Interview with Joe Lawless

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  •  Watch Video 2 of "Interview with Father Joe Lawless." 
 
Transcript 
  •  VIRGINIA RAYMOND: My name is Virginia Raymond. We met before this. This is Tony Keffler, K-E-F-as in friend-another F-as in friend-L-E-R, who is behind the camera. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Hi Tony. 
  •  RAYMOND: And we are here at St. Joseph's Church on 19th Street in Corpus Christi, Texas. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Yes. Welcome to St. Joseph's. 
  •  RAYMOND: Thank you so much. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: It's nice to have you here. 
  •  RAYMOND: It's very nice to be here. Thank you. Before we get started, Father Joe, or Father Lawless— 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Joe. 
  •  RAYMOND: Father Joe. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Just Joe. 
  •  RAYMOND: Joe. Okay. Thank you. I would like to just make sure that we can put on the record that you are, agree to this interview that we will use for probably a variety of non-commercial, educational purposes. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Yes. Exactly. I am. Thank you. 
  •  RAYMOND: Thank you very much. Okay. Now Father Lawless, you were just now saying before we turned on the camera what your primary passion as a priest is in ministry. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: My primary concerns as a priest, which I— I strive to use as to— as my goals in ministry— what I see as a priority in my ministry is to do everything I can to thwart the repression of truth. When truth is denied— because I've seen— I've seen the repression of truth in so many levels of my life. I've seen it growing up. I've seen it in my family. I've seen it growing up in school. I've seen it in community. I saw it in the military. I've seen it in college. I've seen it in the business world. I'm not— I've seen it in the church. And so my goal as a priest is to place that concern as my main priority so I can be most effective. And my guideline in all of this is what does Jesus say? It's what he says. That's why I try to do that as a priest— 
  •  RAYMOND: Wonderful. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: —is to fight the repression of truth. 
  •  RAYMOND: Well, I hope that in this interview we can put some of the things that you know on record in that— in service of that project. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: If it helps you in every way. 
  •  RAYMOND: Thank you. Can you tell us just about where you were born and something about your background, and I will try and interrupt as little as possible. But just tell us where you come from and— 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: I was born in New Jersey— East Orange, New Jersey on May 2, 1926. It was during the depression years, and my early years were living in New York City. I lived in several areas in New York City— the Bronx, New York, and Westchester County and Brooklyn and Flushing and Queens.And at the age of seven, my mother had the wisdom to pull us out of New York because she didn't want to see us raised in that environment. It was very bad in those days. It was the height of the depression. And my first reality— memories of my youth growing up were very sad. Seeing men holding their hands over barrels of fires to keep themselves warm and so forth. 
  •  So we were— we moved out when I was eight— seven years of age, we moved out of New York.We moved to Connecticut— and a place called Stamford, Connecticut. And it was a farm. We had sixty-six acres. And it was like being in heaven. Overnight it went from that very, very desperate poor environment of the depression into the world of the farmed. And so I was raised in Connecticut and I went to school. 
  •  My main concerns when I was going to school were athletics. I suffered from asthma as a child growing up. And asthma can make you have a low self-esteem because it cripples you. And I had a somewhat low self-esteem of myself as a male because I was short in height. I'm the eldest of four, and I was the shortest in height. And asthma can cripple you ‘cause you can't even lie down to sleep— you have to sleep in chairs. 
  •  And what happened was to— to compensate for that I was very blessed. I was very athletic. And I used sports to compensate for my concept of what I thought of myself as low self-esteem. And I can remember playing football and the coach would call— pull me off the sideline, say— give me a shot in my arm to get me back in the game. 
  •  And so that was my— the way I was growing up as a young boy. And I was so happy. Everything was so beautiful. 
  •  Then when World War II came. I went into the military. I applied for the Coast Guard Academy and I was accepted. And while I was waiting to be called up I got drafted because in those days the Coast Guard— or the Merchant Marine Academy. The Merchant Marine was not considered a branch of the service, as it is now military. So I got to— while I was waiting to get called up to go in the Merchant Marine Academy, I got drafted. And I was very unhappy. But then I went off to Florida to take my basic training. It was 1944. And one of the questions they asked when we were being drafted— when we were taking our physical examinations is, "Do you have any respiratory problems?"And I lied. I said, "No, I don't."Because with asthma, unless you have an attack, they can't tell you have it. And in those days, unlike today, if you were turned down by the military— oh, it was the most horrible thing that could be done because— what happened is they labeled you. They labeled you with the letters four-dash-F. And they point their fingers at you. You'd be walking down the street, they say, There's Joe. Did you know he's a four-dash-F? 
  •  And what was worse than that was if the girls found out you're four-dash-F, oh, my God. You couldn't date. They wouldn't date you because they felt that, hey, you're not a man. And I didn't want to get in that category. And so I lied about having asthma.So I was in basic training and I had an attack of asthma. And my two buddies— took care of me. I had latrine duty the first Sunday I was there, and I had a terrible attack of asthma and my— my friends took my case for me. They took latrine for me and they didn't tell anybody I had asthma. So I had another asthma attack the week we were graduating from basic training. I was out in the field on our final march and had an attack. My buddies held me up and lied about it.I went home. I went home during the winter of 1944. We had ten days furlough— they called it delay in route. And while I was home I had another asthma attack and my doctor came to see me. In those days the doctors visited you at home. And he did everything he could. He said, "Joe, just let me know. I'll get you out of it."And I said, "Dr. Kessel— if you do, I'll never talk to you again."So, he didn't say anything about it. So I went overseas. And I went over during the Battle of the Ardennes, Battle of the Bulge. 
