In last week’s issue of Sonoma West, Frank Robertson gave us a fine account of Lee Torr’s life and his contributions to Monte Rio and other communities tucked into the hills along scenic bends of the lower Russian River. I want to tell about fulfilling Lee’s desire for a full funeral Mass in his home church at the end of his days.
The Mass of the Resurrection, as it is now called, was conducted by Father Luis Penazola, Pastor of Saint Elizabeth’s in Guerneville, Saint Coleman’s in Cazadero and Saint Catherine’s in Monte Rio, where the service was held. This nicely appointed church is named for Saint Catherine of Sienna, who lived in the fourteenth century.
A mystic and devoted student of the faith, Saint Catherine was a force in bringing the Holy See of the Catholic Church back to Rome from Avignon, France, where it had resided for almost 70 years. It was a remarkable achievement for a medieval woman. She also left behind many wise sayings, one of which is “Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.” Those in business along the Russian River, as the Torrs have been for generations, know all about enduring.
The church was packed full, and there was hardly any room for cars at Saint Catherine’s, so many of us walked up several stairs and onto the steep and twisting path through the woods that takes you the rest of the way. It’s like making a little pilgrimage to get there.
Father Luis greeted us as we entered the church. He is as warm-hearted and welcoming as any of the clergy I know. During his homily, he came right down the aisle to offer his good words pretty much face to face with his listeners. He spoke as if his message was bubbling up inside him and had to be expressed. For us non-Catholics there he said, “Don’t try to understand it too much. Just relax and let the Mass carry you along.”
Yes, there comes a time to take a deep breath and let the mysteries of life and death be what they are.
As I let the Mass carry me along, I found myself remembering the last time I had been in that church. It was about this time of year maybe 40 years ago when Catholics were observing Unity Octave, a Sunday when they exchange pulpits with Protestant ministers. So the pastor at Saint Catherine’s invited me to give the homily there, and I returned the favor by asking him to preach the sermon in the Monte Rio Community Presbyterian Church, where I held forth in those days. Lo and behold, his name was Father Bob Jones. I wonder if a pulpit exchange like that ever happened before or since in the whole history of Christendom. It probably has, most likely in Wales, where there are a lot of Bob Joneses.
Throughout the service, members of the Torr family read the scriptures and offered prayers in firm, clear voices, and the responses of the people in the pews made for a rhythmic call and response. It seemed the ancient words were circulating in the air above us. As always, the Mass culminated in the sharing of the bread and cup. I went to the altar with the others, and, though I didn’t take communion, I received a heartfelt blessing.
When the Mass ended, we filed out of the church to the surrounding grounds where the sun shined down on us and bright green new grass grew under spreading oak trees. Lee’s grave awaited him there, very close to the wall of the church. And so Lee was laid to rest with prayers and assurances within 50 feet or so from where he had been baptized as an infant. I don’t think that happens very often these days.
Lee’s coming full circle in that sacred place seemed apt and comforting to me. I hope it was the same for others.
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.