by Gene Rossi
“You can call me Father Joe if Rapkowski is hard to remember or pronounce. But that’s the name over the confessional you’ll enter if you wish to confess in Italian.” That was something older parishioners from Italy never expected to hear especially from a Polish priest. But that’s how Father Joe Rapkowski endeared himself on his return to Brooklyn.
His was a timely arrival to St. James Cathedral, Downtown Brooklyn, since the parish was empowered by Irish till then but was now enrolling more pupils with names familiar to eastern and central Europe. That was 1937. I was 10 years old. Years earlier, he was approached by several Major League teams. His pitching for a semi-pro team while he was at Cathedral College, Brooklyn, was that impressive. For Father Joe, a uniform was never more appealing than vestments.
He endeared himself to us young kids in numerous ways. Walking in the neighborhood in a cassock and biretta, as in Italy, announcing to any and all who gathered, “We’re going to Coney tomorrow.” That would mean two trolleys would arrive in front of the school on Jay St. at 7:45 a.m. with their destination window reading “Special.” One for boys and the other for girls. Once there, he would have us counted as we entered Ravenhall – a private pool with cabanas behind the boardwalk that included handball, squash, shuffleboard and basketball courts. The gleeful banter permeated the day as Father Joe, with the help of a few teenagers, would gather a small group for walks on the beach.
During the school year, he’d enter a class asking permission to quiz the students with a handful of silver dollars as prizes, which he would flip for the right answer. If dropped, it entered the poor box. Before leaving, he’d ask who hadn’t seen Snow White, or the next year Going My Way, and select a small group that he would take to see it that evening.
You’re wrong if you think he forgot baseball. He started with basketball by outfitting the Midgets, ages eight to 11. I even tried out for the team but didn’t make the cut. The ball was too heavy, and the basket was too high. The baseball Midgets were older, up to 16. Bobby Dodd was 11, the youngest, and as catcher could throw someone out stealing second. The home field was an abandoned lot by the East River that they had cleared and groomed. At times, when a window was broken by a home run in one of the factory buildings, Father Joe would cross the street and offer but could never pay for it once the black suit and white collar were seen. This unique priest had a pleasant smile and consoling demeanor throughout his priesthood and his reverence when saying Mass could be felt throughout the church. We loved having him, even though it was only three or four years. His last parish was in Bridgehampton.
They welcomed him – baseball was big among the potato farmers. Carl, an 11-year-old like Bobby Dodd, telegraphed talent and determination worthy of time to mentor the sport. He had to be worthy because when Carl graduated high school he received several offers, including one from the Yankees who offered him $40,000, the most they ever offered to a high school graduate. Evidently, Carl’s father respected Father Joe’s savvy regarding heaven and baseball – “Don’t take anything less than $100,000 and don’t play for anyone other than (Tom) Yawkey.” Advice taken, he got him a ride at Notre Dame where he played for two years. Impatient and unchallenged by college ball, he signed with Tom Yawkey’s farm team. Two years later, he was wearing a Red Sox uniform, and Curt Gaudy was having difficulty pronouncing Yastrzemski’s name. Most thought that a great day for Father Joe. It was a bigger accomplishment having short-changed the Yankees’ roster.
His vocation as priest, though, was a constant accomplishment by ensuring the roster of heaven. A year later, he was best described by the priest who ended his eulogy the following way:
“…in him, I am continually reminded of the Cure of Ars – without earthly honor, the pastor of a small country parish, but in the sight of heaven a giant of sanctity, a model for pastors, an inspiration for the laity.”[hr] Former Brooklynite Gene Rossi now lives on Staten Island.