Father Richard Martin remembered for his unique style

Father John A. Kiley

In the late spring of 1961, some of my seminary classmates chose to pursue their priestly vocations in other dioceses. Ed Masse became a priest in Manchester, N.H. Roland Cloutier joined the Norwich, Conn., diocese. Richard Martin pursued his priestly studies for the Diocese of Richmond in Virginia, later joining the newly formed diocese of Arlington in that state.

Quite sadly and quite suddenly, Father Martin passed away last month at the age of 74, and in the 48th year of his priestly ministry. Father Martin was pastor at Nativity Church in Burke, Va., the second largest parish in the Arlington diocese. Deacon John Needham, from St. Margaret parish in Rumford, Charles Gilroy, another classmate of Father Martin, and I traveled to Nativity Parish for Father’s funeral Mass, which was celebrated by Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde. Father Martin, Bishop Loverde, Deacon Needham, Charlie Gilroy and I all graduated from LaSalle Academy in the late fifties. We have happily maintained our friendships over the years and over the distances.

Deacon Needham and I expected that Father Martin’s funeral would draw a large assembly of mourners, but the facts greatly surpassed the prospects. The parish council ordered six thousand holy cards to be distributed at Father’s wake. All six thousand cards were taken as the mourners passed through the receiving line. Canopies covering 100 folding chairs each were erected at the church’s three entrances. Every chair was taken at the funeral Mass. The large church was already full. The Mass was also televised into a parish hall filled with mourners. Standing by the coffin, Father Martin’s sister Madelyn and his brother John, along with their families, personally and gratefully greeted the immense line of mourners from 1:30 in the afternoon until 10:30 in the evening.

When I mentioned to Rhode Island priests that my classmate, originally from St. Benedict’s parish in Conimicut, had passed away, they would almost all remark, “Oh, is he the priest who shakes hands with everybody on the way down the aisle at the beginning of Mass?” Indeed, this was Father Dick. His grandmother, Irene Martin, lived in SS. John & Paul Parish, Coventry, when I was a curate there. Whenever Father Dick would offer Mass there with his grandmother and her family in attendance, he would have his grandmother walk down the aisle on his arm, both of them beaming broadly at the surprised but delighted worshippers. Father Martin’s Virginia parishioners were not surprised when he stood piously by while Santa Claus came down the center aisle on Christmas and knelt before the crib of the newborn baby Jesus. Nor were his parishioners amazed when Father Martin himself would carry a young sheep down the aisle on Easter morning in celebration of the Lamb of God. Still again, parishioners were not surprised to find a basket of fruit or a bouquet of flowers at their front door when they would arrive home from the hospital, or when a notable anniversary was being celebrated. He loved to write notes early in the morning and mail them to friends far and wide who might be observing a special milestone.

Father Martin’s larger than life ministry went far beyond liturgical innovations and social gestures. Father actively and personally raised more than $5 million dollars for an international agency distributing food to the poor. He frequently visited Haiti where his parish had adopted a mission there and showed great interest in the reconstruction effort after Haiti’s disastrous hurricane. And just to keep Bishop Loverde happy, Father Martin surpassed last year his Catholic Charity Fund goal of $480,000 by bringing in $520,000 from his parishioners at Nativity. Characteristically, this year’s goal had been set by the diocese at $550,000. Although the thought of retirement had been suggested to Father Martin by many of his friends, he never warmed to the prospect and was actually involved in the planning of a new multi-million dollar parish center as an addition to the church, school, rectory and convent already in use.

Words from this Sunday’s Gospel might well apply to Father Martin: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Indeed, God writes straight with crooked lines. Father’s departure from Providence was lamented 50 years ago, but his accomplishments in Virginia were abundantly applauded last month.