COLUMN: A dark secret

THE first man I ever hugged was Tony Esposito. In a black-and-white world, he was an explosion of Technicolor. But he had a dark secret.

I had been accepted by the Diocese of Youngstown to work as a deacon in my final summer before ordination. I was assigned to this rather backward parish called East Liverpool on the banks of the Ohio River, where the three states of Kentucky, Virginia and Ohio meet. In its prime East Liverpool had been populated by immigrants from the Stoke region of England. It once boasted a thriving pottery industry, which at the time of my arrival was well in decline.

I arrived at the parish with a certain amount of apprehension in the summer of 1980 and was greeted with open arms by a middle-aged man wearing a bright orange tee shirt, a pair of jeans and dripping with jewellery which was unusual attire for a man at that time, let alone a parish priest. He had a sallow Italian appearance with a large black moustache and a head of thick jet-black hair that was impressive for a man in his mid-50s.

As I got to know him in the following months I discovered that Tony Esposito was a larger-than-life character that had created the most dynamic Church Community I have ever encountered. The parish was a hive of activities and during the day the parochial house was more akin to the bustle of Euston Station than the monastic silence I was familiar with at home. He ran an open house, which offered accommodation to those in need.

Although I had my own bedroom I was never guaranteed a bed to sleep in because of the number of guests that stayed over. But I was always guaranteed a warm paternal goodnight hug from Tony who with his open Italian style made it seem the most natural thing in the world, even to an inhibited Irishman like myself who had never kissed my mother since I discarded short trousers and was not accustomed to hugging men.

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