About noontime last Saturday, phones started ringing across northeast Baltimore. Friends told friends the news, "The Monsignor died this morning."
The Monsignor was John V. Ballard, who only days before had retired as pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower at Belair Road and Brendan Avenue. He was a man beloved all along the Belair Road corridor. His church, rectory, school and convent seemed to hold the Little Flower neighborhood together. It isn't often that a church imparts its name to a neighborhood. But this particular fieldstone church atop a hill overlooking Herring Run christened the streets and rowhouses of the neat and orderly old-fashioned neighborhood.
The Monsignor was 73 when he died a death he had known was coming. His lungs were in bad shape. He walked with oxygen tanks. He had written Archbishop William Keeler some weeks before to say the parish would be blessed if a new pastor succeeded him.
Friday night, Monsignor Ballard had what turned out to be his last dinner at the Little Flower rectory. Friends and family members then drove him out Dulaney Valley Road to Long Crandon, the retirement home for Catholic priests on the grounds of the old Lanahan estate. He did not fight the move. He slept the night at Long Crandon and died there the next morning. He was away from his Little Flower parish for less than 12 hours.
Throughout the parish, on Shannon Drive, Cardenas, Parklawn, Ramona, Eierman and Chesterfield avenues, his parishioners had watched his health decline. In better days, and for much of his 23 years at Little Flower, the Monsignor was a visible priest, out in the neighborhood, at the bank, the barber shop, the drugstore. He had time for everyone along the way. People repeated a hundred times, "You'll never know all his kindnesses."
He loved his church and parish buildings. The oak doors and pews were always trim and varnished. The altar's candles flickered brilliantly. Spotless satin covered the tabernacle. The parochial school -- from its pre-kindergarten class through its eighth grade -- reflected his belief in the powers of education.
The Monsignor was a big man, tall, with a stentorian voice that needed no microphone. Some thought of him as a kindly grandfather. Others as a hearty, cheerful man whose door was always open. Still more sought his clear-sighted advice. Everyone agreed, "You always knew where you stood with him."
His close friends called him Jack Ballard. They knew his love of reading. His personal library was so large he cleaned it out once a year to make room for more books. He also loved classic films, opera and symphonies.
One of his great joys was his choir of neighborhood residents who couldn't necessarily read music. Yet they consistently produced glorious sounds while performing works by such vocal taskmasters as Gustav Holst and Francis Poulenc. The Monsignor loved the bright toccata composed by Charles-Marie Widor. Organist Michael Britt played it this week as the Monsignor's coffin was carried from Little Flower church.
The Monsignor hated personal publicity and praise. He consistently avoided them. When the parish organized a tribute on the occasion of his retirement, he tried to fight it. When the day came, he somehow found a reason why he couldn't make it.
Monsignor Ballard probably would have not approved of his own funeral. Every pew in the church was filled. There were two archbishops, three bishops and scores of priests, monks and nuns in attendance. And what seemed like every family in Little Flower.
The choir never sounded so eloquent. And when the words "May the angels lead you into paradise" were sung, many knew their good Monsignor already had taken up residence there the previous Saturday morning.