Rev. Bill Poole – a friend in deed

Mary Magdala Community

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D.

Rev. William G. Poole – or as everybody knew and called him, Bill – was a man of persistence toward and fixed visage on life’s qualities which he viewed as correct to hold.  Though his first career goal was to be a journalist he accepted the vocation of priest in the Roman Catholic Church.  I first met Bill on my search for ministry in Appalachia having recently finished my first appointment of 5 years at the Passionist’s parish in Detroit, Michigan.

Bill was Pastor of the Floyd County Catholic Churches based in Prestonsburg, Kentucky.  My experience of the 900 family city parish bore a night and day difference to what constituted church in those Appalachian counties.  St. Theodore’s in the County seat (Prestonsburg) was a former Presbyterian Church.  St. Julianna’s in Martin was actually the “mother” church of Floyd County.  There were no church buildings in either Magoffin or Knott counties.  In Salyersville (Magoffin) church was the gathering around a potbelly stove in the back of a store run by a married couple whose commitment to social justice and charitable outreach ran deep.  In Knott county church consisted of the periodic Home Masses that were held in residences of certain faculty members at Alice Lloyd College on Caney Creek in Pippa Passes.  At the time I went to eastern Kentucky the Catholic population was less than ½ of 1% of the total population.  If you’re asking why would a priest go to do ministry in such a place just recall Jesus set the example for going to out of the way places.

Bill was of the generation – ordained during the time of Vatican II – that went to the mountains to serve the families of middle-class managers and professionals in the coal industry but also to respond to Appalachia’s charge to the nation that America had (and has to this day) broken many promises on its way to industrial might and astronomical profit-making.  The poverty in coal country – as it became increasingly well-known and reported upon in the 1960’s – was a goad to conscience.  For Bill it was a call to ministry.  He would eventually serve two decades in Floyd County.

Bill Poole was a welcoming man.  He acknowledged that others had received similar calls to address the realities of poverty and injustice, discrimination, and just sheer neglect.  So, Bill welcomed and joined with those progressives in his 20 year path of persistent clarity.  Religious sisters, activist lay people, and former priests joined the effort.

Bill was a humorous man, though you had to learn to recognize his dry and understated wit.  One irony of Catholic life in Floyd County Catholic Churches was that within such a small population of Catholics at one point there were 6 priests; 5 of them were married.  Soon after I arrived Bill and I were on the road to Lexington where he liked to do his grocery shopping.  He was not deterred by the fact that the round trip from the priest’s house in Martin to Lexington is 250 miles.  Another one of my first lessons in the mountains was to be ready to travel.  The trip, though, gave us the chance to get better acquainted, and me to recognize his wit.

We were talking about his inviting the married priests to baptize their own children.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The Catholic Pastor thought it just fine to have that happen.  He did allow one difficulty, however, when he said to me, “You know, Jim, the ritual isn’t written for that.”  And there it was deadpan and out of the blue.  It took me a couple of seconds before I finally got it and responded, “Yes, Bill, that’s right.”

The Floyd County Ministerial Association was the target of Bill’s wit.  After spending two years letting the local pastors know that he would like to be invited to become a member of this very Baptist, very exclusive group (I think the Presbyterian and the Methodist pastors in Prestonsburg were allowed to be members) he remained on the outside.  Bill went on the offensive.  At Christmas of his third year he took out a full-page ad in the Floyd County Times that said, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to the Floyd County Ministerial Association whose members for the past two years have excluded the Catholic Pastor of St. Theodore & St. Julianna Churches from joining the Association.”  It was only a little bit controversial but very funny.  And it worked!

Bill was a consistent man, one of the few persons I have ever known who completely believed in the consistent ethic of life as set out by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.  Bill’s conservative parishioners who were connected to the coal companies were in a state of constant upset over his social justice activities and fellow-travellers.  And his progressive parishioners shared similar upset when he would march and protest with the pro-lifers at the state capitol in Frankfort.  Bill was adopted and applied his life experience – captured in the question, “What if my birth mother had decided to not give birth to me?” – to his choice which was a consistency for him across the board.

Bill was an inquiring man.  I attributed it to his first love – journalism.  He took advantage of my coming to Floyd County by going on his first sabbatical in 15 years.  He went to Ireland for 6 months.  It was 1980.  The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Protestant establishment were still warring with each other.  Bill decided to go to the North to see for himself.  Over a long weekend he went to Belfast.  What he really wanted to see was Long Kesh Detention Centre with its infamous H Block 7 where the IRA hunger strikers had begun their fast.  He drove to the prison, got out of the car and took some pictures.  Not long after he returned to his Belfast lodgings the proprietor told him he had guests.  In the parlor were two uniformed members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the police force).  They had followed him from Long Kesh and were wondering just what he was doing when he stopped to take pictures of the prison.  He said he was just a tourist to which they responded by asking for his camera, took out the film and exposed it.  Bill’s inquiring spirit came up against the “Troubles” that day and he found a people at war with themselves some of whom see a rebel supporter, if not a militant, in the driver of any car that stops to photograph a prison.

Finally, Bill was a befriending man.  He taught me by the example of applying faith to injustice no matter the source. Many days we sat across the kitchen table from each other as we prayed Morning Prayer.  He let Jean and me know that he would like to officiate our Wedding Mass.  My position vis-à-vis the Roman Church was, shall we say, irregular.  I regarded the laicization procedure no more than a mere organizational fix, so I didn’t do it.  This generous gift of friend-to-friends could have gotten him in trouble.  So, we told him that we didn’t want that to happen.  His response was, “What are they going to do – kick me out?”  Not only did they not do that, he had them over a barrel.  After spending 20 years in what some of his fellow priests regarded as the lost ministry of Appalachia he was the only one who was willing to be Pastor of St. Peter Claver Church in Lexington, the parish for black Catholics (yes, those were the days).  Among St. Peter Claver parishioners he was always respectfully called, Fr. Poole.

The Rev. William G. Poole, our friend Bill, wrapped up his career, among other things, by being a chaplain on cruise ships.  At last, the reward of his labors!

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