Writer Tony Deyal pays tribute to Fr Peter de la Bastide CSSp
“Don’t let your worries get the best of you. Remember, Moses started out as a basket case.” This was the kind of joke that my friend Fr Peter de la Bastide loved, both to hear or tell. Or “Forbidden fruits create plenty jams for a lot of people.”
The one I have in mind as I write this article in memory of Fr Peter is, “Why did the mushroom have so many friends?” Because he was a fungi!
This is why the likes from him for my weekly column every Saturday grew into a friendship punctuated, and sometimes even punctured, by jokes and puns. In that sense, he was a fun-guy.
The last time he was in touch was via WhatsApp. I had written a column named ‘Ship Talk Back In Town’ about my difficulties in clearing some cargo sent to me by my friend Keith. It took so long to arrive that I used the old children’s joke for how I felt. “Mr Smith ship sink, Mr Smith ship sink…” What sank to, or through, the bottom was not Mr Smith’s ship but my hopes of getting it done quickly.
Peter sent me this as comfort, “What you did for your friend Keith is most commendable and courageous, especially knowing the botheration you were going to encounter. I hope your friend appreciates the cost to you in time, heat, no pee, expenditure, and general discomfort. A Nestlé Coffee is hardly adequate compensation. But as you are always able to do you find humour in the situation. The ability to put a smile and chuckle on and in others’ faces and spirits is a divinely blessed gift.” Clearly, this was another Peter on whom any God would be proud to build His Church.
The last time I saw Peter was in a session with the Holy Faith Sisters. I had threatened to write a column dedicated to him because of his sense of humour, down-to-earth approach to God and religion, and easy way of helping people manage the major issues in their lives.
In keeping in touch with him, I recognised the signs of increasing pain and knew that he did not have much longer with us. I decided to dedicate the event to him, and he was stunned. He thought of it as a great honour, and I had to insist it was simple recognition of his uniqueness in his line of work.
This is when I told him why I no longer go to church. My mother had me baptised and when I went to Presentation College, I hid that fact for a while. I never did homework at home. I buried myself in books ranging from Biggles, William (one of my nicknames at the time) and even Fenimore Cooper, but not homework.
I left that for a hasty read in the bus or a rush-job during the first period when the Catholic boys had to go to Religious Knowledge class. Eventually, the ‘Brothers’ found out about my Catholicism and first Confession immediately followed.
We practised the “Bless me father for I have sinned…” with a priest brought to our school for the occasion. I was then expected to go to the Siparia Catholic Church and confess to the priest, Fr Delahunte (whose constant demands for money from the churchgoers made us change his name to “Dollar-Hunt”).
I knelt to share my sins. “Bless me father…” I started and he shouted angrily, “Get on with it! Get on with it! I haven’t got all day…” That was my first and last Confession. It is not true that had I continued, my Confession would have lasted more than a day or two. Perhaps now, yes?
Fr Peter understood. He realised I had learnt for myself that God is not necessarily in the churches but our hearts, minds, souls, and spirits. I told him that I sometimes joke with God as I did with him, and he laughed.
I admitted that in trying to be the best I can be, in the late night before I go to sleep, I sometimes confess that I had not stayed on the straight and narrow path and promised I would try again the next day. Fr Peter agreed it was the best I could do, and I should just keep on keeping on.
Of course, all this was between jokes, puns, and stories. One of my favourites is the joke about himself told by the famous American Evangelist, Reverend Billy Graham.
Early in his ministry when the Reverend arrived in a small town to preach a sermon, he had to mail a letter and asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy told him, Dr Graham thanked the youngster and said, “If you’ll come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to Heaven.”
The boy replied, “I don’t think I’ll be there… You don’t even know your way to the post office.”
I was complaining about the taxi-drivers, not just in Trinidad, but in the entire Caribbean. Then I told the story of a minister who died and was waiting in line at the Pearly Gates.
Ahead of him was a man dressed in dark shades, a fancy shirt, and jeans. Saint Peter (definitely named after my friend) asked the man to identify himself. The man boasted that he was Joe Murphy, the taxi driver from New York.
St Peter checked his list, smiled, and welcomed the man with, “Welcome brother. Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Then it was the Minister’s turn. He said loudly, “I am Joseph Snow, pastor of Calvary for the last 43 years.” St Peter consulted his list. He told the minister, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Minister was upset. “That man was a taxi driver, and he got a silk robe and golden staff, and I am a Pastor and only get cotton?”
Peter straightened him out, “Up here, we work by results. While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”
I am sure that the best robes were waiting for Peter. I just hope he doesn’t go asking to say hello to the first Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams or, as a former journalist, want to interview him.
The last person who did that got St Peter angry because of the number of ‘Erics’ and people named ‘Williams’ they had up there. St Peter asked the man if Williams had a nickname or anything that would distinguish him from the others and the man replied, “Well we used to call him ‘Bill’ and he tell us that if leaders of the party he founded treated people badly, or stole the people’s money for their own use, he would turn in his grave.”
St Peter smiled happily and said, “Oh, you mean ‘Revolving Bill’!”
Tony Deyal was last seen saying that unlike Fr Peter, most of us want to serve God but only as advisers.