On May 22, 88-year-old Hacienda Heights resident Andy Black saved the best for last, or, it could be said, saved the first for last: he was baptized as a Catholic at American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach. As interesting as it is for someone to be baptized so late in life, Black’s baptism was made even more special by the fact that he received the sacrament along with his 5-month-old great-grandson William O’Connor.
“I thought that would really be cool if I could get baptized with my great-grandson,” says Black of the unique occasion. “[Msgr. John] Barry [of American Martyrs] gave me a lot of information on what I should do to be a good Catholic and make sure my last few years are good ones. So that’s what I’m gonna do.”
When Black first expressed this intention to his family members two months ago, they were as shocked as they were delighted. “My father never expressed anything about wanting to become Catholic,” states Black’s daughter Darla O’Reilly, whose husband Terry O’Reilly served as her father’s sponsor at the ceremony. “It’s something I never, ever would have predicted in my life for my dad to say he wanted to be Catholic. He’s obviously in the learning phase, but he seems really comfortable with everything. He’s really embraced it.”
“We were all just really surprised when we heard that he wanted to be baptized and had been giving this some thought,” echoes Black’s granddaughter Terren O’Connor, baby William’s mother. “It wasn’t something he had vocalized to us. We’re really excited for him. It’s really heartwarming because he’s so into it. He’s really passionate about it. It’s very touching.”
Born in San Francisco in 1927, Black wasn’t particularly religious as a youth, and while “my mother would occasionally dress me up for church and away we’d go, I never really absorbed it,” he recalled in a phone interview prior to his baptism. That began to change dramatically, however, when his daughter Darla married Terry, who came from a very Catholic background, and she subsequently chose to convert to Catholicism. “I have an awful lot of love for [Terry], and the way he treats my wife and kids,” shares Black.
“I just admire them tremendously. I came to admire the whole church scene, and it kind of swayed me,” he said.
It was during a conversation with Terry two years ago at a reception following the baptism of his great-granddaughter Josephine that Black conveyed any inkling of interest in Catholicism.
“He asked me, ‘What does it take to become a Catholic?’” recalls Terry. “And at the time, I thought he was just passing the time with me at the table. I really didn’t put it together that he was actively thinking about doing that.” But Andy wasn’t just making conversation; he was making a plan. And his first step was reaching out to Msgr. Barry for counsel.
“[Msgr.] Barry gave me lots of books, lots of reading,” says Black. “I exposed myself to a lot of information, and I don’t have it all down by any stretch of the imagination, because it’s difficult information to absorb. [But] I hit it with a fervor and really impressed him. I got through most of it three times!” Then, while on vacation two months ago, Black approached Terry about being his sponsor, much to his son-in-law’s delight.
“On the one hand it surprised me that he wanted to become a Catholic, but in another way, it really doesn’t because Andy always wants to move in a positive direction,” says Terry of his father-in-law. “Andy impresses me in that he continues to evolve. He continues to take on new challenges and isn’t afraid of them.”
“He’s just a really remarkable guy; when he sets his mind to something, he’s just going to do it,” adds Terren O’Connor of her grandfather.
Black, a Navy veteran, boasts a strong track record of setting his mind to a goal and completing it. Take, for instance, the fact that in his lifetime, Black has quit both smoking and drinking cold turkey. Or that just a few years ago, in order to continue playing golf and tennis, two of his favorite physical activities, he underwent a surgery to have both shoulders replaced, a procedure that Darla views as a major turning point in her father’s path to becoming a Catholic.
“My stepmom had everyone praying for him for his shoulder surgery,” recalls Darla. “And he said to me, ‘I knew they were praying for me. I felt it. I felt so good. I just had this feeling that I knew.’ Whatever it was, the Holy Spirit, something, I think he was feeling this sense of God in his life, and so I think that was part of his calling as well.”
That calling culminated May 22, with Black sharing the altar with his great-grandson to receive the sacrament of baptism. And while the avid golfer is aware that he is on the back nine of his life at nearly 90, he welcomes the baptism as exactly what it’s intended to be: a new beginning, a fresh start.
“When little kids like William get baptized, they don’t remember it; they don’t have a lifetime of sin like I have had,” notes Black with a laugh. “I’m going to overwork the Church with it; they’re not going to be able to forgive me in one or two days! I think I’d have been a better person had I been a Catholic [my whole life]. I’ve lost most of my friends; I come from an age when everybody smoked and an awful lot of us drank. I want to make some more friends in the Church.”
Darla, herself baptized as an adult, is ecstatic about her father getting baptized. “We were joking on the phone yesterday; my dad said, ‘I did this right! I can erase 88 years now!’” says Darla laughing. “But for me, being Catholic I always enjoyed the peace and tranquility of going to Mass, and I think it’s made me more tolerant, understanding and open to finding God in different areas in my life. I … hope that my dad finds the same thing. I do think he’s changed a lot. Just the way he acts and his attitude about things. He just seems really sort of at peace and very comfortable with things. And he feels very welcomed by the Church.”
And although Black’s official life as a Catholic began just this week, those close to him agree that his transformation has been in the works for quite some time.
“At Easter, he made a point of wanting to say the prayer and say how much he loved his family,” recalls Terren. “Most of the time he would just defer to my dad and say, ‘Why don’t you just say the prayer.’ He wanted to make sure someone higher up was hearing all the things he’s appreciative for, as well as everyone at the table.”
“Andy has always been a good person, a strong person,” adds Terry. “But he’s had some adversity in life and I’ve seen him kind of get over that in a positive way. The relationship with his wife and children was not as close as it is today. He has shored up the relationship with all his family members, including his grandchildren. It makes me feel so warm inside to think that this is something that is happening to our family.”
For Black and his family, the timing is perfect. “It’s something I’ll always look back on and be really appreciative to have gotten to be a part of it,” states Terren. “That I got to see my grandfather join a church that has meant so much in my life, and that will hopefully mean the same to my kids. It’s something that we’ll get to tell our son Will and our daughter when they’re older about how neat it was that my grandfather lived his whole life, and is now making a choice to do something that he sees value in. I think it’s really neat to see someone at his age choose that he really wants to be a part of that community.”
“I think it’s such a blessing,” adds Darla. “I feel as though it’s such an unusual situation, it feels like divine intervention. It’s so unbelievable that the timing was such that they could do this together
“And for Will, when he’s all grown up and looking at the pictures, knowing, ‘Oh my gosh, my great-grandfather who was 88 years old was baptized the same day as me, and that was his choice. What a really special day that must’ve been for me.’ And I’m sure my dad feels the same way about being baptized with Will. How very fortunate; the timing couldn’t have been picked out any more perfectly.”