April, 2018|In early January, I returned to that familiar church in northeast Nebraska—the same church I attended as a child. Together with family and friends, we said goodbye to my dad.
“This was his church,” I remember thinking. “These were his people.”
Raymond Avidano was the minister of that little church in Albion, Nebraska, and throughout his career, seven other churches in the area. He was, and still is, cherished by everyone who knew him—including those who opposed his progressive theology. Dad's life and work changed many lives, including my own.
Looking back at his story, which I hope you will now read, I am touched by his devotion to serving others, his courage to follow his heart, and his ability to provide comfort to the marginalized and the suffering.
Drawn to Ministry
Born in Queens, New York, August of 1938, Dad was drawn to ministry at an early age. With a strong interest in religion and faith that originated in Catholic elementary school, he entered St. John’s Atonement Seminary in Montour Falls, New York before the age of twenty.
Dad's experience in seminary was anything but carefree. After one year in Montour Falls, he transferred to the novitiate in Rhode Island (the novitiate is period of training that one undergoes prior to taking vows—to determine whether he or she is called to vowed religious life).
Rules at the novitiate were strict. In his book Pocket Faith, Dad describes the novitiate as a test of character and self-determination: Mail was monitored and opened before being delivered. There was no leaving (unless you decide to not be a priest), no newspapers, television, or radio. My days in seminary consisted only of prayer, work, and silence.
A sense of isolation and an awareness that his life was on trial continued for three more years in Graymoor, a monastery in upstate New York.
A Small Part in Civil Rights
1963 was a defining year of the civil rights movement. It was, of course, the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech. Earlier that same year, my dad began his theology graduate studies in Washington D.C.—where he participated in a silent, interfaith demonstration for civil rights. For twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three seminarians—one Catholic, one Protestant, and one Jewish—stood shoulder to shoulder before the Lincoln Memorial. This moral crusade for racial equality caught the attention of the press and lasted for another three years.
While he knew others contributed much more, his small part in the Civil Rights Movement influenced him for the rest of his life.
The Priest in Brazil
In 1967, following his ordination, Dad was given the opportunity to work in Brazil as a priest in an area that did not have one. One of the most uplifting stories that came from his six-year mission in Brazil is about a baby boy named Vicente—born in a grass shack to parents too poor to raise him. Desperate and without options, Vicente's parents asked Dad to help them find a family willing to raise their son.
Back in the states, a couple once asked dad to let them know if there was ever a chance to adopt a child. For six months, Dad brought Vicente slowly from village to village, finally arriving in Brasilia, where an American nun returning to the U.S. agreed to bring Vicente to New York City. Dad's parents and Vicente's new parents met him at the airport. Vicente grew up with his new siblings on Long Island.
Dad's work in Brazil was cut short when he was unintentionally poisoned during a religious retreat. A cook who was unable to read or write added arsenic to the dessert, mistaking it for Jell-O. This ill-fated incident made it necessary for Dad to return to the U.S. where it would take weeks for him to recover.
In summer of 1972, he was offered a year of studies at the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas—an opportunity for him to learn Spanish and Mexican Culture, while preparing him to work with Hispanics in American parishes.
The Priest and the Nun Fall in Love
While on sabbatical in San Antonio, Dad met a beautiful young nun from Nebraska. Mary was sent by her superiors to the Mexican American Cultural Center to learn Spanish, a new requirement for pastoral ministry in western Nebraska.
What began as an innocent walk around a lake, turned into a love that would last a lifetime. Following their hearts, Mom and Dad both requested release from their vows so they could begin their life together. Mom's vows were immediately released, while Dad's first request for dispensation was rejected.
Love knows no limit to its endurance, so Dad contacted a priest friend who agreed to perform their wedding.
New York to Nebraska
For two years, Dad drove a New York City Checker Cab while Mom found work at the American Bible Society in Manhattan. Determined to continue their ministry, Mom and Dad purchased bible tracts and passed them out to the clientele who hailed Dad's cab—a ministry, he said, that needed no approval from any church.
After a second refusal of dispensation from the church, Dad's request for release was eventually granted and their marriage was finally recognized. Their dream was to move to Nebraska and live on the same farm where my mother was raised. Her father was born there and her grandfather homesteaded that land in 1881. This, too, is where I would spend the first nine years of my life.
With little money and a small trailer packed with their worldly belongings, Mom, Dad, and their first two children—one born and one adopted—left New York and headed west.
The Avidanos first settled in Wisner, Nebraska where Dad worked on a farm and had his first experience raising livestock and driving a tractor. Farming was something he had always wished to try. Another child was born to them at this time. It took several years before my parents were able to purchase Mom's family farm near Ord, Nebraska—their original destination.
Becoming Pastor Ray
On the farm, Mom and Dad's family continued to grow with the birth of my second older brother in 1979 and myself in 1981. Dad was a farmer and was working with the developmentally handicapped when he received a phone call from a Protestant church in Albion, Nebraska. The man on the phone asked Dad if he would preach in three churches the following Sunday.
Dad thought he was filling in for their pastor who was away, but soon found out these churches had no pastor and needed one or they would be forced to close. After weeks of serving these churches as an interim pastor, he was offered a full-time position. Dad explained that he was ordained Catholic and surely the church leaders would object. They were not concerned and he accepted. For the first time in years, his life's work was validated and valued.
For the rest of his life, my dad served others as a gifted pastor for the communities around him. He conducted countless baptisms, weddings, and funerals. He met with people during their final hours and comforted families coping with loss. He was a loving husband and compassionate father. He loved animals the way he loved people, and he always stood up to injustice.
In many ways, my dad (and mom) influenced the work that I do—and the life that I live today. How grateful I am for the awareness that Dad's legacy will guide me for the rest of my life.