Story by Michael Hemkendreis
Most all of the priests in the diocese either attended or at least know of the minor seminary called St. Charles Borromeo in Romeoville. The diocese built it with the hope of creating an environment that would be a nurturing milieu for young men considering priesthood. Most of the faculty were priests who lived with the students five days a week. These priests came and left over the years, but there was one man who remained a constant and who grew to be the heart and soul of the place. That man was Quinn Tiritilli. He was our role model, our friend and our mentor. He was the cook.
Quinn was the son of Quirino and Rose Tiritilli. He had a sister by the name of Dora. After high school, he was drafted into the army during the Korean War, and he worked as a cook in an area that saw conflict. After the war, he worked at Carson’s restaurant in Chicago, where he met his wife, Marianna. Quinn once told me that she was an elevator operator in the store and that he “found a lot of excuses to ride that elevator.” Quinn became the cook at the school when it opened in 1965, and he remained there for the next 31 years. Quinn passed away late last year, and it is very important for me and many other alumni of St. Charles to say something about this man’s life.
Sometimes the right person takes on a role that is just so perfect that over time it becomes unimaginable to think of anyone who could have done it better. It was just meant to be. Who else but Churchill could have lead England during the war? How impossible would it have been for someone other than Bing Crosby to sing “White Christmas”?
Quinn was not a head of state, but he wielded real power over the formation of the seminarians. He was not a singer, but his everyday mangling of any song that popped into his head was like a lullaby for the seminarians who ate at his tables every day. Who among the alumni can forget his rendition of “All we are saying is give peas a chance” or the ever popular “Peelings, all I ever get are peelings”?” (Of course Quinn would have disagreed about the singing. “What do you mean I am not a singer? I am singing, and you are listening aren’t you?”)
There’s a famous quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who said: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Quinn possessed a frenetic joy that infected the place and informed the young seminarians. They wanted to be around him whenever they could. I remember the day Quinn decided to join a school trip to a local roller rink. We all snickered and tried to picture what a sight Quinn would be on skates. As Quinn often reminded us, he was not a skinny cook. I remember making snide remarks about his center of gravity. Quinn turned out to be a vision as he spread his arms, stretched his right leg back and sailed like a bird, thoroughly enjoying having surprised us.
But it wasn’t just his joy, it was his genuineness.
I am way too old to have a handle on what young people consider “cool” today but I am guessing that some things haven’t changed. To a teenager, cool can mean a teacher who breaks the boundaries and commiserates in an adult-like relationship. Cool can also mean just the opposite, and it describes a teacher who maintains the adult role and a strong commitment to teaching. These are the adults who we want to make proud of us.
Quinn didn’t fit into either category. He was just Quinn. He was the same with everyone. He loved to play at his work and be playful with the students but he was also the adult with boundaries who would give a student a good tongue lashing when it was appropriate. “What kind of knucklehead are you? How can you be so self-centered? My God, you are going to be a priest! ”
Unbelievably, seminarians would wander into the kitchen to help prepare dinner. Can you imagine teenage boys volunteering to do kitchen work? We wanted to be near him. Often, alumni returned to sit in the kitchen to have coffee with Quinn. They still needed him to be proud of them. To this day I am not sure if Quinn ever fully appreciated his influence on the students. He was always self-deprecating, and he seemed to be truly humbled by having the opportunity to help in the formation of future priests. Quinn loved us, and we knew it.
Each year Quinn was in charge of putting together a meal called the “Alti Christus” banquet. It was a major fundraiser for the school. Quinn trained us in the art of place settings, serving/clearing and good conduct. These banquets were a major undertaking, and I vividly recall working in the kitchen during a particularly busy moment. Suddenly Quinn grabbed my shoulder and shouted at me over the din and said, “I don’t know what you are going to do in your life, but you’re going to be good at it! When you are 15 that is pretty much everything. I called Quinn many times over the course of my life to let him know how I was doing.
Truth be told, I also still wanted him to be proud me.