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Ex-chaplain, storyteller a victim in Burger King


Joe Healy had simple tastes. He liked to eat lunch at a Burger King in his hometown of Wilkinsburg, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. He always sat at the same table, surrounded by friends. Healy knew everyone at Burger King and probably at the nearby McDonald’s as well. Chances are, just about everyone in the faded, integrated, working class suburb of 25,000 knew Joe Healy.

But Joe Healy didn’t know 39-year-old Ronald Taylor, an unemployed black man with a history of mental problems. Taylor knew only that Healy was white. For complicated and dark reasons, Taylor hated whites, the media, and, curiously, Italians.

Earlier, Taylor had set his own fifth floor apartment on fire because the broken door to his unit had not been fixed promptly. “You’re all white trash, racist pigs,” he shouted at John DeWitt, the white worker in the apartment complex.

Sometime after 11:15 a.m., Ronald Taylor entered the Burger King, pointed his 22-caliber handgun, and shot 71-year-old Joe Healy in the head. Joe was virtually brain dead but remained on life support long enough for his family to donate his organs for transplant -- something Joe would have wanted.

As events later emerged, Joe Healy and a man named John Kroll were killed; and a third man, wounded while sitting in his van at the nearby McDonald’s, would die later. All told, Taylor shot five people, three of whom died. He terrorized a senior citizen center and came dangerously close to a day care center filled with kids.

Taylor, who had no police record, managed to keep the police away for over two hours while his mood floated from anger to confusion, from fear to remorse. He talked of suicide and of revenge. He eventually surrendered but, through it all, he had no idea that he had just killed a priest.

Joe Healy was one of 14 children with roots in Connecticut. He joined the Holy Ghost Fathers -- known popularly as the Spiritans -- and was ordained sometime in the 1950s. The Spiritans have roots in France where the order was founded in 1703.

They came to the area that would become the United States from Canada in 1732 and began working among the Micmac Indians near Fort Duquesne in what would become Pittsburgh. Later, they would establish missions among black Americans and put roots down in the Pittsburgh area. Today, the order has some 270 members in the United States, working primarily among blacks and Latinos. It is a congregation that proved a perfect match for Joe Healy, who had a facility for working with society’s throwaways.

In 1878, the Spiritans founded the Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost, which would become Duquesne University, now a 9,000-student institution with nine schools of study.

Fr. Joe Healy was appointed chaplain at Duquesne in1965. During the next decade, he became something of a legend.

Worshipers with no connection with the university would join with the university community just to be part of his innovative liturgies and to hear his fascinating homilies. According to Ann Rogers Melnick, religion reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “He could retell the gospel in a good, storytelling fashion.” Indeed, he became a master at storytelling.

Joe Healy got into episcopal hot water in the early 1970s when he began distributing Communion in the hand, a rubric now commonplace but then still banned. Pittsburgh’s bishop, Vincent M. Leonard, was a good man who believed in rules.

Leonard called Joe to task, and Joe quietly resigned from the chaplaincy, the Spiritans and the priesthood in 1975. Chances are, there were other issues, but they are lost in some canonical archive.

Sometimes it seems that rules intended to bring about order become so slit-eyed that they produce only anger and chaos.

Two years later, he married Frankie Ailes, whose seven children came to regard Joe as their father. Eventually, they would present Frankie and Joe with 20 grandchildren.

Joe Healy provided for his family in a variety of ways. Mostly, however, he made his living as a professional storyteller. He lived in Wilkinsburg, a community that has previously experienced racial, gang and drug problems. Once a lovely, upper-class suburb, it fell on hard times. Its large Victorian homes became tacky, with tired exteriors and broken stained-glass windows.

For the past three years, however, there has been a concerted effort to turn the town around. Joe Healy was part of that effort. Healy told his stories in senior citizen homes and in the poorest of schools. He was reminiscent of the itinerant storytellers of Ireland -- anticipated, enjoyed, remembered.

Wilkinsburg’s mayor, Wilbert Young, insisted that all 32 churches in the small town be part of the rebuilding effort. Healy took to the pulpit in virtually all the churches and told his stories. Later, he would tell his stories on the school buses while the kids were being bused to school.

One incident is typical of Healy’s magic. While walking down a dark Wilkinsburg street one evening, he was followed by a group of black gang members who eventually encircled him. Joe Healy began talking with them, telling his stories. They became entranced, simply listening to his parables.

Not long after, they drifted away. Little wonder that, on learning of his death, the school district had to bring in grief counselors to heal the devastated kids.

It’s a good guess that if Ronald Taylor had given Joe Healy a chance to speak with him, he would not have put a bullet in Joe’s head. During part of the time between the shooting and Taylor’s surrender, the suspect pointed the gun at his own head and threatened to kill himself. Those who knew Joe Healy say he could have quietly talked the troubled man into surrendering.

Bishop Donald Wuerl, a Pittsburgh native and bishop of his home diocese since 1988, was one of the first to respond. He presided at a Mass to pray for all concerned. He cited the Sermon on the Mount and spoke of turning the other cheek. Wuerl barely knew Healy. The bishop was ordained in Rome in 1966 and was largely involved in administration until ordained an auxiliary bishop in 1986.

Joe Healy was buried March 6 from St. James Church in Wilkinsburg. The 900-seat church was packed for the liturgy. Joe’s fellow Spiritans -- Leonard Tuozzolo, a classmate from Wheaton, Md., George Healy (Joe’s brother) from California, and Tom Tunney from Harlem -- concelebrated the Mass. (Another Spiritan brother, James Healy, is deceased.) Family and ministers of all faiths from the neighboring churches filled the front pews. Curiously, Joe Healy had left detailed instructions for his funeral. He had updated them on Feb. 9, just weeks before he was killed.

His brother, Pat, read the petitions. Typically, they called for understanding, forgiveness and love, particularly for the assailant and his mother. In addition to attending the funeral, the local clergy sent ministers and others to comfort those involved in the more than two-hour siege. Employees of the franchises were invited to meet with a group of ministers at the huge Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, nearby. Local clergy have planned a procession past several of the churches and to the two franchises involved. The participating churches wanted to pay tribute to Joe Healy and the other victims, as well as to cool the tensions that arose, especially because of the incendiary babble on local talk radio.

Friends of Joe must have been wishing that he could have been at St. James Church to give his own homily or to tell a story. The funeral was everything he would have wanted.

Joe Healy’s final story may have been his best one.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago, with thanks to Ann Rogers Melnick, religion reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and to the staff of the Holy Ghost Fathers and Brothers Provincialate in Bethel Park, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000