The Unique Journey of Fr John Wanaurny

“I’m the last of the Wanaurnys in the USA” … a chuckle … “and maybe the last in the entire world!” Fr John Wanaurny would muse from time to time during the last twenty years of his life. On several occasions, he searched telephone directories and the internet in the hope of finding another person with the Wanaurny family name, but to no avail. With Fr Wanaurny’s death in August 2023, aged 89, it seems that his family name died with him.

However, Fr Wanaurny was unique not just because of his unique family name but, more importantly, because of the kind of person he was. He was the only person I ever met who readily recognised his own experience of memory loss, accepted it gracefully, and embraced its implications for his own life.

I can still clearly recall a Monday morning phone call from Fr Wanaurny many years ago. At that time, as a physically fit 80-year-old, he was ministering in a Columban parish in California. However, after we exchanged pleasantries, he said, “We have a problem!” which he followed with his trademark chuckle. He then proceeded to tell me that the previous day as he lifted the Host for the Lamb of God refrain during Sunday Mass, his mind had gone blank. While he had remained calm and, after a few moments, was able to resume the celebration of the Mass, he realised that this was a clear sign that he was beginning to lose his memory.

He concluded our conversation by saying, “I think you need to start looking for my replacement here in the parish.” … a chuckle … “It’s not urgent, but it seems best that I move into the Columban community with you there in Omaha.”

After our conversation finished, I felt a mixture of disbelief and sadness. As a Columban missionary priest for fifty-five years, Fr Wanaurny was well known for his talents and commitment to mission. Throughout those decades he had ministered in the Philippines, Brazil and Mexico, as well as in various places across the USA. He had learned Cebuano, Portuguese and Spanish and had been close to the people he served. However, he now recognised that it was time to leave those “glory days” behind and set out on a new stage of his missionary journey.

When the arrangements for his replacement in the parish were finalised a few months later, Fr Wanaurny joined the Columban community in Omaha. There, he delighted in the rhythm of community life, daily prayer, long walks, and novels. From time to time, he drove to his hometown, Chicago, where he visited his brother-in-law and some friends. However, 18 months later, after he had returned from one of his weekend trips to Chicago, he asked to see me and proceeded to tell me that, while he knew the streets around his family home like the back of his hand, during his recent visit to that neighbourhood he had become disoriented and lost his way on a few occasions. He said, “This means it’s time for me to move into the Columbans retirement home.”

During the next two weeks, Fr Wanaurny packed his few belongings, cleaned his room and said his goodbyes. He was planning to drive the 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometre) journey to the Columban retirement home in Bristol, Rhode Island, stopping along the way in Chicago for a final farewell. However, in light of what he had told me about his previous visit to that city, I felt apprehensive about this plan and only agreed to it after receiving a reassurance that he would phone me immediately if he experienced any problem along the way.

True to form, Fr Wanaurny not only arrived safely at the Columban retirement home, but he did so a day ahead of schedule! Moreover, upon arrival, he handed his car keys to the priest in charge, Fr John Burger, saying, “I won’t be needing these again” … followed by a chuckle. That trip was the last time Fr Wanaurny sat behind a steering wheel.

During the years that followed, I visited the Columban retirement community from time to time and enjoyed many interesting conversations with Fr Wanaurny, even though his memory continued to deteriorate.

He often recalled his boyhood days in Chicago, the thrill of becoming a champion ice skater, and - at the age of fourteen - his first missionary journey of 500 miles (800 kilometres) by train to the Columban minor seminary in Silver Creek, New York.

During one of our conversations, he recalled that, as a seminarian, he had frequently recited the following prayer, composed by St Ignatius of Loyola: Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

Fr Wanaurny then explained, “As a young seminarian I had recited that prayer without realising what it really entailed.” … a chuckle … “Now, more than sixty years later, I realise that on so many occasions I had offered my memory to the Lord.” … a chuckle … “Well, the good Lord is finally taking me at my word!” … a chuckle.

Fr John Wanaurny was not just the last of his family line - he was also one of a kind!

Columban Fr Timothy Mulroy, Superior General, St Columbans Mission Society, lives and works in Hong Kong.

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