  •  RAYMOND: And you don't— this is recorded, so I'm taking notes out of habit -- you don't have to wait for me to catch up with you. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Oh. 
  •  RAYMOND: And so— thank you though. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: I went through that period of introduction to the— I was in the infantry— Forty-second Rainbow Division. And— the height of my military, as far as what it meant to me, was my Division— the Forty-second Infantry Division— we liberated Dachau Concentration Camp. And that's an experience that has had an effect on me for my whole life.Because growing up as a child we were very blessed in my particular generation because we lived in what they called the ghetto culture— all the different nationalities were in blocks of each other. You could go down one street and you were in the Italian neighborhood. You turn right, you go two streets down there, you're in the Polish neighborhood. You go five more, you're in the German neighborhood. And the Black neighborhood was up on the hill. And growing up we were exposed to all these different races and what happened was it was a plus for me because I never— I was never racist. We didn't have anything like that, you know. We just— we took— on your baseball team, your football team, whatever— you had all the nationalities.So it was a blessing for me because the seeds of racism were never planted in me. I never had it. I never experienced it.And another thing about the height of my experience— and that's why I like to talk about Dachau because it's had a big effect on my life— the plus of having been exposed to that horrible, horrible situation was growing up as a Catholic, we were never taught to hate the Jews. But what it did happen was— it came across to us growing up that there was an emphasis on— wrongly— that the Jews killed Jesus. And so as a Catholic growing up, our first conclusion then was, Hey, Jesus was killed by— my Jesus was killed by the Jews. And then we had somewhat bad feelings against the Jews. Not hatred. But it wasn't a good, healthy feeling.But what happened to me was— and it's a blessing, I don't know why God ever— well, He has his reasons— with the height of my being in Dachau— it was— we were not told about the— in those days they had no word for the Holocaust. We were just told one day, we were in Munich, Germany— my division liberated Munich— and we were Munich and they told us to get up on top of tanks. We were going to go through Munich and we we're going to go into a very important situation. We weren't told what it was.So we pulled up to the gates of Dachau and that's what it was. And you could smell— you could smell— the fleshes burning as you approached the camp. You could see the smoke rising from the chimneys. And it was a horrible experience because once you smell anybody burning to death, you never forget it. And to this day I have difficulty going to barbecues because it reminds me of what happened.So the height of my so-called— the height of my experience in Dachau was that I found out that you can be converted, and you can change your feelings about someone over night. And what happened to me is as I was walking across the grounds of Dachau, I felt a tug on my right leg, and I looked down and there was an elderly man, and he begged me to pick him up. I picked him up and he was— he was reeking of urine and feces and he had flies flying about his face. And his face was covered with maggots and he smelled terrible. And he was just a skeleton. And people can't believe that you can actually see skeletons living. And that's what they were. Actual skeletons that were still alive. And their bones rubbed against each other like cardboard.And I walked across the grounds of Dachau that day— April 1945— and I held this elderly man in my arms. And I was walking across the ground with him. He put his hand on my cheek and he said in perfect English— I looked at him, perfect English— he said, "My son, what faith do you hold to?"And I said, "I'm Catholic."And he rubbed my cheek and he said, "I am a Jewish rabbi." And he said, "Never forget this day." And he died in my arms.I couldn't believe it. I was— I was disappointed that I didn't get him to the medics. I was hoping he could get aid and possibly live. But when he said that— overnight— at that very second, whatever negative feelings I had against the Jews, you know— they killed my Jesus— disappeared— disappeared right that second.And I've never had any ill feelings since. In fact, I've had so many friends who have helped me— who have helped me. But that was a great experience. 
  •  And I know God— I know God made that happen to me because it's— when people say you can't change your feelings about people— yes, you can. I did overnight.And I've been so blessed. Because it's our faith that Jesus— Jesus was a rabbi. As Catholics we believe that. I believe it. Jesus was a rabbi. And here I'm holding a rabbi. 
  •  Was that Jesus?Because Jesus has come back to life in so many ways. He still— he comes back so many ways. And I believe that day, you know, that that was Jesus.You know, I might be criticized about saying that, but it did help me so much in my attitudes. 
  •  So after the war I came home and I went to college and went to the University of Georgia. I majored in journalism. I always wanted to be a writer because I was a writer on my school newspapers. And when I graduated from school, I didn't get any high academic laurels, but I got the trophy for being the top athlete. And here I had asthma. I was the top athlete in my class.So down at the University of Georgia, I was engaged to a young girl. I was nineteen and she was seventeen— my sister's best friend. She told me all about her when I was overseas, that she'd be waiting for me when I get home. And I met her on the first night that I get home and fell in love with her immediately. And she fell in love with me, you know. It wasn't really love— it was teenage stuff. I was nineteen. She was seventeen. But we went with each other for a period of about four years and I had the wisdom of not wanting to go to college and getting married at the same time. ‘Cause I knew I couldn't do justice to my studies, but she wanted to get married.And I remember one day, just before we went off to college— University of Georgia— I was going down to play football. And I was what they called a walk-on. I walked on as a try out. And I had— I broke my rib. And while I was taking care of my rib, I lost my interest in football. I wanted to concentrate on college.But when I— just before I went to college, she asked me to go with her one day to our favorite church where I was born and raised as an altar boy, mass server. And she said, "I'd like to pray before you leave."So while we're praying, she grabs my hand and she puts a ring on my finger. And she says, "We're engaged."And I said, "We are?"And I was raised— you know, the man is supposed to do all that. So I just took it from her to get her off my back.Then I went down to Georgia. I didn't— I took it off while I was down there. Make a long story short, I was very happy going to college, majored in journalism. I was on the newspaper— University of Georgia newspaper. And when I came home and graduated, I was called up. I was in the Army Reserve. Went through the reserves and— you know, the military in college and when the Korean War broke out I was called up for active duty. But then when they found out I was still in college and I was in the military, I was exempt. And I thank God to this day that I wasn't called up because that was when the war first broke out in Korea. I might have been killed or whatever, you know. So I look upon it as a blessing that I wasn't, wasn't really called up. So I stayed in the military. I got up to the rank of Captain in the Reserves. And I was being elevated to the rank of Major and I went into -.Instead of going to journalism, I worked with my sister. My sister had a business. She had a large maintenance and cleaning business for a shopping center like what's the big food chain we have here? 
