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Faith life at home nourished future archbishop

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2011, issue of The Catholic Northwest Progress.

 Peter Sartain with his sisters and mother in the early 1950s
An infant Peter Sartain surrounded by his sisters and mother, circa 1952.


Whenever the priests at St. Paul Parish were short an altar server for Mass, they’d call the Sartain house. They knew that young Peter would be more than willing to serve, ready at a moment’s notice to hop on his bicycle and pedal the 15 minutes to their church in the Memphis suburb of Whitehaven.

The future archbishop and his father, Joseph, a Memphis pharmacist known for his compassion.

“That’s how we were raised,” said his sister, Sally Hermsdorfer. “Church was real, real important to our family.”

Their parents, Joseph Martin and Catherine (Poole) Sartain, instilled that in them. Though Joseph, a pharmacist, was often away working long hours at his business, the Prescription Shop in Memphis, the rest of the family would gather nightly to pray the rosary in a household consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The children tithed to the parish from their allowance. Peter served Mass and his mother and four sisters sang in the choir.

Summers included daily Mass and visits to the convent or motherhouse where their aunt Camille, a Dominican sister, was staying. Their dad’s good friend was a Franciscan brother.

“So priests, brothers and religious were always welcome to our house,” said Peter, now Archbishop J. Peter Sartain. “So I knew that a religious vocation was something that my parents were very open to.”

The only boy in the family, he was the youngest of the five Sartain children, several of whom also have had careers or vocations in the church. His oldest sister, Marie Looney, nine years his senior, is retired from a 38-year teaching career, including 16 years in Catholic education, six of them as a principal. She and her husband, Charles, reside in Mississippi.

Catherine, now Sister Marian Sartain of the Dominican Sisters of Nashville, is currently her congregation’s secretary and has taught in Catholic schools at the elementary, high school and college levels. Hermsdorfer, who lives in Memphis with her husband, Art, is principal of Immaculate Conception High School in Memphis. Jenny and her husband, Steve, live in Batesville, Ark.

Energy and curiosity
His sisters and aunts said they doted on him from infancy.

“Peter was always just a very, very special child — extremely energetic, enthusiastic about everything,” said his aunt, Margaret (Poole) Vucina.

Long before her nephew began his ascent up the priestly ranks, she watched him scale the furniture around the house during her babysitting days.

“He was a climber,” she said. She recalled how his parents placed the television set out of his reach by putting it high atop a chest of drawers. “But being very intelligent … he stacked up several [footstools] and climbed his way up to the TV so he could turn it on,” she said.

 A young Peter Sartain and his father
The future archbishop and his father, Joseph, a Memphis pharmacist known for his compassion.

The archbishop’s sister, Marie Looney, remembers his penchant as a boy for trying to figure out how gadgets worked. She said their mother used to tell about the time she heard a constant banging noise in a back room. “She said, ‘Peter, what are you doing?’ and he said, ‘Oh, nothing.’ [Then, as the noise continued] she said, ‘What are you doing it with?’ And he said, ‘With a hammer.’”

Of Irish and French ancestry, the Sartain family first resided in St. Thomas Parish in Memphis, which included many devout Italian Catholics. They moved to the suburb of Whitehaven when the future archbishop was about six years old.

“We had a happier childhood than most kids,” Hermsdorfer said. “Our parents were extremely committed to each other, extremely committed to the church, and absolutely committed first and foremost to us kids.”

Their father, a World War II Navy veteran whose nickname, Pete, may have been drawn from silent-era movie star “Cowboy Pete,” was known for his pharmaceutical skill at making effective lotions such as acne medications. He also was a compassionate man who would extend credit to a sick customer “no matter how far you were behind on your bill,” Hermsdorfer said.

She said that years after her father’s death, a man came up to her brother and shared the story of how their dad had helped him. He said he was near the pharmacy when he suffered a dizzy spell, so he went inside.

“Dad sized up the problem, knew he had to get him home and take medicine, and shut the store at three in the afternoon and took him home,” Hermsdorfer said.

“They were a deeply religious family but they didn’t wear their religion on their sleeve,” said longtime friend David Wade. “They were a joyous family. I didn’t know their dad, but their mom always had a smile on her face.”

