“May the Devil Take My Soul”
Submitted by Abdon Moriarty Pallasch, Chicago, IL
April / May 2016
Monsignor , my uncle, had a curious saying for a priest: “M’anam an diabhal” – “May the Devil take my soul.”
He’d say it several times a day, laughing, when something struck him as funny or ironic.
Uncle John Joe could have enjoyed a very comfortable ministry in DuPage County, the well-off Western suburbs of Chicago where he started as a priest in the ’60s at Sts. Peter & Paul parish in Naperville. But he preferred the rough life in the shantytowns of Ecuador, fighting bureaucrats to be able to build schools, hospitals, and churches. His five-year sabbatical with the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle lasted 40 years, interrupted by a six-year stint as head of the order in Boston.
“He stood out like a sore thumb – he’s this Irish-American Chicago boy, 6 feet, 250 or 300 pounds, and [the Ecuadorians he aided] tend to be tiny,” Monsignor Raul Trevizo of Tucson, Arizona, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Trevizo worked alongside Moriarty in Ecuador in 1979. “He had adopted their language. He had adopted their customs. He loved their food. He understood the nuances of their Spanish language, so they let him in.”
As big as he was, John Joe had a gentle demeanor, a jovial nature, and an engaging laugh that would put people at ease. He was a skilled diplomat. He held a master’s from the Fletcher School of International Affairs at Tufts University. Part of a missionary’s skill is an ability to cut through developing world red tape.
Speaking of his mission in Duran, the sprawling slum across the River Guayas from Ecuador’s main city Guayaquil, John Joe told the Joliet Catholic Explorer in 1986, “When you first go, you’re concerned that you might not make it – you might not adapt, you might not learn the language, you might not fit the culture. It is such an opportunity to enter deeply into people’s lives and to affect them. You’re called upon to minister in ways that would be impossible here in the States. It’s the simple things that you know wouldn’t happen if you weren’t there, things such as the literacy program for example, the credit union, the basic medical care.”
Founded by Boston’s Cardinal Cushing in 1958, the Society of St. James borrows parish priests from the United States, Ireland and England and sends them to South America for five- to seven-year stints.
“John Moriarty was the heart and soul of the society and to this day at any gathering or meeting his name comes up,” Rev. Patrick Universal, assistant director of the Society of St. James, said.
John Joe was the third of 10 children born to laborer Tim and Kate (O’Connor) Moriarty, who both came to Chicago’s South Side from the Co. Kerry Gaeltacht, the Irish language speaking region west of Dingle. Above the dinner table in his rustic rectory in Duran was an ornate plaque with a Celtic-lettered “Póg Mo Thóin.” (“Kiss my arse.”)
The summer I spent on my uncle’s mission in Duran made a powerful impression on me – the high regard in which his parishioners held him; the tenacity with which he would not be dissuaded from bringing projects as big as a hospital or as small as electricity into the poor areas. I remember the looks of outrage on some house guests when the Monsignor’s impertinent 11-year-old nephew would refer to this revered figure as “John Joe,” which sounds a little too close to the Spanish “choncho” for “pig.”
“M’anam an diabhal!” my uncle would react with a laugh.
We had fierce arguments about my having to go every day for Spanish lessons to one of the teachers at the grade school he had built in Duran.
“I don’t speak Spanish and she doesn’t speak English – I’m not learning anything!” I protested.
But, of course, I was. And that Spanish would come in very handy 10 years later when United Press International sent me to Nicaragua to cover The Sandinistas’ 1990 electoral defeat. It was about that time John Joe had convinced Fidel Castro to allow the Society to send priests into Cuba. Then Castro changed his mind and the visas were yanked before it could begin.
John Joe died of a heart attack Jan. 29 at the family home in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood. He was 81. He is survived by his brother Tom; his sisters, Sr. Kate Moriarty, R.S.M., Mary Pallasch, Barbara and Irene; and dozens of nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews including Liam Moriarty, another former Irish America contributor.
When I studied Irish and theology at the national seminary of Ireland in Maynooth, John Joe was amused to learn that none of my Irish teachers were familiar with his expression “M’anam an diabhal.”
Given his life’s work, I’m hopeful the good Lord will take his soul. ♦
Abdon Moriarty Pallasch is director of public affairs, Cook County Sheriff’s Department, and prior to that he was as award-winning Chicago Sun-Times reporter. He is a longtime contributor to Irish America.