia. He was actually in post-op—there were no available beds for him at that time. I anointed him and chatted with him (actually, I spoke—his oxygen mask prevented him from speaking). His breathing was very labored, but the look in his eyes told me everything—how grateful he was that he was able to receive the Sacrament of the Sick. I visited him several times in the next couple of weeks; it allowed me to get to know his wife, Rosalie, a bit better, as well as some of their children.
On Christmas night, Fr Paddy Gallagher and I were aiming at drinks and supper at St Mary’s (a tradition, then, for priests who had no home to go to). We stopped by Mobile Infirmary on the way, and we spent about an hour and a half in the ICU with Harry and his family. You know it’s not good when the whole family is allowed in the unit…
We left then, assuring the family we’d return after the supper. When we got back to the hospital, we learned that Harry had died perhaps 15 minutes earlier, surrounded by his family. I remember thinking that this was appropriate: such holy ground should be reserved for family. But they were glad to see us.
Ten minutes later, Archbishop Lipscomb arrived (he’d also been at the supper at St Mary’s and heard us talk about Harry). Immediately, Rosalie hugged him and just cried, “Oh, Fr Lipscomb, Fr Lipscomb!” He’d known the family from the days when the Wolcotts were members at St Mary’s and he was an associate. He and the family went into a waiting room to talk and pray, and his touch that night was utterly, beautifully pastoral. They were so grateful.
Years later, I shared this remembrance with the Archbishop, and I said, “Archbishop, don’t take this the wrong way, but I think it’s a shame you were made a bishop—your pastoral care and sensitivity are so remarkable.” Then he said to me, “When I got the letter of appointment as bishop, my first thought was, ‘My priesthood has been changed forever.’” And it was: not so much in quality as in the quantity he would have had, had he remained as a parish priest.
We are the less for his passing, but we are also the better for his being here for so many years—as priest, as teacher, as administrator, as bishop. This is not my only memory of him, but it is my most endearing and enduring. As we read in Scripture: “Blessed are the dead who died in the Lord; let them rest from their labors, for their good deeds go with them” (Revelation 14:13).