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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

November: Remembering All Saints and All Souls

The month of November begins with two important feasts: All Saints and All Souls. On these days we remember in prayer those individuals who, though not formally canonized, led exemplary lives. We remember those individuals who, though not perfect, inspired us by their lives. We remember parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and acquaintances. And we remember individuals like Jim Skerl.  

Mr. Jim Skerl
Mr. Jim Skerl

Jim Skerl was a teacher at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. He died last week of pancreatic cancer. He was 58. Though I never met him personally, I have heard about him from people who knew him well. And I have been moved by their great love and respect for Skerl who the local news station called a “legendary theology teacher.” Skerl was a 1974 graduate of St. Ignatius High School. By all accounts, the 6′ 4″ student was a star basketball player. In college he decided to go into teaching. He began teaching at Ignatius in 1979. Theology. And he continued teaching theology until three weeks before his death. That’s over 35 years! It’s estimated that during that time he taught and/or worked with over 10,000 young men. The scope of his influence was wide. And it was deep.

For Skerl did more than teach theology in a classroom. He showed his students how to live theology with their lives. He learned, for example, that some families were finding it hard to find pallbearers for their loved ones’ funerals. So he started a “club” called the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society. (It was Joseph of Arimathea who claimed Jesus’ body after he died on the cross.) Each year about 300 boys take part in this ministry, serving at funerals with dignity and respect. Terry Pluto, writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, asked, “What kind of man is able to persuade high school kids to attend funerals and be pallbearers for strangers?” But Skerl did. To him, “it was putting your feet to your faith. It was living the gospel of Jesus.” Members of the pallbearer society do funerals all year long for people of all faiths. They have served even for those being buried in the local “potter’s field.”

St. Ignatius students serving as pallbearers for a resident of Cleveland.
St. Ignatius students serving as pallbearers for a resident of Cleveland. (Photo by Keith Mokris)

Skerl started another ministry at St. Ignatius: feeding the homeless. Every Sunday night he, the kids, and other volunteers would begin this ministry with prayer. Then the vans would be loaded with food and taken to the homeless wherever they might be—often under the bridges of Cleveland. Marty Dybicz, one of Skerl’s friends said that Jim never let this service become political—either conservative or liberal. “You worked for Christ,” he said. Skerl also developed and taught a popular and “iconic” course called “Christian Manhood.” (I’d love to see the syllabus!)

Skerl was single most of his life,. Then he met and married Kym in 2006. Though he never had any biological children of his own, says Pluto, “there are thousands of sons who claim him as one of their spiritual fathers.”

Mr. Skerl's last day of teaching, surrounded by the students he loved.
Mr. Skerl’s last day of teaching, surrounded by the students he loved. (Photo courtesy of St. Ignatius)

In February 2013 Skerl was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He underwent surgery and extensive chemotherapy. At first the treatments seemed to be working. But then his cancer returned. Pluto writes, “He never seemed to fall into the trap of asking, ‘Why me?’ He seemed to know that question is something that can never really be answered. Rather, he lived each day with a heart of gratitude.” October 3 was Skerl’s last day of teaching. On that day the students at Ignatius gathered outside in a light drizzle and offered a prayer service and farewell to Mr. Skerl.

The month of November is dedicated to All Saints and All Souls. During this month we remember in prayer and thanksgiving all those individuals who touched our lives—especially our lives of faith. We remember individuals like Jim Skerl.

(Photo courtesy of St. Ignatius)
(Photo courtesy of St. Ignatius)

Does anything in this reflection on Jim Skerl touch you or move you?

Who are the deceased individuals in your life whom you want to remember in prayer and thanksgiving this month?


PS: We have a winner! Last week I received our 2,000th response to my blog. The person who wrote it is Joanne Bennardo from Novelty, Ohio. Joanne is a wife, mother, and grandmother who recently earned her BA in Humanities and Fine Arts from Hiram College. Like me, she loves to write. Joanne has been reading “Sunflower Seeds” for over two years. A copy of my book Everyday Epiphanies is being mailed to her. Congratulations, Joanne! Also: Last week we had the most responses ever to one of my posts. That’s wonderful. Keep them coming!

Also: On Monday I will be speaking on Mary to our candidates in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) here are St. Mary, Chardon. On Friday I will be giving a day for spiritual directors and pastoral ministers entitled “Stories of Life, Stories of Faith” at the Upper Room Spiritual Center in Neptune, NJ. And on Saturday I’ll be giving a few talks at the Spirituality Day at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ. May I once again ask your prayers for these events? Thank you very much!

25 Responses

  1. Sr. Melannie,

    Thanks for sharing Jim’s story. What a beautiful tribute to a teacher who lived his faith so well! I was touched that he was so consistent and persistent in his walk with Christ. The struggle for me is in the day-to-day pathway of carrying my crosses. It is good to see someone live their life so fully to the very end.