  •  RAYMOND: I don't know cause I'm not from Corpus. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: All over Texas. 
  •  RAYMOND: H.E.B.? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: H.E.B., H.E.B. I'm getting bad with my memory. Anyway, we had a— she had a chain. We served all the stores in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. And it was while I was doing that I worked with that— with her for several years. And I was making good money, but I wasn't really happy with what I was doing. And I had sort of drifted away from the church. And uh, I don't know if these, what I'm saying is— 
  •  RAYMOND: Yeah. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: But it's saying something about what I'm doing today. Anyway make a long story short— I wasn't happy with what I was doing. I was the oldest of four. All my brothers and sisters were married and I was still— and I broke up with my girlfriend, which was a good thing for both of us. And I dated here and there. I would— but I never really got to a point where I was thinking of marrying. I never found a gal I really wanted to marry.And I got very frustrated and I remember coming home one day after having repaired shopping carts and cleaning them in New Jersey. It was two o'clock in the morning. I pulled into my driveway. And I remember getting out of my driveway and raising my fist and banging my two fists on the door of my car, and I looked up and I said, "God damn it, God, tell me what you want me to do."And I — that was not swearing. That was prayer. When I tell that people they— I've been castigated for that— "You said that to God?"Yeah. That was a prayer. It was from me saying, "Hey God."And I said I did that and I was so naïve I thought, you know what's really gonna happen is He's going to do like he did in the Old Testament, when He knocked St. Peter off the horse, and— rather St. Paul, and He said, you know, I was thinking He'd do the same thing with me. Nothing happened. Nothing happened.So I said, "Golly. What do I have to do to get Him to tell me what I want to do with my life?" And so little by little, as the days and months went by, I got closer to coming into the church— into the seminary— because I was in that movement called the Knights of Columbus. I was active in that.And one day I walked into their building, had a few beers, and they had their magazine— the Knights of Columbus Magazine— and on the cover was a story of a seminary in Boston, Massachusetts, called Pope John the Twenty-Third. And it was founded for older men.And it was a fantastic P.R. coverage. It showed men my age with cassocks on and everything. And it said you can be a priest in four years. Four years. Because it took eight years to be a priest. And I knew I was never gonna do eight years. I wasn't into it that much at my age. So it said you can be a priest in four years and all you have to have is a degree, and I had the degree, and be twenty-eight or older. Well I was about thirty-two.So they hit me up. I had a bonding. So nothing happened. Nothing happened. I remember telling my mom. My mom was very wise. And she was never the type to tell us what she wanted us to do. Growing up she used to say, "I don't care what you guys do for a living, even if you want to spend the rest of your lives digging ditches, as long as you're happy." I thought those were the greatest words of wisdom she ever showed to us.So she was ironing one day and she knew I had been interested in this university—or this seminary up in Boston, and she's very wise. She's ironing her clothes and she wouldn't look up. And all of a sudden she said out of the clear sky, "Did you ever think of answering that seminary call?"I said, "No." I was angry at her. I said no. But I did.And I made arrangements to go up there. And when I got up there I was very impressed because it was very geared to older men and veterans. The rector of the seminary was a highly decorated naval officer. And he was chosen just for that purpose. Because he could bond with you right away as a seminarian. So, I just— I applied. And I didn't think I was gonna get called up, and I got called up.So, I remember my mom drove me to the seminary with her girlfriend from Ireland. And we parked outside the gates of the seminary there. The older men, all my age, all these guys that had been C.E.O.s and businessmen and lawyers and doctors and everything. And here they were my age. Some of them had beards and everything. And wow— I was just drawn to them.And she parked outside of the seminary and she said, "Reach into the glove compartment, boy." She used to call us "boy."And I reached in there and there was a little bottle. She said, "Pull it out." She said, "Well, you're gonna have your last drink." And the three of us had our last drink.But to make a long story short, I took my first year at Pope John the 23rd Seminary. Then I was preparing for the Diocese, Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was my home diocese.But I really wanted to be a religious priest. That is I read— I wanted to be a priest in a religious order, rather than be a diocesan priest. So I transferred to the seminary— the Franciscans, and I studied under the Franciscans in Dayton, Ohio. And then I was ordained, and— did you ever hear of a man named— we had a TV show, very famous TV show where you— he was very good at it? He was from Cincinnati. If you could just name someone who was very famous— He had that talk show. Oh, he was good at it. 
  •  RAYMOND: What period? In the ‘50s? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Well, it was 1970s.RAYMOND: Oh, the ‘70s. Well— 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: No the ‘60s. 
  •  RAYMOND: William Buckley had a talk show. I think "Face the Nation." I might be— and there was that guy— 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: The reason I mention him, he was a resident of the city where I was taking my training in Dayton, Ohio, at the seminary. And he came up with this idea of mixing the poor Blacks and the affluent whites in that city where the seminary was at a summer camp and bring them together. So he went to our rector and asked permission to do that on the seminary grounds. And we had a very lovely—hundreds of acres of beautiful farm land. We had ponds and lakes. So he got permission to do so. And he asked permission from— if I could get permission to run the camp, because he and I had struck up a friendship. In fact, my mother and father when they used to visit me, we'd go to his home. I wish I could mention his— think of his name. He was a tops, tops— 
  •  RAYMOND: It wasn't the one with the microphone? [ Inaudible ] I'm blanking out 
  •  .FATHER LAWLESS: You don't mind me. It'll come back. 
  •  RAYMOND: Oh, he was the first one to really go out into the— 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Before we finish we might think of— Anyway, to make a long story short, I made the camp with him that summer. It was called Camp Dakota. And he was proved— he proved that the Blacks and the affluent could get along together. So then while I was taking my Deacon—Deaconan training, as a Seminarian, I was assigned to a parish that was all Black. That was my first exposure to the Blacks in ministry. And I just loved it. So then I was ordained in 1971. 
  •  RAYMOND: May I just ask, you say you loved it? What did you love about it?FATHER 
  •  LAWLESS: Pardon? 
  •  RAYMOND: What did you love about that parish? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: The Blacks? 
  •  RAYMOND: Mmm hmm. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: I felt very comfortable. What— what I felt was that the fact that they look— they showed that they loved me. They had no, you know— when I first went there I was gonna say well this is gonna be the Black/white situation again, you know. Wow. I was— I felt like I was a part of the family. Not from an ego point of view, but just hey, wow. And so really that was a boon for me because as a result of that, when I was ordained, I was sent out to Los Angeles, California to one of our parishes in the barrio, Hispanic barrio. Really rough.And I was assigned to our parish, and we were assigned to the Los Angeles County Hospital at the same time, the largest in the country. So we had two ministries. It was all Hispanic. That was the area where they had the famous Watts riots. Watts riots. That comes back from during World War II they had what they called the Zoot Suit thing— I remember I was in high school when that happened out in Los Angeles. And so I was assigned that parish.And then after being there two or three years, I was sent to one of our other parishes in Los Angeles, and was 75% percent Black and 25% percent Hispanic. I was exposed to two cultures in one ministry— taught me two different peoples. And I felt at home because I had been raised with the Blacks, and my first exposure to Hispanics was with Puerto Ricans. So I was not— and they assigned me to this Black parish as a result of my having been in that Black parish in Dayton, Ohio with the seminarians, where I was sent to the Black parish. That was why they sent me there.And I was sent there and after several years there, the pastor died, another pastor was removed, and I was sent there to be pastor. So I was the pastor there for about seven years. It was a very beautiful experience, and I hated to leave it. And while we were there, I remember we had— we used to have an average of a killing a day there, it was so bad. Place called Compton, California. And it was beautiful working with two cultures. And I could see where it exposed me to the reality that two cultures can work together and not have any difficulties. The only difficulties they had were Hispanics would fight Hispanics and Blacks would fight Blacks. Something I've seen all my life. But when they can work together, but not the [inaudible].And one night we had a C.C.D. dance— C.Y.O. dance at the church. And I had not made arrangements for the police to come. You had to have— they had a regulation where you had to have one, one sheriff for every one hundred kids. We had five hundred kids. And while I was on vacation, I didn't make arrangement for the sheriffs to come. So I got off vacation, came back. The first Saturday night we had our dance again.And the police told me that they wouldn't be able to be there for the dance. So they said, "You have the option of continuing the dance or closing it."I said, "No, I'm gonna continue it. Because if I do, the kids are gonna lose me, or I'll lose the kids." So I have the dance and within the hour or two, ten gang members stormed in, wearing Navy watch caps on their hats and they had walk— they had walking sticks in their hands, clubs. And they came in and they tore that place apart. And there were no sheriffs to come. My fault.And I got involved in it. I became a Rambo, and went to the aid of a young girl, who was being beaten up, and I got involved in the fight and they hit me with the bat and they broke my jaw. And I thought I was really gonna have it. And then finally they— they at a signal they all went out. And they went out in their cars and they shot into the parking lot of the church. I can still see the rounds up and down.I remember yelling at everybody, "Get down! Get down!" And so the dance ended. The sheriffs finally came. And I said, "Continue the dance. Don't let it go." So we continued it. 
  •  RAYMOND: What year was this? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Pardon? 
  •  RAYMOND: What year was this? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: This was about 1966. 
  •  RAYMOND: Thank you. Sorry to interrupt you. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: So the next, I remember the next morning I went out. You could never get the men to help you. Same old story. Only the women.And I can remember a little girl getting up on the shoulders of one of these gang members and just tearing at his face, saying, "Don't you ever do this again to Father Joe."And I never went to the doctors. Luckily I could still talk. They didn't break any of my teeth. But the next morning I had the first mass at 7:00 a.m. And here I was out there and my jaw was broken, and I remember one of the men coming up to me and he said, "Father Joe," he said, "I'm sorry about what happened to you last night. We heard."He said, "You know, if we— if we went out to those dances, a lot of us are married, and if we got hurt or killed, we'd have a problem with our family."And he said, "But I hate to say it, I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but if you got killed you'd be replaced the next day."I said, "Thanks a lot, Roger, but even though I'm not married, I still have a mom and dad and brothers and sisters."So the best thing that came out of it for me was a sheriff from the sheriff department came in the next morning and he said, "I want to talk to you about how to run a dance in the Black community." He was Black. And he showed me how to run a dance in the Black community.He said, "From now on we're gonna have a woman sheriff." He said, "I'm gonna go with you, and she's gonna be a tough gal. And we're gonna — we're gonna search everybody," because we found out the girls were bringing in all the weapons. They'd bring them in their bras, in their pantyhose and in their hair. The Black gals used to have those big things in. And they hide them in their cars. They taped them to the hoods of their cars. So, from now on, don't allow the cars in the parking lot, and close the bathroom because they go down there to smoke their pot. If they have to do it, they have to go to the bathroom on floor. And if they leave the building, they can't come back again unless they have their hands stamped.So what — to make a long story short, the next Saturday they had a Black sheriff there and she was tough. She was a gorgeous creature, but boy she was small. And the male Blacks tried to humiliate her. And I can remember her grabbing them and saying, "Listen you mother F-er, if you ever do this again, I'll break your Black neck."And she— those dances, they went beautifully from then on.But I left that parish because we gave it up. I was very, very sad to leave it. The people, they got up a petition. Imagine that? A Black parish and a Hispanic parish and they got up a petition to keep me there. Here I'm an Anglo.And so I came to Texas. And I hated the idea of coming here. I had never been to Texas before and I had the concept, wrongly, that Texas was a large state, all desert and full of cactus and redneck cowboys. And the reason was because when I was in the military, the only association I ever had with a Texan was a redneck from Texas.And we were going through Germany during the war— it was toward the end. And in the end we were going through farmland. In those days, you never saw men because they were all in the army. And you never saw boys. It was all women and old ladies.And we went through this farming area and there was an elderly lady my grandmother's age. And when you're eighteen you link yourself with anybody who's your grandmother's age because you associate her with your grandmother.And this elderly German lady, she made a living raising rabbits. And you know how prolific rabbits are. And she had one male rabbit and all females. Well this redneck Texas cowboy, farmer he was, he knew that. And he took the male in front of her and in front of all of us and he snapped its neck and threw it in her face.That was his way of saying, "You're never gonna have anymore baby rabbits."So I remember some of the guys grabbing him and beating him up. And I felt like doing that too. And I remember putting my arms around the old lady and I was crying because I thought of her as my Nanna, my grandma.And then, within days, the army went to her aid. They replaced her rabbits with male rabbits.But I never forgot that incident. And I came to Texas, wrongly, making my concept of all Texans on that. And how wrong that was.So as I was coming, I was being sent to Texas to take the place of one of our pastors who people got up a petition to get rid of him because he was racist. He had — he was an old German and he didn't like Mexicans. And I was being sent to his parish to take his place. 
  •  RAYMOND: And where was that? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: That was in New Braunfels, Texas. I learned a lot of lessons. I learned a lot of lessons. That was all Hispanic. And I remember I didn't know any Hispanic— any Hispanic— I couldn't speak Spanish. It was a terrible feeling there to a place where you don't know the language.So I remember we had a way of teaching our men when we were sent to a parish, they would tell you that you had the— your first mass there, but you had to do it in Spanish. And I said, "I don't speak Spanish." Well you're gonna learn how to do it. So I remember taking our missalette— we have a missalette, they call a missalette. And I sat up all night with a lead pencil and I convert— I outlined— I converted in my own language the Spanish, phonetically— phonetically. I tried all night long, sat up all night long without any sleep. And I got out there the next morning and my knees were shaking. And here's this whole place was filled with Hispanics. And you know one of the things I learned about Hispanics, they can be— they can stare you down. I mean they have a way of staring at you. And they stared at me. I knew I wasn't— I felt I wasn't welcome.And I remember, what am I gonna say? I said, "Everybody's got a sense of humor." Hispanics have it and Blacks have it, no doubt.But I said, "Well," I said, "I can't tell you how happy I am to be here"— my first lie of many lies.And I said, "I can't tell you how happy I am to be here in this lovely little town of New Brownling." All I wanted to be was back in Los Angeles. And I was grinding my teeth.And I said, "I'm so happy to be here," and I said, "I'm very sorry, I must apologize, I don't have the gift of your language. I can't speak it. But with your help I'm gonna try to learn it." They never changed their expressions.I said, "Now what am I gonna say?"So I said, "I got to say something. Holy Spirit, put the words on my tongue."So I said, "Well, you've all heard the term Tex-Mex?"They all went— I said, "Well, you're gonna hear your first mass in Tex-Gringo."And when I said that they all smiled. Broke the ice. 