Illness brought tough times
The family fell on hard times when the elder Sartain developed kidney problems, and eventually had to sell his pharmacy business to his partner. He was bedridden near the end, with his wife of almost 30 years as his caretaker. He died in 1972 at age 60, while his son was in his first year in the seminary.

His illness forced Catherine Sartain to look for work outside the home. She became a part-time and then a full-time secretary at St. Paul School, a job she held for more than 30 years. She died in 2005 at age 85.

“When dad was sick they would let her come in late, or she could bring her work home,” Hermsdorfer said. “They absolutely took my mother and my dad [as] part of the parish family, and I will tell you, that example was not lost on any of us.”

Archbishop Sartain said his father’s suffering and death had a profound influence on him. It revealed to him how his father showed endurance in the face of suffering, and “also my mom’s and dad’s faithfulness to one another in his illness.

“It had an effect on my own understanding of suffering in the lives of parishioners,” he said, “and … in the way I minister to people who suffer.”

As hard as it was to see their father suffer, his illness “also built up the faith in the family,” Sister Marian said, “because we prayed for him a lot, and were home with him as well.”

Priest or garbage man?
The archbishop’s siblings, asked if they sensed early on that their brother was on track toward the priesthood, said there were signs of that, though they weren’t sure what line of work he would pursue. Family legend has it that he informed his mother when he was little that he was going to become a priest or a garbage man.

Hermsdorfer remembers him playing Mass on the front porch of their Memphis bungalow before the move to Whitehaven. He’d “say Mass from the top step, and then he would break up crackers and give Communion,” she said.

“He loved to serve Mass,” Sister Marian said of their years at St. Paul’s. “We were so much a part of the parish. He served Mass from the time he was old enough to do it.”

Looney said she wasn’t surprised when she learned he was entering the seminary.

“From the time he was just a little kid, people just always loved Peter,” she noted. “There was just something about him, and I always felt he was meant to do something — to work with people and to be a good influence.”

High school years

 Peter Sartain in high school photo
His high school classmates voted Peter Sartain "Most Likely to Succeed."

His people skills were evident during his years at Bishop Byrne High School, located on the St. Paul campus. The school of approximately 600 students was a year old when the future archbishop entered in 1966.

His high school classmates voted Peter Sartain "Most Likely to Succeed."

A bright student, he was able to fit easily into any group, be it athletic, academic or social, said classmate John Blose, a longtime friend who now runs a contracting business.

“He just sort of transcended all the different groups,” he said. Blose was an athlete. Archbishop Sartain was not.

“And it really didn’t matter,” Blose said. “We all still liked him a lot.” His ability to fit in and “get everybody comfortable” while pursuing his mission with the group has continued to serve him well as a pastor and bishop, Blose said.

The archbishop’s uncanny ability to remember people’s names, birthdays, their children’s names and events in their lives “endears people to him,” Blose said, “because they just feel this bond to him immediately.”

An honor student at Bishop Byrne, Archbishop Sartain was active in the Latin, French, math, drama and glee clubs, among others. In his senior year he won the diocesan CYO oratory contest for his piece on racism, and advanced to the nationals in Washington, D.C.

Father John Atkinson, his CYO moderator during high school, encouraged him to consider the priesthood, recognizing that his intelligence, understanding and compassion for others were good prerequisites for serving God’s people.

“He was always very caring for his fellow students,” Father Atkinson said, “so I knew he had what I thought it would take.” He said the young Sartain was among the students who helped him launch the Search program in the diocese, a weekend retreat for teens.

But after high school, the future archbishop entered Memphis State University. He had been editor of the school newspaper at Bishop Byrne, and he envisioned combining his love for writing and chemistry into a career in scientific writing.

A year later, however, he embarked on his true calling, entering St. Meinrad College and seminary in Indiana.

Father Atkinson drove him there.

Now, as his friend’s installation as archbishop nears, Father Atkinson can only think that Seattle has been blessed.

“To me, God is saying to the church in Seattle: ‘I really love you, and I’m really caring for you, so I’m sending you a true, kind, compassionate shepherd to work with you,’” the priest said. “‘Not [to] be over you — but to work with you.’”

June 5, 2014

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