Los Angeles Times
Saturday, June 19, 1999

Serving God With Humor

Priest Has Spent Nearly 57 Years Spreading Faith

By ELAINE GALE, Times Staff Writer

You may not expect to see photographs of cheerleaders or hundreds of stuffed animals--including many versions of Snoopy--in the office of an 83-year-old priest. But Msgr. John Sammon is hardly the stereotype of the crusty cleric tucked away in an office full of dusty statues of the Virgin Mary and framed photos of himself standing with the pope.

Although Sammon does have his share of complaints about today's youth and a lack of respect running rampant in American culture, his spry spirit belies his age and his occupation.

The oldest Roman Catholic priest in Orange County, Sammon continues to work tirelessly out of his eclectic office at the diocesan headquarters in Orange, where he's served as vicar for pastoral and community affairs since the Diocese of Orange was formed in 1976.

Sammon has been spreading the word of God throughout Southern California for nearly 57 years. He moved from the East Coast to begin work in his first parish, Our Lady of Victory in Compton, on July 1, 1942.

He then toiled in parishes all over Los Angeles County, including Santa Monica and Malibu, where he was an administrator. He was transferred to Orange County in 1960 and served as the priest of St. Cecilia's Church in Tustin for 16 years.

"Outside of the bishop, he would probably be the second most noticeable Catholic in this diocese," said Father Steve Sallot, rector of Mater Dei High School, a diocesan Catholic school in Santa Ana.

Sammon's calling card in the spiritual community is his quick wit. Everybody seems to have a story about Sammon, about his one-liners when he's giving a benediction, invocation or speech.

"He's one of the most fun people you could ever be around," said Tom Thorkelson, a former Mormon bishop and vice president of the Newport Mesa Irvine Interfaith Council, which Sammon helped found in the 1970s. "He has a relationship with God that is fun and at the same time, not disrespectful."

Sammon's work within the county is extensive. Besides serving as a chaplain to police and fire departments--a special cause of his--he's also worked with the Orange County Burn Assn., the Sierra Club, Catholic Daughters, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

"He's great with old people, little kids and everybody in between," said Sallot, 45, who grew up in Sammon's Tustin parish and cites him as his biggest influence in becoming a priest. "They see the natural honesty and openness that he has, and they respond to it."

Sammon's large office is a wall-to-wall collage of stuffed Snoopy characters, footballs and toys, photographs and plaques and cards of appreciation. In fact, plaques of appreciation for Sammon got so out of hand that a secretary gave him one that said: "Just Another Plaque."

He has a photograph of himself sitting on Santa's lap, his wrinkled face grinning at the camera from behind his glasses. Then there's another photo of Santa sitting on his lap. Near those are a black-and-white shot of Sammon surrounded by scantily clad cheerleaders--he jokingly calls them "Sisters of the Holy Habit"--taken when he served as chaplain for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s.

"Humor is extremely important. It's a way of releasing stress and tension," Sammon said. "It's not just telling jokes, it's being willing to laugh at yourself and at other people."

Indeed, he studies humor, starting with reading the comic strips every morning--religiously--for use in his sermons and his sundry speaking engagements. He has an extensive Snoopy collection-- hundreds of them, in the form of stuffed animals, music boxes or stationery--that started growing after parishioners found out about his love of the comics.

Someone even alerted Charles Schulz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip, to Sammon's love of Snoopy, so he drew one just for him, a black-and-white sketch of the famous dog wearing a fire hat, in honor of Sammon's work with fire departments.

To the interfaith community, Sammon's genius is in his ability to loosen people up and not make religion oppressive or heavy.

"Religion for him is fun, his life is fun and his relationships are fun," Thorkelson said. "He can crack jokes at you and ridicule your own faith, yet it's not offensive at all."

Another group that Sammon founded was the local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice. "He has been the Roman Catholic voice of conscience in the community," said William A. Shane, executive director of the county chapter, calling Sammon an interfaith pioneer in Orange County.

Sammon was ahead of his time in his ecumenism, according to many local church leaders. Sallot said one of the reasons is that Sammon understands what it's like to be in a minority.

"In the 1960s, there was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in Tustin," Sallot said. "But he reached out to the community and turned that around."

Sammon said he had always known he was going to be a priest. His dad, a maintenance worker in a Catholic hospital in Pittsfield, Mass., encouraged his son to become a priest and attend seminary.

"My parents were very supportive, even though it meant moving so far away from them," he said.

Sammon said he's worried about young men answering their calling to the priesthood and tries to give them encouragement--like the support he got as a young man on his way to California.

"I tell them to realize they have an important role to fill," said Sammon. "I tell them to be themselves, to be prayerful and to not lose a sense of humor, which is a real special blessing."

Sammon studied sociology and philosophy at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., then graduated from St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.

After beginning his work in Southern California, Sammon would take a train across the country to spend his three weeks a year of vacation visiting his family in Massachusetts.

"There weren't planes back then," he said, smiling and tapping his big hands--speckled with age spots--on his wooden desk.