  •  RAYMOND: Good. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: And that was the first of my many ministries. Since then I've learned an awful lot. I've seen an awful lot. I've seen prejudice and anger.I can remember when I was in New Braunfels how the women, how the women could be so cruel to each other. How women— men and women— Men can be cruel and women can be cruel. But women seem to have a way of hanging on to their anger longer.And I remember when I was in New Braunfels we had an organization called the Catholic Daughters of America. And one of the women was an elderly lady. She was in her— must have been her 70s then. And you know that she was never fully accepted by her colleagues. You know why? Because when she was fifteen years of age she became pregnant and had a child out of wedlock. And here she is about seventy-eight years old and they never fully accepted her because of that happening. And the son that she gave birth to ended up getting killed in the Korean War.So I remember we had awards at that time given by the Catholic Bishop. You were to choose five people in your parish who you thought were outstanding. So I chose her. And they all got medals. And they had a big service, big ceremony for them in San Antonio. And I chose her.Well, the women didn't like that. And I told them why I did it. I said, "This is my way of showing them that she is equal, whether she gave birth out of wedlock or not."Those are the things I saw. I could go on for a long time and tell you about things like that that happened in my ministry. There was something that happened when I was in New Braunfels, and I wish I could— it happened in Austin.I mean, I remember it was something that happened, a shooting or something, and I got involved in it. I got involved in it. And I remember, the people of New Braunfels, they had a big march with the permission of the chief. And then the Catholics had a big march too. Hispanics. And I got involved in it. And I had a mass for them, for this, it was somebody who had got killed. I wish I could remember. I'm terrible, I wish—RAYMOND: Killed in what way? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: It was something that happened in New Braunfels, and I got involved in it. I remember the Austin paper had a big article on it. And I had a mass on the grounds of a park for this person who got killed. 
  •  RAYMOND: Now Alicia said something about there was somebody who was killed in a car accident. Would this be what she was talking about? Alicia Gomez talked about, something about that you had made some kind of speech after somebody was killed in a car accident, perhaps by a, by somebody who was drunk or— This doesn't— 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Oh yeah, I think it was at that, oh yeah, that big Wurstfest they have— 
  •  RAYMOND: Is this what you're talking about? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Yeah. That was it. It was something that happened at the Wurstfest. You know that Wurstfest they have in— 
  •  RAYMOND: I've never been, but I've heard of it. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: I mean it used to be known for a lot of drinking. It was a big thing. They've done away with the drinking now. But it was something to do with an accident there. Yeah. She was killed by— oh, a drunken soldier. Yeah.A young soldier from the army, one of the army bases in San Antonio. He was seventeen years of age. I remember he was from Iowa, and he got drunk. He went to the Wurstfest and he got drunk, and he killed this girl. That's what it was. But they let him off the hook. That's what they did. Oh, I remember coming, yes.He killed a girl from New Braunfels. And the Army was covering up on it. And I went to expose it, and that's when all of the Anglos came up against me for doing that.And they marched. And the Hispanics marched. I remember the top lawyer in New Braunfels, he was very active in the Catholic Church, he got all his lawyers to rally around against me too.So I had the mass. I remember — it was so significant this mass, held in a public park, that they had the press there. And here's how significant it was: the press was there and the press was represented by all the top papers in the United States. The Washington Post was there. They had reporters from the  Post. The  New York Timesand everything.So I remember I wore my clerical garb, and I wore a garb to Our Lady Guadalupe, who's very, you know Guadalupe. Had a beautiful, beautiful vestment of Our Lady Guadalupe.And I remember going to a canon lawyer, a doctor — a lawyer in my church — and I asked him, "How far can I go on my homily?"He said, "You can use the word murderer about this soldier."I said, "I can use murderer?"And he told me how I could do it. So I wrote out a six-page homily in defense of this girl. And I got very emotionally involved in it. And I got to the park that day and it was packed. It was packed. And even the prisoners in jail who were Hispanic went on strike, a hunger strike, for this girl— in honor of this girl. And to support me. They were all Hispanics. 
  •  RAYMOND: Was the girl Latina or Hispanic? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: She was Latino. She was Hispanic. That was the issue. Yeah. It was a racial issue.And they were trying to get him off the hook. And the issue was he was drunk and he killed her. He told me why. He was drunk. And he killed this young Hispanic.And so I got out there and I gave my homily and I remember — I remember my opening words were, "My name is Joe Lawless." I said, "I just happen to be a Catholic priest. And I'm here to talk to all the people of New Braunfels." And that's how I started out.And I gave my homily and there was a car pulled up with a very famous priest from San Antonio. He was in charge of all the missions. And when I saw him my first reaction was oh, the Bishop sending someone to watch over me.When I walked over to him, he said, "No, I'm here to support you on behalf of the Bishop." And there was another priest out there too to support me. The three priests. And I got there and I gave my homily.And I remember, what happened after I gave my homily in defense of this girl, the reporters were all coming around. And they were trying to distort what I said. And I didn't like it. And so I remember the Austin paper, the major paper in Austin had a full-page picture of me on front page with my vestment of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And it was in color. You could see the blue, sky blue Lady of Guadalupe.I remember the reporter coming to me and he said— the day before I was going to give my talk— now he said, "Could you tell me some of the things you're gonna talk about tomorrow at your mass?"So I said, "Yeah, I'm gonna talk about this and about that."And he took notes and then he— his article in the paper the next day, the New Braunfels paper, was completely distorted. He said the priest is gonna talk about— and he didn't tell me. But then what came out of that was the soldier got some kind of a dishonorable discharge and he had to go to some kind of treatment.But what came out of it, the Bishop called me in. Catholic Bishop. Bishop Flores then. And he had been on vacation with other bishops when this happened. And he called me up to see him in his— I had never been to his headquarters before. I figured he's gonna chew me out for something.But he said, "No, I want to commend you," he said, "for what you did for that girl."He said, "I'll never forget what you did for her." And I remember the people at mass the next day. They were — all the people from the city were in there and they had a big plaque they gave me thanking me. But that was a racial issue that I got involved in. And the repression of truth. It was my hang-up on the repression of truth. 
