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Issue Date:  February 18, 2005

A friend for life and death


It still seems like yesterday when, almost 60 years ago, Matt Killion and I grew up together on Manhattan’s West Side, served as altar boys together and even went to the seminary at Dunwoodie. Along the way, Matt taught me to drive his father’s old Ford, showed me a thing or two about the niceties of poker (something that drove old Fr. George Murphy wild when we played with others on the stoop across from the rectory) and taught me so much, without even trying, about what it was we were both somehow seeking.

I left the seminary and we went our separate ways without ever really losing touch. Within a year, I met Pat and, two years later, Matt performed the wedding ceremony and eventually baptized four of our children.

In those first years of his priesthood, he served as prison chaplain at the Eastern Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Being chaplain wasn’t quite enough for Matt, so he set out to build a chapel on the grounds of the prison and eventually raised enough money by collecting trading stamps! When St. Jude Within the Walls Chapel was dedicated 40 years ago, Cardinal Francis Spellman named Matt the youngest monsignor in the archdiocese.

It was during that time that Matt reached out to me and my wife and, without sermon or fluff, tried to tell us about faith and hope and love when our fourth child died the day after he was born.

Matt left the priesthood in 1969, eventually got married and went through a series of chapters in his life that included hospital administration, law school, volunteer work in Thailand, board membership at Notre Dame High School in Manhattan, the thankless chores of a New York Legal Aid attorney and finally a law professorship at John Jay College.

We stayed in touch through it all. Matt married Pat McDonough and they adopted two Vietnamese children. One of them, Mark, is today a firefighter down South while Justine is a highly decorated New York City detective. We still met regularly as part of an old tradition at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and we have always laughed together about all those old days in grammar school when life was so pure and simple and old Fr. Murphy couldn’t tolerate a straight flush.

And then the cancer came in both lungs for Matt about a year ago, and there were days in the hospital when he couldn’t stand and could barely breathe. I saw him a few times in the hospital and saw him for the last time in October at Justine’s wedding. It was just a month later when the doctors operated on me for pancreatic cancer, discovered they could do nothing about something inoperable that had seeped into the lungs and told me that chemotherapy was the last, the only, alternative.

The first to call, of course, was my old friend, Matt, who hinted at what to expect and urged me to stay in touch. In the weeks that followed, just before he died, a man who could hardly breathe and couldn’t stand up without pain, Matt called me several more times. It was like having his arm around my shoulder.

On the day of his funeral, there were a dozen priests concelebrating the Mass, several former priests in the crowded church and a churchful of family, friends and high school students, all there to mourn a wonderful husband and father, an extraordinary priest and a beautiful person. And right up to the day he died, this great old friend who had taught me to drive a car and play poker and who spoke wordlessly to me and my wife about life and death and hope was reaching out one last time to teach me how to die.

Dick Ryan is a longtime contributor to NCR. He lives in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2005

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