Tell us about The Teacher Who Changed My Life – and why.
In 1942, at the age of 16, I graduated from high school. My parish priest said to me, “Niko, why don’t you go to that school in Connecticut where you can study to become a priest?” An American-born priest?! We had not yet seen one; they were all coming from Europe. But on to Pomfret, Connecticut I went – the youngest student to enroll at our Holy Cross Seminary which was then only five years old. There I came face to face with a remarkable venerable Dean by the name of Bishop Cavadas. He would later remind me of two other men in my life who were important to me – my dad and my grandfather. I was at the seminary only a month when my father suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 56. So there I was, still only 16, leaving to bury my father in New Orleans. When I arrived home a letter was waiting there for me from the bishop consoling, encouraging me.
When I returned to Pomfret in early 1943 and until my ordination and even beyond, Bishop Cavadas became not only my surrogate father but also my teacher, mentor and role model for the rest of my life. He had the talent of “turning boys into men and men into priests,” as his biographer wrote in his book, Footsteps in the Sea. Although he was a strict disciplinarian, he made every student feel special. We all wanted to please and imitate him. He planted in us the seed to try and serve both God and His people. He had a way of paying a compliment which encouraged the student to do better. I recall once while reading a prayer from the Sacrament of Baptism he whispered almost inaudibly but meant to be heard, “Thats the way a prayer should be read.” Soon after I was ordained a priest on a visit to the seminary, he asked, “And how are you doing with your sermons?” When we were students, the faculty wanted us to be original. Now I would confess, “I have to admit, Your Grace, I ‘steal’ a little from you, from Father Papakostas, from Bishop Sheen.” His reply, “Its alright – we all do it!”
Now, over more than half a century later and at 86 I continue remaining grateful to a man of God who reflected all that was and still is important in my priestly life.