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Christmas morning Mass this year was a bittersweet affair. Since I wasn’t in town for the final Sunday Masses of 2012, Christmas morning was the last time I was able to attend services with Father Richard Bollman as pastor of Bellarmine Chapel. I’m still a relatively new member of the parish, so I can’t say that I’ve been around all that long during his 20-year tenure as pastor, but I can say, quite proudly, that it was my relationship with him that drew me to the parish community.

I met Father Bollman back in 2001, immediately after the April riots, at a community forum at what was then St. Agnes Parish in Bond Hill. He was among a small group of concerned citizens who, during those troubled times, came to talk, to share grief and anger, to take the first tentative steps toward building a united city-wide coalition to address the escalating problems between the black community and the Cincinnati police.

At that time, I had been in Cincinnati less than nine months and was a new film columnist with CityBeat, but having lived in the Northeast, I had seen close-up how large urban communities struggled with issues of race and profiling, the tragic loss of life when police actions went awry and the difficult journey toward peace. So I came to the forum with prepared remarks, a move quite honestly that was a bit outside my usual comfort zone. I tend to keep my feelings close to the vest, especially in public settings, but there I was, heading to the mic and as I spoke, less from the page and more from the heart, I looked out over the gathered crowd and was moved by the faces assembled, the searching eyes.

I don’t remember a meaningful call to action as a result of that meeting, but I will likely never forget being stopped by Father Bollman.

He introduced himself and thanked me for my comments. I didn’t know him or his reputation as a member of the Cincinnati clergy, but I sensed that he wasn’t representing anyone other than himself. He invited me to have coffee sometime, to talk more and I said yes, partially out of my own growing openness — inspired, I realize now, by my presence in this new place and the chance it afforded me to be a new person, to take on new challenges — and also because of Father Bollman’s own willingness to open himself to me.

We met, and while the topic of race reared its head, we ventured down other avenues, to film — Father Bollman has a broad love of film and, in unguarded moments, can spend hours talking about new releases — music, and literature. I was so at ease with him that I ended up forwarding an unpublished manuscript to him — my great American novel — which, I told him, tapped into the same vein as the riots. He was eager to read and comment on it, again, from a personal perspective and I found that I wanted to hear what he had to say about it.

We continued to meet, sporadically, over the next few years; often the contact was little more than a brief email, touching base about films, maybe, or news of the day. I invited him to speak at a gathering of young Catholics, to talk about film (The Matrix Reloaded, of all things). I liked knowing that he was in my life, even if only at the periphery.

When I met my wife on Match.com and the relationship sped along toward marriage, I sought him out. I wanted to meet with him, not so much as a priest — we were quite caught up in questions from all sides about our unique inter-faith union — but just as a calm voice above the fray, and he graciously did.

I suppose, looking back, it was inevitable that when I was searching for a new parish, I would end up at Bellarmine. Circumstances seemed to lead me there quite naturally, but in reality it was about my relationship with Father Bollman. I joined the parish because it felt like an extension of him, that same openness and acceptance. I even signed on to the Advisory Committee, within weeks of officially becoming a member of the parish because, I figured, this was the chance to finally, fully connect with him.

And now he is leaving, but I’ve found that I’m less saddened by this than many of the long-time parishioners because this is the nature of my relationship with Father Bollman. We met recently for coffee, and it was like the first time all over again. But this time, walking away, I acknowledged to him, and myself, that he was much more than my pastor. The connection has been there from the start.

Richard Bollman is my friend. (tt stern-enzi)