Sammon remembers living in Los Angeles when there was only one freeway, just "that little one" from downtown to Pasadena. He remembers when Knott's was a quaint restaurant in Orange County where he used to wait in long lines to buy cherry jelly.

He said he also remembers a time when religion was more a part of people's lives, when there was a palpable reverence for God and respect for others.

"Principles that were honored before are ignored now," said Sammon, who doesn't like today's fast-paced lives and information overload. "God is just a visitor on the weekends now."

His heart is entrenched in the community here, he said, and he won't retire. He will continue his interfaith outreach, his humanitarian efforts, his work with children, being a chaplain with the fire department and visiting the sick or infirm in hospitals.

"I love what I'm doing," he said, balancing himself on his cane. "I'll stay doing what I can, as long as I can. I don't want to give it up. I've enjoyed every single day."

 

The casket of Msgr. Sammon arrives at the Crystal Cathedral on Engine 55. The fire engine was driven by grandnephew Mike Tooley, an engineer for the Orange County Fire Authority.
(Allen J. Schaben / LAT) Nov 30, 2006

Msgr. John Sammon, Orange County's oldest priest and a former fire and police chaplain for more than 60 years, was eulogized Thursday during a memorial service in Garden Grove.
(LAT)

Orange County Sheriff and police officers bow their heads in prayer during the memorial service for Sammon.
DIV class=pg_credit>(Allen J. Schaben / LAT) Nov 30, 2006

Officers salute during the tradition of the ringing of the bell, which is three sets of three rings to signal the end of an emergency and return to quarters.
DIV class=pg_credit>(Allen J. Schaben / LAT) Nov 30, 2006

Fire Captain Steve King, of the Orange Co. Fire Authority, holds Sammon's Chaplain's helmet.
(Allen J. Schaben / LAT) Nov 30, 2006
 
Los Angeles Times
Friday, December 1, 2006

Firefighters, police remember Msgr. Sammon

The O.C. chaplain who went to work carrying a Bible and an emergency radio is eulogized as a man who brought comfort and 'was a part of our families.'

By MIKE ANTON, Times Staff Writer

He never manned a hose, wielded an ax or rushed into a burning building to save a life. Yet on Thursday, John Francis Sammon was memorialized in a manner befitting a fallen firefighter.

Hundreds of current and former firefighters and police officers packed the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove to remember Sammon, a Roman Catholic priest who for more than 60 years counseled the victims of disaster and supported those whose job was to confront it across Southern California.

Msgr. Sammon, who went to work carrying a Bible and an emergency radio, died last week at age 90.

"He was always there in the most trying of times," said Chip Prather, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority.

"His sense of humor would pop out at just the right moment. No matter how tense the situation, him being there meant that everything was going to be OK."

Beginning in Compton in 1942 and later in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Orange County, Sammon volunteered as a chaplain to an ever-growing roster of police and fire agencies.

"He not only prayed for us, but he prayed with us," said Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who recalled Sammon speaking at his Sheriff's Academy graduation in 1976. Years later, the monsignor was there to offer support when some deputies died in the line of duty.

"He was a part of our families," Carona said. "Whenever we needed him, he'd be there for us."

Sammon had a police badge and wore a helmet and firefighter's jacket. He often showed up before the red trucks did, causing some to wonder about his communications system.

"People started saying I get my calls from above," he once said.

Through the decades, he became an institution, and then a legend, as indispensable as water to generations of firefighters.

"I think he looked at all of us as his children," said Kevin Nida, president of the California State Firefighters' Assn., an organization for which Sammon, naturally, was chaplain.

"There is no more noble work than to help those who help others."

Fire sirens frightened Sammon when he was a child growing up in Pittsfield, Mass. By the time he attended seminary in Maryland, that fear had transformed into an admiration for those who risked their lives to help others.

Sammon found a calling and began showing up at fires -- so many, in fact, that he was questioned by authorities who suspected he was an arsonist, said Mike Tooley, his grand-nephew.

It was a funny story, one that fit the sly humor of a man known as a practical joker who filled his office with stuffed animals, a model train set, bowls of candy and Snoopy cartoons.

"Of all the things I remember about Uncle John, it was his attitude," said Tooley, an Orange County firefighter. "It was always positive no matter what the situation. I never heard him say a negative thing about anything or anyone."

Tireless, Sammon served as the Orange County diocese's liaison to a dizzying array of groups, including the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, the Knights of Columbus, overseas missions and anti-drug efforts.

Sammon, whose funeral Mass will be today at 10 a.m. at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, presided over so many weddings, funerals, graduations and official dedications over the decades that he became known as the "Vicar of Invocations."

"John Sammon was the best-known Catholic cleric in Orange County," Bishop Tod D. Brown told the crowd Thursday. "And his fame, shall we say, went far beyond the county line."

Perhaps more than anything, though, Sammon will be remembered for presiding over countless tragedies as a beacon of stability amid chaos.

For that, Sammon was given a firefighter's send-off: taps; three sets of three rings of a fire bell signaling the end to an emergency and a return to quarters; and his casket being placed onto the back of a fire engine, which after a moment of silence, drove away with its lights flashing.