  •  RAYMOND: And so explain to me just a little bit more, ‘cause I'm not familiar with this. The repression of truth was on the part of. . 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: The repression of truth was to try to get, of course the man wasn't really that drunk. And he's homesick for home, and that's what they concentrated on. And the city's attitude. See the city's attitude toward the defense of him. And all the lawyers coming to him.And the only ones — the only ones who were out to support me that day were there — In fact, the tent that they put up for me to have my services that day, they were put up by the Protestants, not the Catholics. My own, my own — the other two Catholic churches in New Braunfels, they didn't even support me. They wouldn't even come out. I had to do it.I'm not trying to pat myself on the back, but it was the Protestants. They're the ones who brought the tent. They had the organ, beautiful music. And they were supporting me. The Protestants. Not the Catholics.I've had, so I've had problems with my faith too. When I find things like that happening in my faith, Catholic faith, I bring it to the service. I've never been popular that way. I even served on our board in my community as one of the officers at one time, but yet my feeling about that was it was a repression of truth — toning down what he did. But maybe the attitude of the people in New Braunfels — 
  •  RAYMOND: And what was that attitude? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Pardon? 
  •  RAYMOND: What was that attitude? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: That we shouldn't be making a big issue over this. That's what it was. We shouldn't be making a big issue over this. And then when I found out one of the top lawyers — the top lawyer at that time in New Braunfels, he was a Catholic. And the Eucharistic minister in his parish. And he got all the lawyers together and formed like a moratorium, join, against what I was doing. And he was out of my own faith, Catholic faith. 
  •  RAYMOND: How much longer after this did you stay? How much longer did you stay in New Braunfels? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Oh, gosh I was— 
  •  RAYMOND: —after that? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: I think I was there about a year or two. 
  •  RAYMOND: You didn't stay in New Braunfels. Where did you go after New Braunfels? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: After New Braunfels I was transferred to one of our churches in Granite City, Illinois. 
  •  RAYMOND: So, out of state? Completely out of Texas? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Completely out of Texas. And yet the people in New Braunfels — Remember I told you that the Black people got a petition up for me? The people in New Braunfels got a petition too. 
  •  RAYMOND: Didn't work. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: I remember one of my dear friends in New Braunfels was a parishioner named Stevie Hernandez, and he was very active in our parish activities. And when they took up a petition, he was thinking of coming in the priesthood. And I was so happy because I thought he would be the best qualified of all Hispanic boys. There was something about him. There was charisma.And they took up a petition for me. Hundreds of petitions, they put them in a garbage bag, and they gave them to him with a plane ticket to our headquarters in St. Louis to see our head boss, to bring the petitions to him.So he brought the petitions to our headman and he said, "I don't even want to see them." He put them in the garbage can.So, eventually, he became— he came into the priesthood, and he was blackballed all the time he was studying to be a priest. He was blackballed by our superiors for what he did that day, taking the petitions. 
  •  RAYMOND: Was he in your order? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Yes, he was in our order. 
  •  RAYMOND: Okay. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Yes, he was in our order. He became a priest. He's down in the Valley now, the Valley of Texas. 
  •  RAYMOND: What is his first name? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Stevie Hernandez. 
  •  RAYMOND: Stevie. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Yeah. He was in Edinburg for years. He's in another town now. But the point I'm trying to make is do you see how — we had justice and lies, repressing the truth. They thought people got up a petition, and he took it, and their attitude was he shouldn't do that. That— we made a decision for Joe to [inaudible] and that's it.And he's saying, "Well, people want him back. They want him to stay there."And he wouldn't even look at them. And so as a result of it he got blackballed. But he made it as a priest. And he's— to me he's one of our finest priests because he was very— he— But those are the things I've seen in ministry, in church.All — did Alicia tell you how I was a chaplain for — the incident with the— that famous icon. What's her name? 
  •  RAYMOND: Selena? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Selena. I was the chaplain for the gal that killed her. 
  •  RAYMOND: Well, if you want to talk about that, that's fine. But just to be clear I don't want you to give away anything confidential. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Oh, it's no big— 
  •  RAYMOND: Okay. Okay. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Oh no. I like to bring it up. 
  •  RAYMOND: Oh, sure. Tell us. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: No. So I was in— I was in Illinois for a couple of years. And then after that I was transferred back to Texas to Corpus Christi, and I've been here ever since. 
  •  RAYMOND: And is that how you met this woman? Yolanda? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: There was — It was while I was here at St. Joseph's parish here. I was in the jail ministry here in Corpus Christi. While I was here in Corpus Christi, I was in the jail ministry when I first came here [inaudible] of our church.And during the Selena incident, when Selena got killed, the jail called me up and asked me if I would come down and function as the chaplain for Yolanda Saldivar who'd killed her. And the purpose was they wanted a chaplain there to thwart any attempt she possibly would have for suicide. 
  •  RAYMOND: I see. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: So I went. I agreed to go. I went three days a week for seven months. 
