There were tears, laughter, memories, stories and much love shared during the Rite of Reception and Mass of Christian Burial held for Art Espelage at the St. Anthony Shrine on Jan. 16. His fellow friars, family members and friends came together to remember the friar who loved canon law, while always emphasizing that it “is at the service of the people.” He brought his understanding of the law, accompanied by great compassion, to the last several Provincial Ministers, the friars of St. John the Baptist Province and the many people he served over the years.
His dear friend, Leslie Young, who was present at Art’s bedside, along with his sister, Diane Daria, brother, Joe, and his sister-in-law, Jenny, shared that those he loved, whose lives he had touched, were on Art’s mind during his final hours. “He was mostly resting comfortably with his eyes closed, but then his eyes would open and he would focus on one of us and say, ‘I love you.’ Or, he would open his eyes, his head would oscillate and he said, ‘I love you all.’”
“I think he was really saying how all of these people—the friars, his family, his friends, all of the people he helped throughout his ministry—were so special to him in his heart,” she said.
Theresa Michael, Art’s younger sister by four years, acknowledged that he was a bit of troublemaker during their grade school years at St. Bonaventure in Cincinnati. On one occasion, she recalled, a sister teaching there dumped a bottle of holy water on the mischievous boy’s head. “Even in the fourth grade, we knew all that holy water meant special things were ahead for Art,” Theresa said.
His cousin, Judy Bonhaus, fondly remembered their playtime as children, when Art would pretend to be a priest and she would portray a nun. Judy went on to marry and have four children and 11 great-grandchildren. “We each had our own vocation,” she said, adding that Art was always gracious with his time when she and her family visited him.
Art’s vocation was also influenced by his uncles who were friars: Sylvester Espelage, Bishop of Wuchang, China; and Bernard Espelage, Bishop of Gallup, N.M.).
His fellow friars also shared their memories of Art. John Quigley came to know Art during their years together at Duns Scotus College and was especially grateful to his brother friar for teaching him how to drive. “It was a quiet gift from Art that has served me well for more than 50 years,” John said.
“I remember consulting with Art on canonical issues,” he added. “He was much more than an expert on the law and how to apply it. He had huge compassion for the disadvantaged and anyone in trouble. In his ministry, his care for people was so evident. He touched the lives of so many people in pain or who had serious problems. That was his testimony.”
Classmate Robert Seay recalled his longtime friendship with Art, which dates back to 1962, and the commitment the two friars shared to breaking down systems that separate people. In a letter to Robert from last June, written shortly after the friars’ 2022 Chapter, Art said, in part: “I remember the night before Ordinary on June 12. I couldn’t sleep and I remember crawling out of bed in the middle of the night to talk to God. As I knelt there on that tile floor, I told God how scared I was and I didn’t know if I would be any good as a priest, but I would try with His help.”
“We are two different histories and yet we collided over fifty years in ministry and fraternity,” Art continued in the letter. “We survived both the good times and the bad. Divine Providence has to be in there somewhere.”
Manuel Viera, judicial vicar for the Diocese of Tucson, and at one time Art’s student at St. Leonard College, spoke with Art on the night before he passed away. His brother friar had two specific requests: that Manuel preach at his funeral liturgy and “Resucito/He is Risen” be sung. Manuel ensured both requests were honored. During his homily, he said, “Art taught the law in a way that was practical and in a way that was, in a sense, pastoral: not to use it in a way to destroy, but to use it to aid people in the welcoming of the Church. My study of the law is because of him.”
“I think the second reading (Galatians 6:1-10) speaks to Art’s approach to the law.” Manuel added. “He saw the fulfillment of the law as carrying each other’s burdens. He was constantly aiding the underdog. He saw the law not as a tool, but as a gift to aid people in reestablishing unity and their relationship with God.”
Manuel noted one example of Art’s expertise and empathy shared in Provincial Secretary Dan Anderson’s letter following the canonist’s passing. “Several years ago, I received a phone call from a former friar who had left the Order under irregular circumstances and married,” the letter reads, in part. “After nearly 50 years of marriage, he and his wife were in their late 80s and wanted to face death at peace with the Church. I suggested he speak with Art, who worked with him, bringing not just his professional knowledge, but tremendous compassion. Not too much later, the man and his wife died in peace.”
Art was known for the wisdom of his words, in what he wrote, presented and in the decisions he made in his ministry. His final message to the friars, family members and friends conveys his love for God and them. “I thank God and you for the love which you have shown me,” Art said. “My family has always been very close to me; you have been in my daily prayers. I shall miss the presence of visiting and talking with you, but I shall do what I can to ask God’s blessings on you. For the friars of the province, I am privileged to have walked among you. Many who have gone before me were an inspiration to me, and my few achievements in this life reflect their greatness. I thank you, my brothers, for your support to live the Rule and Life of the Friars Minor.”
During his remarks at the end of Art’s funeral Mass, Provincial Minister Mark Soehner spoke of Art’s “way of reminding us of our call to be servants, really the call of anyone in ministry. He was great man in so many ways, always working for the underdog, and we thank God for people like that,” Mark said.
Another final request of Art’s was for those gathered to share a meal and visit some, so that’s exactly what his loved ones and fellow friars did before going their separate ways to continue to spread love and dedication to ministry.
(Featured image: Art Espelage in Tucson, courtesy of Catholic Outlook, Diocese of Tucson)