Pat Conroy was accused of a lot of things in his stormy life, but I doubt he was ever called a man of the cloth.
But his funeral Mass on Tuesday packed a message as powerful as a tent revival.
This message didn’t come from the pulpit, although Monsignor Ronald R. Cellini should have stars in his crown for sorting out Romans 8:28, with the help of a chocolate cake recipe.
On this spotless day — with the perfectly still waters of a high tide flooding the marshes of Beaufort — the powerful message came from the pews.
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St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Lady’s Island was filled with people who could claim an absolute right to be mad at Conroy. More grudges could have been carried into the spacious sanctuary than all the folding chairs that lined the walls.
Conroy’s family had been exposed again and again in his novels, but it took several pews to hold them all at the Mass.
Beaufort could easily have never forgiven Conroy for using local schools and local individuals to smack down the vast disparity between white and black schools down South, circa 1970.
Young Conroy was remembered by some in the pews as a rebel, that’s for sure. But he also was remembered as the kid who scored 55 points in a Tidal Wave basketball game. Did he have a sweet shot? Yeah, but he was more of a fighter, a scrapper, a hustler. And, they said, he was one of us.
Someone in the pews told me that when Conroy got fired after one year of teaching on Daufuskie Island, he was toxic to his former teaching colleagues at Beaufort High. But when he turned the Daufuskie experience into a successful book called “The Water is Wide,” which launched a best-selling career, many people began to see him differently.
Fame had something to do with it, I was told. Conroy wasn’t famous yet, but they say it didn’t take a great deal of fame to have an aura in Beaufort at that time.
“We would go to the Breeze Theater and ask what time the movie started, and they’d say, ‘What time do you want it to start?’ ” came the object lesson from a retired teacher.
Reconciliation was underway.
Conroy also infuriated The Citadel, his alma mater, by telling things that nobody was supposed to tell. He was banned as a traitor.
But who should be standing erect in his blue U.S. Air Force uniform at Conroy’s Mass but Citadel president John Rosa. Behind him were row after row of Citadel graduates. And two current cadets in the Summerall Guards stood watch over the remains of Conroy, a proud member of the class of 1967. These elite guards are to demonstrate The Citadel ideals of honor, integrity, loyalty, leadership, self-discipline and patriotism. Add to that redemption.
At Conroy’s service, his Jewish friends sang “Amazing Grace.” His Catholic friends sang a tent-revival favorite, “Blessed Assurance.” It featured beautiful music by the choir, with soloist Katie McAllister adding to her repertoire an appropriate spiritual, “Down by the Riverside.”
Conroy’s service attracted an Associated Press reporter and at least two giants of recent South Carolina history — Alex Sanders and retired Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. They, along with common folk like me, were attracted by Conroy’s kindness and his generosity of time and moral support.
Afterward, someone said that Conroy was ahead of his time, saying right out loud that the schools were unfair, that families can be dysfunctional, that military families are under great stress, that military schools may go too far, that books should not be banned, and that Lowcountry developers must be stopped before they “pave the Atlantic Ocean.”
And when the son of a warrior says it out loud, it can lead to grudges long and lasting.
But as Conroy’s remarkable life came full circle from baptism to funeral Mass in the Catholic church, he was saying that faith, love, and forgiveness win.
Conroy couldn’t hear it, but I thought he got an amen.