‘Fr. Hesburgh was a living saint’


To me, Fr. Hesburgh was a living saint. What he’s done his whole life of being a priest is no different than what Mother Teresa did in her life as a nun. To me, he’s the godfather of the Civil Rights Act.

What he’s done with personalities and how he can just motivate you to be more than what you think you can be mentally, physically and spiritually by his own example, but always his words of wisdom to individuals gives them the energy to make change in the world that needs change — no matter if it’s poverty, war, health issues, whatever.

He did that with President José Napoleón Duarte of El Salvador. Duarte and his brother came to Notre Dame in the late 40s and came up by train through Central America, Mexico, and they ended up in Fr. Hesburgh’s dorm because he could speak Spanish.

And then I want to say after Duarte graduated, there was a universal Notre Dame night down in Panama City, Panama. Fr. Hesburgh was there. And he saw Duarte and said, ‘Nappy, what are you doing?’ He says, ‘Well, I’m a civil engineer back home in my country.’ Hesburgh looked at him and said, ‘No, it’s time for you to take your country and lead it out of that dictatorship and communism and bring in democracy.’

So Nappy decides to start a revolution. He gets captured. But yet they pull off the revolution, and they bring in democracy. He gets elected president. And Duarte told that story in the early 80s at a commencement ceremony where Fr. Ted gave him an honorary doctorate.

He and I have been close. He was on the bench for eight games in my 20 years as the game priest, would say Mass and then with the medals, bless them, give them to the players and then put himself in the position to sit on the bench during games. Fr. Joyce would always say Mass for the UCLA home games but never sit on the bench.

So Fr. Ted goes 8-0 and beats No. 1 DePaul in double overtime. Orlando Woolridge made two free throws to seal the deal. I’m walking with him off the court, put my arm around him, and I said, ‘Fr. Ted, boy a lot of prayers to get through this.’ He said, ‘Yeah, Digger, I was running out of Hail Mary’s.’ He always had that sense of humor to do things with you and get you going.

What I became was from coaching basketball, he got me coaching the streets to implement the Civil Rights Act to a lot of these people who didn’t not only know and understand that there’s a way out of poverty.

We’ve stayed close all those years, and he’s been good to me. I’ve survived two cancers — prostate cancer and bladder cancer. And when I went to get a blessing before my bladder cancer surgery, he gave me a blessing and looked at me right in the eyes and said, ‘Have the courage,’ which I wrote down on that date, and I have it in my wallet. That was April 23, 2013 — 3:10 p.m. I went and saw him and got a blessing.

I went to Mass Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. I saw him Thursday, and I said to him, ‘You’re the guy that put the Civil Rights Act, and you’re the one that got me coaching the streets.’ And he said, ‘I want you to do something for me.’ And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Keep coaching the streets.’ I said, ‘I want you to do something for me.’ He looked at me, and I said, ‘I want you to do what you told me when I went in for my prostrate cancer — have the courage.’ I was still praying for him to live, get through this and go another six months maybe.

I guess I’d say I’m a disciple of Hesburgh. He believed in this place. He made it coed. That was one of his goals.

It’s a sad time because he touched so many people in so many different ways. And I was just fortunate to be one of those people. When I say I’m a disciple of Hesburgh because I just believe in what he did spiritually and what he did in his own life and how he did with outreach and go after certain issues — no matter if it was poverty or the Civil Rights Act.

It was sad yesterday. There’s a bunch of us in his inner circle, we’d go to Parisi’s six or seven times a year so he could have his alfredo sauce because he and Pope Paul VI used to go to Alfredo’s Restaurant where it originated in Rome, about four or five blocks from the Vatican. And we’d have a night together, and that’s where I could get him to talk about issues or events or his life. We just bonded and just stayed close. What he wanted done from civil rights, I went out from coaching basketball to coaching the streets.

What he has been in my life, especially spiritually, and that’s why I just say, ‘Hey what Mother Teresa was as a nun, he was as a saint.’ She was a living saint, and so was he.

So hopefully some day Rome recognizes that and the Vatican makes him a saint.

Digger Phelps

Former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach