When The Catholic Spirit put out a call for anecdotes about the late Father James M. “Scooter” Lavin, graduates of St. Thomas recalled fondly the priest who was a fixture in the Ireland Hall dormitory, on the St. Paul campus and across the Twin Cities. Mass of Christian Burial for Msgr. Lavin was held Sept. 21, at the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas on the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas, with Archbishop John Nienstedt presiding.
I got hurt playing football as a senior and ended up in the hospital. Several of my less reputable friends showed up to cheer me up, but so did Father Lavin. He said he wanted to give me the Sacrament of the Sick. I tried to say, Father, it’s just a leg injury, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said, “You may know more about football, but I know more about the sacraments and what you need, so just shut up and let me take care of this.”
Later on, when I was in charge of development at the university and he retired from counseling, I hired him to work for the alumni association. He was one of the best hires I ever made. At that time the Alumni Office was in an old apartment building, and Father Lavin’s office was in the “garden level,” as we used to say. One day we had a storm sewer back up. There was about a foot of water in the basement. I started getting people relocated, and when I went back in the building I found Father Lavin still sitting at his desk, pounding away on his manual typewriter, his feet up on a box. I tried to get him out of there, but he said, it’s just a little bit of water, and he’d let me know if he needed help.
Gerald D. Brennan:
I have lots of memories of Father Lavin and am fortunate to have him memorialized in my life when I received the “Monsignor James Lavin Award” from the UST Alumni Association in 1998.
There were many experiences in my time living on campus in Ireland Hall during my freshman year at the College of St. Thomas 1966-67. When Father Lavin asked any of us for help, you never hesitated because you knew that it was going to be in service to somebody else; and how could we ever pay him back for how many of us he helped so quietly. The most memorable were the early morning (as in 5 a.m.) knocks on my door to have him drive us to shovel snow from the walks of his elderly relatives in south Minneapolis.
Most memorable however was in January 1971, when my brother Russ was fighting for his life in the kidney transplant unit at the U of M. I was in my first year out of UST and was visiting Russ regularly. On one of those visits, I was informed by the nursing staff that I had just missed a visit by that little, quiet priest. I learned later that it was Father Lavin, and that he was a frequent visitor to Russ at all hours of the day and night. Our family never saw him on those missions but he was present and supportive in times of need; never had to say anything wise or profound. He was just there for us.
I lived in Room 405 in Ireland Hall. Several years after I graduated, Father Lavin moved into that room. I always assumed that he engaged in that old St.Paul tradition which goes, “you don’t live in your own house”; so when people referred to Father Lavin’s residence, it was “Brennan’s room.” As close to claiming fame as I can get.
Editor’s note: Jay McGivern, a 1978 graduate of the then-College of St. Thomas, responded with a handful of stories.
Msgr. Lavin as humanitarian
One can imagine the bravado that is exhibited at times when a lot of young men congregated in small quarters; that is, in the residence hall. One fall evening this bravado led to a challenge to a 40-yard dash from one freshman to another. In the pitch black yard, one of the runners lacerated his forearm when he failed to see the support wire to the corner street light. The mob of witnesses to the race was now generally racing back to Ireland Hall to find Father Lavin – he would know who to contact and to call an ambulance. His calm and decisive way in the aftermath made a singular impression that remains in my conscience 37 years later. Though the victim left college after just one year, Father asked about this student and remembered the incident 25 years later at our reunion.
Msgr. Lavin in his job
Imagine the stressed out feeling you got when a note on Father Lavin’s stationery asked you to see him. It was homecoming week, and he knew I was also busy with organizing social events through my role on the All College Council. In our private meeting, he was incensed with me, in his impatient, feisty way. I had skipped my statistics course for one of these events! Dr. Alper was upset, he reminded me, my parents had sent me to St. Thomas for this great education, and he was not going to have us both disappointment them. I could only wonder how he knew I even had a statistics class, let alone that I had skipped it. Knowing I had signed to build a raft for the raft race down the Mississippi on Saturday morning, he told me sternly that I must build a solid raft, “because the river is known as The Mighty Mississippi for a reason” and it is really cold if you have to fall in. And I had to promise that I would get an A on my next statistics course. He was there at the river to wrap a blanket around me on Saturday morning, and when I received the second note from Father Lavin, after scoring an “A” in statistics, we were close thereafter. He committed to be as invested in my success as I was. You believed he would feel disappointment to my parents if I failed to succeed.
Msgr. Lavin as teacher
I was the student manager at the food service. He was quick to quip that the wooden salad bowls would “grow legs every September” and walk across campus to the residence halls. He told me he would work to keep from having them packed up for kitchen dishes for the following year’s apartment living. He knew the salad bowls were perfect size for popcorn, or chips, or various snacks. So, when he noticed the dishes in the dorm rooms, he subtly challenged the abuser of the morality of taking property for public use to be used privately. Then every May, he made sure we had large boxes in every hallway, and they were overflowing with bowls, plates, silverware, glassware and trays.
Msgr. Lavin as a legend
Of course, everyone knows about the “Lavinburgers” (peanut butter and jelly on white bread). Just a few years ago, I attended the funeral Mass for Thomas McDonough, father of aSt. Thomasclassmate Father Kevin McDonough. Father Lavin was dressed in his alb in the ceremonial first pew for visiting clergy. After the Mass had ended, I made my way through the crowd to see him. Even at 90 years, he remembered me and our era at St. Thomas, and we tried not to embellish the memories too much of a great time at St. Thomas. I knew he had recently moved to the residence with the Little Sisters of the Poor, and being the former food service guy, I had to ask how the food was at his new home. He said, “Well, sometimes you just go back to the basics”, and, with perfect timing delivering the punch line. He reached under his alb and pulled out a plastic baggie with a Lavinburger.
Msgr. Lavin as priest
He showed the grace that brought an immediate feeling that you were with a special man. You could easily conclude that you were with a Christ-like man. He celebrated Mass with us in Ireland Hall. He lived with us there in this overcrowded, ancient, building. He would go rock climbing in Somerset, (Wis.) when all were crowded around the TV for the Vikings game, but knocked on the door to be with you with an unbelievable knack of knowing when you needed him there. He forgave us our many sins. He challenged us to make good “moral” decisions. He reminded us often to remember what we represented in the community, both local and beyond. We were St. Thomas men, we were Catholics, and that meant something. In that end, we were the face of Christ to the world. He was the face of Christ to us.