“You will make an excellent wife and mother,” replied the handwriting expert when Monsignor Florence Daniel Cohalan responded to a newspaper advertisement for free analysis of signatures. His penmanship would require a Rosetta Stone for deciphering, but the confusion was because Florence had been named for the Saint Abbot of Bangor in County Down. His own family, with tradition of service under Lafayette in the American Revolution, had come from County Cork. From her house, an aunt watched the Lusitania sink. From his grandmother’s house, DeValera watched Michael Collins drive by just before his assassination. Thereafter he esteemed only Collins. Daniel, his father, and two uncles were judges of the New York State Supreme Court at the same time, and Daniel came to be the leading voice of the Irish in the city of New York. In 1917, Arthur Brisbane wrote, “Powerful in intellect and of inflexible integrity, Cohalan stands out as one of the great Americans of our time.” Woodrow Wilson did not think so and vowed never to shake his hand.
Florence was born in 1907. His mother sang Danny Boy to his father the night before she died in childbirth, and he was reared by a stepmother. A weak heart invalided him as a child, and he never ate a vegetable, nor did he exercise (save for riding in Ireland in summers and walking trips with Churchill’s cousin, Sir Shane Leslie). Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes vainly gave him golf clubs when he was a teenager. Victor Herbert named his operetta Aileen for Florence’s sister, who became a Madame of the Sacred Heart and died at 100. Doomed to an early grave, he lived 93 years and outlived all his classmates from Georgetown, Harvard, and Dunwoodie Seminary.
When ordained, his wide associations with burnished figures of a gilded age discomforted a narrow clerical establishment. He spent most of his life teaching history to hundreds of minor seminarians and then was pastor of a small parish on Staten Island. His official history of the Archdiocese of New York, a model of erudition and charitable judgment, could have been followed by a longer one about the whimsies and gossip that pump the blood of culture. Total recall of the tables of royal European consanguinity and affinity accompanied knowledge of which 19th-century archbishops wore toupees. Impeccable in his duties to the Breviary and altar, he sheltered no extravagant piety and claimed that while it would be fine to be found dead slumped over a prie-dieu, friends would assume he had a premonition.
He never taught me in a classroom, but more than 15 years of rectory table conversation made him my most influential teacher. Once a callow curate whose social analysis reeked of the trends of the 1970s stopped by for dinner and fled as soon as he could after our conversation on the Merovingian kings, Marshal Petain, and Anastasia Romanov. “Please, one conversation at a time,” he often said, and all knew whose conversation it would be. When I nudged him from what seemed to be a comatose state, he stared and said: “I was just thinking—since Borromeo himself, until Pius VII appointed Consalvi, probably the greatest diplomat was Flavio Chigi under Alexander VII.”
The Cohalan library was breath-taking, and when his sight went, he uncomplainingly submitted to readers or listened exclusively to Mozart, who has no equal. A policeman searching the rectory for a burglar got a discourse on Arthur Conan Doyle. Young and old made him their confessor, while he beckoned people whose personalities had irregular corners. He had sailed with the murderer Harry K. Thaw and enjoyed dear friends who well into the 1950s dressed in turn-of-the-century clothing and every year in Paris took long detours in their ancient touring car to avoid an avenue named for Franklin Roosevelt. He lent a sympathetic ear to a professor whose unrelieved grief at the death of his wife found expression in wearing her dresses and wig. The man “does have his little ways.” To those most likely to disapprove, he would announce his plans for a Confraternity of Catholic Executioners. He changed with good changes and lamented changes that were not good. Reverent to those whom an inscrutable providence had designated his superiors, the eye of the historian detected in Paul VI some similarities to Clement XIV.
He hoped there would be an alcove in heaven where the popes compare the vicissitudes of their reigns. He would be a prime man to refresh their memories. Lord Acton called religion the key of history. Monsignor Cohalan unlocked whole centuries with that key. Shortly before he was called on high, he said to me, “I know I talk a lot, but I also listen a lot.”