  2. What a beautiful tribute. I am remembering my brother who also died from pancreatic cancer. His was only diagnosed 10 days before he passed away. Today I also pray for my Dad who recently died very suddenly.

  3. My sister also died of pancreatic cancer, she lived only 13 days from diagnosis to death; now she lives for eternity with God. I hope she has met Jim Skerl there. Your article about Mr. Skerl filled me with sadness and yet joy as well. One man can, and DID, make a powerful and loving difference!

  4. Beautiful life..touching the lives of so many of his students whom he thought of as his children. I am sure he is being rewarded

  5. What an inspiring example for all of us. I am remembering my two aunts who passed away during the last year–both Catholic role models for me. Thank you for this touching blog.

  6. Such an inspiring story about what ANY one of us can do with our lives & the inspiration we can provide for others. This story touched me deeply.

  7. WOW! This story brings my sister, Mary to mind who died of cancer 2 years ago and was an woman of faith through it all. The story brings sadness and joy, it touched me deeply. Thanks for sharing it so well.

  8. What a beautiful story. It brought back memories of my daughter, a rural family practice physician who died at age 42 of a very rare brain disorder. She was strong in her faith to the very end. I miss her.

  9. I can very much relate to Melannie’s story. Right now in Boston, we are mourning the death of our former Mayor, Tom Menino. He served for 20 years and built up neighborhoods one at a time. He was a real people’s mayor. People from all walks of life, ethnic communities, religions, and economical backgrounds came from all over the city to pay tribute to him. He is one of those uncanonized saints.

  10. Thanks for sharing about Jim Skerl. He was such a wonderful man. Jim has been with the L’Arche Cleveland community for many years helping us out and having students (and himself) come to our houses once a month for meal and prayer together. What an inspiration to me. I remember Larry C. one of the members of L’Arche who would go to Jim’s classes a few times a year and “teach the boys about L’Arche”. Now Larry and Jim are together in Heaven.

  11. This story touched me… I just learned last Monday that my beautiful 43 year old daughter, whom I adopted in the Philippines 44 years ago, only has 4-6 months to live. Her cancer has reached her brain… My heart is filled with love, sadness, joy, wistfullness, emptiness… I pray for a miracle every day…. Please pray for my Kelli…

    1. I will add your precious daughter, Kelli, to my prayers. God bless you, sweet momma, for taking a leap of faith 44 years ago and giving her a beautiful life.

    2. Patti, Be assured of prayers for you and Kelli. May you feel the closeness of the Lord as you walk through this difficult time.

  12. Your article about Jim Skerl was so inspiring. What a difference we can all make in this world to bring Christ to those we meet each day. Let us all take the first step to do just that with Christ leading us where He wants us to go. I enjoy your blog.

  13. Remembering all saints/all souls brings tears close to the surface. The communion of saints helps us live out our days here on earth. Hopefully we are making life easier for each other as they did for us.

  14. Thank you for sharing Mr. Skerl’s life with us. May his family be comforted by the exemplary life he led and the impact he had on his students and faculty.

    Prayers to all our reader’s; especially for Patti.

    Nancy Frederico

  15. How wonderful to belong to the communion of saints!
    Looking forward to seeing you at Georgian Court on Saturday, Melannie.

  16. As a graduate of St. Ignatius High School, I am fascinated by the fact that, despite all the wonderful Jesuits who have influenced generations of students, it took a married layman to inspire the student body to engage in works of mercy that so clearly reflect the Beatitudes of Christ and the discerning ways of St. Ignatius.

  17. Was in NJ last weekend will pray you will touch hearts with your message Joe’s story gave me chills fir a few reasons. 1 we attended a memorial Mass yesterday for a friend who fought bravely against pancreatic cancer. He was an amazing man and we were blessed to know him. 2. After listening and watching the Britaany Maynard story unfold, and the media lies about life with cancer, your story lightened my heart. Thanks Sr Melanie.

  18. The picture of Mr. Skerl on his last day of school reminds me of a picture of Mother Teresa I have…their faces are both radiant…they were both devoted servants. Thank you for telling this story.

  19. dear sister Melannie, There has never been message that you have sent that I did not enjoy and leave me thoughts. This one was particularly relevant to me because I just lost my husband in June. He was a warm,caring,giving person as every one has been telling me. I know that because even when he was on his way home from Dialysis, he would have the driver stop so that he could buy me flowers.He always thought of me first. We would have been married 62 years in August. I miss him s0.

  20. I am a new subscriber having just spent the day listening to you (and praying with you) at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ. Thank you for the insights you gave to leading a life filled with wonder and hope.

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Meet Sr. Melannie

Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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