Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Prayers, power tools lay Father Jim's foundation

The exquisite peace is shattered by the sound of a circular saw and intermittent pounding. Painters are slathering buttery beige paint over the white primer. The workers are in the home stretch. You can see how it will look when it is finished.

But it is not until you walk inside that you know what it really is.

A holy place.

On the bare cement floor, someone wrote: "Father Jim, thank you for the solid foundation." The Father Jim Willig Memorial Chapel is being built by the friends and family of the Catholic priest, who died two years ago of renal cell cancer.

"Every weekend, people gather together with prayer and power tools to work on this lasting tribute," says Tammy Bundy, who helped the dying man tell his story in the 2001 book, Lessons from the School of Suffering.

The lessons continue.

"Already several cancer patients have shown up here," says Dan Roche, director of the Milford Spiritual Center, where the chapel is located. "God is present in all of this."

But of course the Lord helps those who help themselves. "If Jim were here, he'd be chipping in. Hands on," says the priest's youngest brother, Joe. Father's Jim's parents, Alice and Edgar, come across town from their home in Covedale, bringing ham salad and cookies for the workers. His brothers and sisters - all 10 of them - have raised money and put in time, helping to convert a historic train depot into a refuge.

"For anybody," Edgar says. "For everybody who needs it."

When the interior is finished, the sound system will play continuous tapes of Father Jim's homilies. Natural oak trim will be placed over the rough structure, which is covered now with messages written with a black Sharpie:

"We know you're with the Lord. Keep the prayers coming."

"You continue to inspire me every day, Uncle Jim."

An outline of a little hand. "Rose Willig, 11 months."

This beloved man, this fiercely competitive tennis player, this lover of life, this irrepressible raconteur was at his most impressive as he slipped away from his flock.

"I believe suffering can be a great blessing," Father Jim said, "if we allow it to teach us."

Not that he didn't fight like crazy to live. Chemotherapy, surgery. And, naturally, prayer.

It reached beyond his parishioners at SS. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Reading to parishes in Dayton and Yellow Springs. They were praying for a miracle of healing. And it came in an unexpected way.

The priest pushed away the pain and fatigue, sitting on a stool to preach, leaning on a walker to celebrate the Sacrament. Weak, but ministering to an ever-growing flock. People who hadn't been to church in a while were drawn to hear him. During his last year, he said, "This has been the most difficult year of all the 50 I've lived. It's also been the best year. I've never experienced so much love, so much support, so much kindness and goodness in all of you."

The whining saw will be gone soon. The lessons will remain. Father Jim leaves behind 280 audiotapes and two books (available at 791-9700). He leaves a family and friends who are building a place where others might find peace.

And to a bruised and battered church, he leaves the indelible and healing memory of a good priest.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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