Time has faded many of Fr Carmel Flora’s memories – but the day the 86- year-old Capuchin received his call to the priesthood in his hometown of Harlem, New York, is still crystal clear.
To anyone hearing his entertaining tale that would come as no surprise.
In a fortnight he’ll depart Australia back to the United States for good.
There, in his old province of Detroit, he’ll take up residence with a community of his fellow friars, several he’s known since his days as a seminarian.
Perhaps this explains Fr Carmel’s reflective mood as he takes me back to that day in 1944 when he literally “got the call” to the priesthood.
It was while at Confession at Our Lady of the Angels Capuchin Church in Harlem.
“I was in my last year at the Peter Stuyvesant High School, deciding which career I would follow, which college I would attend and so on,” he said.
“My future direction was still very much undecided when I went to Confession.
“My confessor was a very old Capuchin priest.
“I’d just finished my confession, when he shouted: ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?’
“I was embarrassed by his shouting and just managed to say: ‘Well, I have … but …’
“And he shouted even louder: ‘Well, just don’t think about it – do something!’
“I thought the whole church must have heard him, but to my relief when I exited the confessional no one was there.”
Suitably challenged, the young man pondered the old priest’s words for several days.
“Then I decided to return to the same church,” Fr Carmel said.
“Another quite elderly priest opened the door, and I spoke to him about my confession experience.
“He simply told me to write to another Capuchin priest, Fr Gerald Walker in Upper New York State and ask him … I did so.
“The answer I received from him was simply: ‘Write to the rector of the Capuchin Seminary in Mt Calvary, Wisconsin, and ask him what to do’.
“The advice came back: ‘If you want to find out about a vocation to the Capuchin order, go to our seminary in Wisconsin and stay for a year’.”
The young man’s decision to follow this advice would eventually set him on a lifetime path as a Capuchin priest.
As Fr Carmel explains, it also led to 43 years’ service in Australia.
“In 1969, a Capuchin Father from Australia, Fr Albert Colletta, came to Detroit to ask for some help with the young province of Capuchins that was growing in numbers there.
“They especially needed assistance with the training of their students.
“Fr Rupert Dorn, then provincial, promised to send some help; and a short time later asked me and four other friars from the Detroit province if they were willing to supply some assistance to the growing Capuchin vocations out here.”
All men accepted, although as Fr Carmel says later, he became the longest-serving member in Australia of the five.
An “accident” of history also ensured he became the longest-serving leader of the Capuchins in Australia.
Normally a leader can only serve two three-year terms.
When Fr Carmel took leadership, Australia was still a vice-province.
In 1981, he was coming to the end of his second term as vice-provincial when Australia became a province.
He was elected provincial and went on to serve a further two terms.
As a young man before he decided to study for the priesthood, he considered a career as a professional musician.
Fr Carmel’s three brothers “were all musical”, two working as professional jazz musicians, and he tells me he even got to play a paid gig in New York City one New Year‘s Eve.
Eventually he became a classically-trained pianist, later using his musical skills to write liturgical music.
Two of his fellow Australian Capuchins – Fr Greg Rowles and Fr John Spiteri – tell me he once wrote music for four Masses in a year.
“Carmel’s got perfect pitch,” Fr John adds in awe.
I mention Fathers Greg and John’s compliments and he smiles.
The discussion on his musical background takes him back to his youth in Harlem.
“My parents were Italian immigrants,” he said.
“My dad Frank Paul was a fine violinist; he was only four foot ten and spent all his working life as a cleaner at the New York City Police Department.
“My mother was Carmela – her maiden name was Verderose.
“I had three brothers and two sisters and one of the girls died very young before I was born.”
Racial segregation was still enforced in Harlem in those days.
“We were not far from the East River dividing line,” he recalls.
“The negroes were located on the western side.”
It was later, during the 1950s, in his time at St Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit’s Mt Elliot Avenue that he was close to race riots.
“There was shooting all night not far from the monastery,” he said.
“We even saw tanks in the streets.”
Now at Nazareth House as we sit chatting about Fr Carmel’s 59 years as a priest, I ask him if he ever once doubted his calling.
“Never,” he states firmly.
“Once I started, as it says in scripture, I never looked back.
“It’s not an easy life, but it’s a happy life.
“If you have a vocation and appreciate it then you’re happy – you have a feeling it’s the way you were meant to live.”
He speaks of his 43 years in Australia with great fondness.
“I’ve enjoyed everything – the people, the countryside, the positions I’ve held,” he said.
“I’ve loved the countryside and have driven through most states except Western Australia.”
Fr Carmel speaks with particular fondness of Wynnum where for 18 years he was novice master at St Laurence Monastery.
So it seems appropriate a farewell Mass attended by his fellow friars was being held at Wynnum’s recently restored Nazareth House chapel.
Bishop Joseph Oudeman, a fellow Capuchin, was to have celebrated the Mass on the afternoon of October 10.
A week after the Mass, Fr Carmel will leave for the US with Australian Capuchin provincial Fr Gary Devery as travelling companion.
As Fr Carmel nears the end of his time in Australia, he’s pleased to report an upswing in interest in the Capuchin calling amongst the young.
“Four deacons recently ordained will become priests next February and two students have recently started,” he said.
“When the young ask me about life as a priest, I tell them how I was once challenged to act in Confession in that Harlem church all those years ago.
“I did and I stayed.
“I tell them if they’re interested, to come and check it out.
“If they do perhaps this will happen to them.”
- The Little Italy of East Harlem, 1890 (harlemworldmag.com)