As I was unfamiliar with the Spanish convention of naming boys for the Savior, it startled me upon arriving in my new parish to read on the bulletin board: “If there is no usher at the 7:30 Mass, Jesus will take up the collection.” So I came under the tutelage of sexton Jesus Vasquez (1927-1996), a prototype and amalgamation of all the church sextons who would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of their Lord than dwell in the tents of ungodliness.
This husband of a quiet wife and father of six children, who reciprocated his adoration of them, sustained them on a small income with no apparent astringency of domestic manners. He was equally ebullient with his extended family of the many saints whose statues he dusted daily, sometimes with groanings that could indeed be uttered, especially when taking up issues with Martin de Porres, whose statue he resembled.
As one tried in the fire, he arrived in the United States after being urged to leave the Dominican Republic for having been a student agitator while in medical school. When he abandoned hope of a professional career, he retained the classical culture in which he had been formed and grimaced if a clergyman mangled Latin. Other times he would peer from the sacristy door at a liturgical faux pas with a pained look freighted with all of the agonies of the Church’s suffering since guitarists and skirted dancers broke down the gates of the sanctuary.
For this Jesus, a high feast was the annual anniversary of his new citizenship. When he was semi-comatose on his deathbed, he recited the Pledge of Allegiance in the English he had laboriously studied in night school. In turn, he taught me much Castillano, explaining that my Spanish tutor was teaching me expressions useful only if I had been summoned to the court of Alfonso XIII.
Politely unspoken condescension marked his face whenever I suggested some change in the daily routine, for of that routine he was master, and on more than one occasion he would summon the priest to rejoice in the dawn if he had not heard the alarm for Angelus. This Jesus had no power to call the dead forth from their tombs, but he could weep as did Jesus in Bethany, often when he functioned as a sort of professional mourner at the funerals of people who had no one to keep vigil over their bodies. As a coffin was carried out onto the busy street, he managed to toll the tower bell once for each year of the departed life, and still be on the curb with hat off and head bowed for the final blessing. It was close to bilocation, and I never asked how he managed it.
A sturdy build served him well when he hammer-locked a pickpocket and dragged him from the pew to the street with an inconspicuous grace that did not interrupt the Gloria. He spied a thief carrying off my chalice as I was greeting people at the door after Mass and he leaped after him like a gazelle, knocked him to the ground, and pried the precious cup from the menacing hands. On busy days he would choreograph the confessional lines, and I feared that he might start dividing the mortals from the venials. Having been a serious amateur boxer, he was full of advice but bemused when I started boxing lessons, clearly perplexed by someone making a sport of what was for him almost a necessity: He lived in a neighborhood where the manly art of self-defense really was for self-defense. He was shot in the leg during some random violence near his home, and was back on the job as soon as he got out of the hospital. “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:26-27).