Last Wednesday evening, March 28, I was sitting in St. Anthony’s Church on South Pine Creek Road watching a procession of people paying their respects to Father John Baran, who had passed away the preceding Sunday. I was right next to a guy named Tony and his son, also named Tony. Tony Sr. said, “Wow, look at everybody. I only go to the 10 Mass. I never knew all these people were parishioners here.”

As we watched the line, which didn’t seem to end, it occurred to me that not all of them attended St. Anthony’s. I know for a fact that some were Jewish.

My family are Irish-Catholic Jews. It’s complicated, but we always felt right at home at St Anthony’s. I know quite a few families that don’t quite fit the bill as “traditional Catholic families,” but they were accepted on South Pine Creek. It was extremely welcoming and at the same time it was unashamedly Catholic.

St Anthony’s began originally as a Polish parish in 1927. It even had an elementary school. But the school closed in 1973, and over the years the older Polish parishioners died off, and the area lost much of its ethnic identity. When Father John took over in 2002, everyone assumed he was sent in to close down the parish, to consolidate it with another parish. But a funny thing happened on the way to burying it; it revived and developed a pulse. There were a few kids in Sunday School, then a few more. Soon they had a respectable first Communion class.

Joining Father John, first as a volunteer, then as the director of religious education and much more, was Eleanor Sauers. Eleanor was in the process of earning her PhD in religious studies.

“The parish was not viable as it was set up,” Eleanor said. They had their first planning session on Sept. 11, 2002. What they wanted to establish was a parish for the people who never left, but equally important they saw a church for maybe those who didn’t feel welcome before. A church for them to come back to. Eleanor said, “We wanted to create a back door for people too cautious to come in the front door.”

The key to the revitalization was the preaching style and the personality of Father John. He almost stammered as he sometimes began his homilies. Like he had just thought of some insight and was unsure how to share it. But he seemed to grow more confident as the sermon continued, and the church grew. And grew. His sermons were “positive, but with snippets that showed his intellect,” Eleanor said.

Young families started to come back. They started fundraisers for both Catholic and non-Catholic charities. They did things like Broadway Cabaret Night fundraisers, book groups, and music concerts that seemed to inspire a new group of volunteers.

“But we continued making the pierogies and stuffed cabbage for the Parish Picnic,” Eleanor said. In mid-April they still have a day when parishioners make pierogies that are then frozen and brought out for the annual church picnic in July.

As the church was growing, Father John started having troubles physically. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It didn’t seem to slow him down. He needed a stool conveniently placed around the church, and at times he used a cane or a wheelchair. But the sermons remained always poignant, as well as on point, and the church’s energy and congregation continued to rise. Then, last year, he was diagnosed with melanoma.

On March 24, Palm Sunday, the Rev. John P. Baran passed away. He was 59. Eleanor summed up what she and the community will miss with his passing.

“His quick wit, he could discuss with you the newest book or the oldest poetry.” She will also miss his “attentive, and active listening.”

Our family will also miss him. We will miss his sense of humor, his warmth, his curiosity, his unwavering passion for truth, his love of music, from classical to modern, and his love for matzo ball soup. We were the ones that came in that back door, and we felt welcome. Rest in peace, Father John.

Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached by email at Tlawlor@mcommunica