He was an impressive looking man when I first met him. I was a religious brother then, in the early 1980s. In his seventies at the time, Tony was well-built, robust, sartorial, well-groomed, and rather short; he had a deep voice and mighty big lungs. He knew how to breathe. No doubt he could sing, although I never heard him do so. He seemed like the picture of health for an older man. He was very proud of his daughter, whose beautiful picture he had on the wall in view of his desk. I think she was Miss Haverhill or Bradford, Massachusetts, at one time.
I was thinking of my friend Anthony Yemma this morning so I googled his name and read his obituary. His wife’s name was Jennie and she lived to be ninety-nine, having passed away in April, 2012. I did not know that. Tony died in 1987. His daughter’s name is Carole Jean. I met Mrs. Yemma and her daughter at Tony’s wake. They were charming and embracing and not overly disconsolate. They were Italian and strong in their grief. Tony was strong. Tony was a real gentleman.
Tony was a good man. He confided to me, the first time we met, that he didn’t get to Mass every Sunday. He had a tough life. He told me that before he went into the textile business that he was a traveling salesman. In a way, so was I. That is how I met him.
When I would stop in at his factory, To-Ri Stitching Company in Nashua, NH, he would greet me like royalty. He had about fifty ladies working for him, peddling away at their sewing machines. Tony made sportswear as I remember, fine jackets and shirts and things. He would take me by the arm and walk me out of his office and announce very solemnly: “Ladies, Brother Michael is here again. He has his Catholic magazine. All of you will now fork up two dollars and buy a magazine. If you don’t have the two dollars, I do.” Tony would always give me a check for $100, so, with the ladies’ donations, I’d walk out with quite a lot of money for our cause. I was always embarrassed because Tony would literally “show me off to the ladies” — I think they were all French — and they would giggle. I was young and very Irish looking. I even had a fairly good crop of brown hair on my head back then.
I would visit Tony every year at Christmas time and bring him home-made bread and cookies made by our sisters at Saint Benedict Center. I had a list of benefactors for whom we would do this every year, but To-Ri Stitching was my favorite stop.
In 1987, I went to visit Tony at the factory with another brother. That is when his secretary told me the sad news. Tony had cancer, she informed me, and he was in and out of the office while he was undergoing chemotherapy at the local hospital. She told me that he might be in later that day. We left our confections for Tony and the mesdames and departed. As we walked into the parking lot a cadillac was pulling in. I recognized it; it was Tony. As I waited, a thin, emaciated man slowly climbed out of his car. The chemo had taken its toll. But my friend still had his smile and gracious manner. I promised him the prayers of the religious and, quite shocked — for I had no clue that he was ill — I left.
A couple of months later I received a call from Tony’s wife informing me that he was in the hospital and he was dying. Wasting not a minute I called a priest friend of mine who was a curate at a parish in Haverhill. His name was Father Robert D. Smith, a writer for the Catholic weekly, The Wanderer, and a convert from Anglicanism. He was also the greatest scholar of Shakespeare I ever knew, by the way. His shelves were full of all things written by or about the “Bard of Avon.” He was a bit of a recluse, rarely leaving his rectory, but he said he’d be happy to make a sick-call, if I would pick him up. Father did not have a car. I told him I’d be there in an hour and to bring his oils as my friend was dying and he needed Extreme Unction.
We arrived at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts, about three hours after Mrs. Yemma called me. No one was with Tony when we arrived. That was good because I had to tell Tony the truth and I didn’t want to upset the family.
My friend was in a coma, lying in a fetal position, a mere skeleton of a man. I whispered a Hail Mary in his ear and told him that if he could hear me I would begin the Act of Contrition. I repeated it into his ear up close very slowly. I told him that he was dying and that I had brought a priest with me. There was no response. Father gave him conditional absolution, blessed him with holy water, and anointed him with chrism. I looked at him and prayed silently as Father did his work. Then, I said “Goodbye, Tony, I will pray for you at every Mass I attend. Tony, please pray for me in the next life if you can hear me.” Hearing is the last of the five senses to go, I remembered my mother telling me.
I heard some ruffling of sheets as we were half way out the door and I looked back into the room. Tony had pushed his back up off the bed and was turning to see us. In the most raspy voice I ever heard, he uttered the most beautiful words I ever heard. He said, “Thank you!” Then he dropped back down and went back to sleep. I said, “You’re welcome!” And I wiped away my tears as Father and I walked down the hall.
May Tony Yemma, a robust man who loved the Catholic Faith, rest in peace.