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Around Home: Death row priest respected, loved at Rockview

A dedicated pastor in his time plays many parts, witness Monsignor Richard J. Walsh, arguably the most unusual priest ever to grace the central Pennsylvania area.
An only child, Father Walsh was born in Tyrone, the son of a conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad. “I’m sort of a hybrid,” he said, adding that he spent his entire 27 year career serving as chaplain at Rockview Correctional Institution in Centre County.
Relaxing over coffee and a bowl of chili at his favorite restaurant, The Bull Pen, Walsh said that he “never took a nickel from the church,” except for a stipend of fifty dollars a month during his first assignment, a six year stint (1944-1950) as assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Altoona under the Reverend Father J. Donald Wagner of Renovo.
Though he uses a cane for “bad legs”, Walsh’s ample shock of crew-cut white hair, spare, wiry frame and kindly but alert grey eyes belie his age of 90 years.
After completing a liberal arts major at Villanova University, Walsh took a degree in theology at Mt. Saint Mary University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was ordained in 1944 in Altoona.
When he checked in back at his home diocese here, Walsh recalls being told “I don’t care where you go” by his superior Bishop Richard Guilfoyle, about his first posting.
Following his service at St. Mary’s Church, Walsh was ordered to report to the state penitentiary at Rockview to serve as chaplain.
That assignment, in 1950, led to Walsh’s self-described “hybrid” status as a Catholic priest doubling as a full-time state employee, or vice-versa, he isn’t sure which.
The straight-talking nonagenarian said he has never seen the pope in person, has never been to Rome, has no real desire to go there and has scant contact with the local clergy. “All the old friends of my day are dead,” he added with a grin and ordered more coffee from a highly attentive waitress.
While serving at the prison under then-Governor Dave Lawrence, Walsh saw the need for an all-faith chapel. “And I’ll get you one,” the governor said and was good to his word.
“Then there was the big riot in the winter of ‘53, which started on a Monday and lasted until Thursday,” Walsh recalled. “Conditions were tense and very dangerous. A few of us went from cell to cell to listen to their gripes, mostly about food. When I convinced the men that, to show we were serious, the attorney general himself would appear, some hostages they were holding were released and things calmed down.
“I got to know the Mafia as well as I knew the FBI,” Walsh said, adding that he’d never heard of “The Godfather” movie but was on close terms with the real thing.
“One time I had to go to Pittsburgh for some reason and a Mafia boss offered to lend me his private plane. I said, ‘No thanks, do you want me to lose my job?”
The prelate recalled another “interesting experience” involving “a fine black woman, very religious,” whose son had been imprisoned and, upon his release, just disappeared. “The mother and his girlfriend asked me to help find the man. I got in touch with a Mafia friend who knew the Hill District… It turned out the guy had gotten a job outside the city as a camp counselor for kids. He changed his attitude about running away when I told him about his mom and girlfriend.”
During the riot, Walsh said he got acquainted with an inmate named Gus, an ex-prizefighter who once fought the great Joe Louis in New Orleans (Gus lost). “He was in B Block at the time,” the priest recalled. “Suddenly, he yelled ‘Hold it!’ and claimed he was having a heart attack. Turned out he was just faking and wanted to be hauled to the dispensary. The last I heard, he’d gone back to his home in Philadelphia and was working as a muscleman in a house of ill repute. I think he’s dead by now.”
The only thing that troubles him about prison chaplaincy, the priest said, was his formal function on Death Row. “ I feel I helped, in a way, to put 15 guys to death. I still feel guilty about it. At the last minute, one guy kept hanging onto me and thought I could save him somehow. He said, ‘Pray real loud so the others can’t hear me.’
“The rules called for six regular witnesses to the execution plus six media people. Anyone summoned who didn’t appear could be arrested. I was able to get three condemned men off by appealing to Governor Leader. I don’t know what happened to the other two but one went on to become the captain of a fishing schooner off the Atlantic coast. Leader lost the next election and I think it was because of those pardons he granted.”
There are two grades of Monsignor, Walsh explained. The highest, he said, is “the one who wears the red cassock, which I’ve got. The lower rank wears a black cassock with a sash and red buttons.
“I’ve got all that kind of stuff hanging up in my closet at home on Lincoln Avenue, but I don’t get involved in Church formalities much anymore. I have for a long time now, been saying Mass every Sunday for an old Methodist preacher friend whom I met here at a ministries’ meeting years ago. And I visit a couple friends at the Epworth Manor nursing home on occasion – a Jewish gentleman who used to own a shoe store here and the widow of the former owner of the Villa restaurant. In fact, I’ve got my own name in for a place at Epworth. I’m talking with my attorney about it now.”
Walsh’s closest companion these days, he said, is a mongrel cat that he rescued from the Humane Society and named Tousch Lanuers.