I emigrated from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, a long time ago, I have
never been anywhere near the small town of Ellsinore, Missouri, the birthplace
of the late Albert Ray Morlen, barber extraordinaire. Al cut my hair in
his St. Louis shop for at least 30 of the 47 years he did business there.
He may not have been Andy Griffith but he was close to a clone and no one
marketed the glory of his small hometown better than Al. And he did very
well promoting belief in Jesus Christ as well.
His family had owned the only grocery store in Ellsinore back in the
Ď40s and Ď50s. He came to St. Louis looking for work. Finding none, he
went to barber school and never looked back. He was a tonsorial artist
unrecognized as such by most of his customers who were blue-collar men
wanting little more than a trim or a crewcut plus an update on neighborhood
news. Al not only gave them what they wanted but often a more liberal education
as well. His specialty was theology.
Al was a country boy and a Baptist and I was a city bumpkin and a Roman
Catholic but we got along famously over all those years. If no one else
were in the shop, we would discuss the differences in our two faith traditions.
Al never flirted with Catholicism or I with his Baptist faith but when
I first went to him he was convinced Mormons and Catholics were nothing
more than cults and he didnít hesitate to say that. After all, souls were
at stake. Mine in particular unless I saw the light that he turned on every
time I got a haircut.
But after many years cutting my hair, and many long discussions, he
one day told me he had changed his mind. Only the Mormons qualified as
a cult. He had been wrong about the Catholics but he was still not too
fond of all those statues. And since most of his customers were Catholic,
he often had to attend funerals and still could not understand what was
up with all that standing and kneeling. He never knew what was coming next.
I could understand his problem since I had a attended a Baptist wedding
once and we sat for the entire service. Big difference in the mechanics
as well as the substance of the two faiths and not easy to explain, one
It may have been on the same day that Al told me Catholics were not
a cult that he also told me I was "saved," whether I knew that or not.
I knew this was no small thing coming from a Baptist, never mind one as
solid as Al in his faith.
I had spent 19 consecutive years in Roman Catholic schools in Chicago
without ever being told I was "saved," a concept not accepted in Catholicism
in the Protestant sense. But then I had never been tempted to be a priest,
either. So when Al told me I was "saved" and just too dumb to know it,
I took that announcement as a Medal of Honor whether I could wear it or
I demurred vociferously, of course, and said I was always in the process
of being "saved" and hoped I would never fall off that path. I had a history
of many tumbles in my time.
I tried to explain the Sacrament of Penance to him and its biblical
roots but that did not go over well. Nor did Purgatory and Martin Lutherís
throwing the Book of Maccabees out of the Bible in the 16th century because
of its allusion to Purgatory. But it was the doctrine of the Real Presence
in the Holy Eucharist as discussed in John 6: 41-59 that may have made
some impression on him. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his appreciation
of the grape juice and crackers used at his monthly Baptist communion service.
I told Al, however, that despite canards to the contrary, Catholics
believe that the grace of God alone can save someone and that "works" are
not the deciding factor in salvation as some non-Catholics might have you
I added, of course, a reference to 2 James: 14-18 as the proof text
which says "faith without works is dead" and told him Catholics believe
that as well. Without works, faith is moribund, for all intents and purposes,
but Catholics in no way believe works will get you to heaven. Works of
mercy are what you do if you do believe, and you believe as a result of
the gift of faith that comes freely from God. You canít earn faith or heaven
from the Catholic perspective but dying in serious or mortal sin can help
you go to hell. Al didnít agree with that.
Al regularly invoked his belief that faith alone guarantees salvation,
that when one accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior he or she went to
heaven at death. No pit stop in the car wash of Purgatory. He did not buy
into the idea of dying with mortal sin on oneís soul as a means of finding
hell as oneís eternal destination.
As a result, I used to remind him on occasion of a notorious adulterer
in his home town shot to death by an angry husband. Al would always tell
me that if the dead man had accepted Christ, he went to heaven and he thought
legendary Cozy must have done that somewhere along the line. Maybe so,
I said, but if he were a Catholic heíd have a lot of explaining to do,
and we would leave it at that.
I never accepted Alís offer to visit Ellsinore simply because I donít
like to "travel." He told me Iíd be welcome down there as a visitor and
would love the catfish and barbecue but as a Catholic I might want to get
out of town before dark.
In a sense he was joking, of course, but in another sense maybe not
so much. Solid fundamentalists, whether in southern Missouri or elsewhere
in the United States, often have a deep-seated suspicion of papists whom
they view as souls needing to be saved. In contrast, Catholics I know harbor
no great animus toward Fundamentalists with whom we share similar positions
on abortion, euthanasia and other issues in our society today. We disagree
on many things but on core issues there is great similarity whether either
group admits that or not.
I used to read Al's hometown paper in his shop while waiting for a haircut
and I had come to love from afar the people in that area. I would rejoice
when I saw the rare obit in which the deceased "was of the Catholic faith."
I would circle that fact and give it to Al as part of my gratuity on the
way out if only to prove we papists had infiltrated his part of the woods.
I also admired a senior columnist in the paper who at times not only
voiced suspicions of cults (her readers knew who the cults were even if
Al had pardoned one of them) but she also had serious questions about other
Protestant denominations. She was a member of the Church of Christ.
I told Al that as a good Baptist he might not pass muster with the columnist
or perhaps the Church of Christ. I later learned this denomination had
split in two and neither of the two, as I understand it, accepts the theology
of the other. Martin Lutherís 16th century earthquake still has tremors
today with reputedly more than 23,000 sects or ecclesial communities already
established and more being born as disagreements in doctrine occur.
I was often tempted to send the columnist a letter indicating that as
a traditional Catholic who reads her column every week, I felt obliged
to tell her we papists are Christian and believe that Christ is our Lord
and Savior and anything she may have heard to the contrary is buncombe
and balderdash. I never sent that letter. I didnít think that kind of thing
would be helpful in bridging the gap.
Al Morlen was truly one of a kind. Every time I go elsewhere for a haircut
now I think of him. I have met a lot of people cut from rare cloth in Chicago
and St. Louis but no one like Al Morlen, a Christian first and a barber
The man had to emigrate from his beloved Ellsinore, Missouri, to earn
a living and he did that successfully. He reminded me of my parents who
had emigrated from Ireland, circa 1920, to earn a living as well. They
too succeeded, making it possible for the likes of me to pick up a couple
of degrees coming out of a neighborhood where few went on to college. And
like Al making the long hike from Ellsinore, my parents brought their faith
|Donal Mahoney has worked as an editor for U.S. Catholic Magazine, Loyola
University Press, and The Chicago Sun-Times. Retired now, he keeps busy
writing poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Some of his work can be found at
His fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in various publications,
including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina
Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune and Commonweal.
Some of his earliest work can be found at http://booksonblog12.blogspot.com.
His poetry has previously been published in The Irish American Post,
including "Song for Ballyheigue" and "One Celt, Armed" in
the 2009 summer issue, vol. 9, issue 2 click
Meeting Dad Again
by Donal Mahoney
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