  •  RAYMOND: Oh, wow. 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: She was incarcerated seven months. Three mornings for seven months. I went three days a week. It was very, very— quite an experience. I learned a lot.But the attitudes you know of the jail ministry, the jail guards toward her because most of the jail personnel are all pro-Selena fans. She had two cousins who were jailed — wardens in jail. And she had a hard time while she was there. She was allowed to have a television set. She could watch television. She came from very Catholic family, but she didn't hold on to her faith at all.And I was, what I was trying to do was I was trying to get a message across to her: not to hate, not to hate. And also, they would hopefully get her back closer to the Church. Not once while I was there did I ever make an attempt to hear her confession. I figured if she wants to go, she'll call me. I intentionally did not go to meetings at the jail where I'd be questioned because I didn't want it to come across to the public that as a priest I was divulging confessional matter. Because, as you know, we're not allowed to do that. We can't even take it out and tell anybody else — one of our fellow priests. But I was hoping that I would plant some seeds.When I was there she acted like I was almost Jesus. She could hardly wait for me to get there every morning. And the guards didn't like my presence there too well. I can remember walking in one day with the head guard— his name is Sergeant Lee— my friend, famous friend Sergeant Lee. And we're down there. All the guards are putting on their clothes and drinking their coffee. And I heard this one Black sergeant. He said, "Oh, here's the Pope." [Inaudible] But those things, he had me transferred because of it. But the point is while I was there were a lot of personnel at the jail that didn't like my presence there because they figured I was on the side of Yolanda. And they were all— because they were Hispanic, they're all fans of Selena. And rightfully so— a very talented young woman. But when I was there, I made it clear to Yolanda, don't take— you take all your personal effects. Every time you go to the bathroom and when you take a shower, take all your personal effects because they'll go through them. And she had a very famous lawyer when she was there. But he took the stand— he put her on the stand. But to make a long story short, I went there— she could hardly wait for me to be there. She was asking all— she gave me all kind of explanations of what happened, her side of the story, etcetera, etcetera. And I was trying to tell her, I'm being objective, I'm not taking sides, but I'm here for you. But it was funny though. On the last day, while she was there, it was after her trial when she was convicted. On the last day she was there before being moved, I walked in with Sergeant Lee, I remember she was lying on a cot on her stomach, and I remember Sergeant Lee saying, "Good morning, Yolanda, it's father Joe and Sergeant Lee. We're here to say hello." And I said, "Hi Yolanda, how are you?" And she had turned around— she gave me the finger. And I said, "Have a good day, Yolanda. God bless you." And I walked out. But that was her way of saying, "You didn't come across. You know I got convicted." I was sorry that it came to that point. ‘Cause I remember one day leaving the jail and they had that trailer, those— the trailer. They had this very famous TV person from Miami. Very beautiful young gal. Blonde hair. She had a TV show, very famous. And she was out there with a crew— 
  •  RAYMOND: Cristina? 
  •  FATHER LAWLESS: Yeah, that was the one I think. And she called me over and she said, "Father, have you visited someone in the jail?" I says, "Yes, I have." And she said, "It wouldn't be Selena would it?" I said, "Yes, it just happened it was." I mean Yolanda. And she said, "Oh, come over. She said let us fill you— film you." She says, "Within minutes you'll be all over the country, every channel." I said, "No. No way." I said, "I'm not gonna be filmed because I don't want it to jeopardize her trial." And she went along with it. But it was a lesson learned and she was— she got a bad deal. I remember there was one particular sergeant on the Corpus Christi Police Department that gave her a rough time. They twisted things. You know how the police will do things. And I was a chaplain for the Corpus Christi Police Department. I know other— the personnel department under the chief. Not the chief itself, but for all the other police officers. So I know what it is. I know what the police mentality is. When I was growing up as a boy, all the people on my mother's side in New York, they were all police. They were police officers. I came up with— I grew up in the police mentality. I know the goods and the bad about them. I admire them. To me, they're the biggest boys' club in America. I have very dear friends on the police department. But I know the police mentality. And they—they gave her a rough deal. They did. 
  •  RAYMOND: We need to change the tape. And maybe you'll get some water— 
 
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Title:Interview with Joe Lawless
Abstract:Father Joe Lawless has spent most of his professional career as a Catholic priest. In Video 1, Father Lawless recalls serving in the United States military during WWII, including fighting in Dachau, Germany. He also discusses his life after WWII, including his enrollment at the University of Georgia, and his introduction to Catholic teachings at the Blessed Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Massachusetts. Father Lawless then speaks about his responsibilities as a Catholic priest serving in different communities around the United States, including Compton, California, New Braunfels, Texas and Corpus Christi, Texas. At the end of Video 1 and in Video 2, Father Lawless discusses his work within the jail ministry and reflects on what he considers the repression of truth within various sectors of society. This interview took place on July 30, 2008 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Nueces County, Texas.
Sequence:1 of 2
Contributors:
  • Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Interviewer
  • Tony KefflerRole: Videographer
  • Susanne MasonRole: Transcriber
  • Sabina Hinz-FoleyRole: Proofreader
Date Created:2008/07/30
Languages:eng
Geographic Focus:North America--United States--Texas
Geographic Base:North America--United States--Texas--Austin
Type of Resource:Moving image
Genre:Interview
Identifier:tav00030
Rights:
    This electronic resource is made available by the University of Texas Libraries solely for the purposes of research, teaching and private study. All intellectual property rights are retained by the legal copyright holders. The University of Texas does not hold the copyright to the content of this file. Formal permission to reuse or republish this content must be obtained from the copyright holder.

 

 

 

Continues with Part 2 of the TAVP Interview with Father Joe Lawless

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