The paths of Gerald Lawrence Lewis and mine and my family first crossed in the fall of 1962 when Fr. Lewis was assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Raleigh, and I happened to attend a Mass there. The first meeting occurred three years later on January 17, 1965, when Fr. Lewis found a newly wed couple on the front steps of old St. Michael the Archangel Church in Cary. Edward Paul Stahel, II, had married Anne Winn Grimes Williams in Sacred Heart Cathedral the day before, a weekend where a winter storm had dumped eight inches of snow on the Raleigh Area. Unknown to us, Fr. Lewis had attended our wedding ceremony at the invitation of Father John Breunig, who had officiated at the Nuptial Mass. We had arrived at St. Michael’s between the scheduled Masses; and Fr. Lewis recognized us, gave us his blessing and sent us off on our wedding trip and married life.
Five years later, on May 25, 1970, our paths crossed again at the funeral Mass of Margaret Mary O’Donnell Williams, my mother. Fr. Lewis and Fr. Breunig were servers to Msgr. Charles O’Connor, beloved friend of Mother’s, who was celebrant at the Mass. From that point on, our friendship took root and began to grow as our paths crossed more and more.
On September 30, 1972, an event occurred which was a catalyst for the lifelong bond of friendship between us. A paternal cousin of mine, Patricia Ellen Grimes, only daughter and one of two children of Charles and Amelia Grimes, and her boyfriend, were murdered as the couple bicycled on paths along the Neuse River east of Raleigh. The Grimes family was Catholic but had been inactive in the practice of their faith for many years. The lack of a home church only exacerbated the horrendous trauma Tricia’s parents knew.
When Ed and I arrived at the Grimes house that evening, we found devastation so profound that a void filled their world. Charlie and Amelia were as walking dead — ashened faces, eyes unfocused, minds shut down, emotions traumatized, souls consumed in a living nightmare. The Coroner’s Office had not yet released the bodies to the families, and no one seemed capable of any planning activity. Ed and I left to drive to Sacred Heart Cathedral and to Fr. Jerry for help. Fr. Lewis was serving as acting rector at the time, and we rang his doorbell late that Saturday night. “This better be good, Ed Stahel, because I’ve got to work tomorrow!!” groused our friend as he opened the rectory door. One look at our faces told him something was very seriously wrong. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said.
My next clear memory is being back at the Grimes home, standing at the far end of the living room and watching Fr. Lewis take two dead people into another room and close the door.
After awhile, the door opened; and I saw Lazarus walk out of the tomb.
Charlie and Amelia’s faces had color restored. Their eyes had come back to life. Their stance and walk radiated the hope and healing, which had sprung to life on the other side of the door. And as I stood on the far side of the room and looked at Fr. Lewis, I thought to myself, “If I never lay eyes on you again; if I never hear your voice nor you name spoken again, I will love you until the day I die for what you have just done for mine.”
The memory of that evening is still as fresh in my mind today as when it was happening.
From then on, the friendship deepened, and Fr. Lewis was marrying and burying and being a part of the Stahel family, the Williams family, the O’Donnell family and all points in between. The years rolled into decades, and finally came to the year of 1990.
In February 1990 my aunt, Salinda Perry O’Donnell, died. Four months later, in June, I was hospitalized for several days. I learned that my beloved uncle, Charles Romeo Lefort, who had been a second father to me all my life, was terminal with cancer. And Ed and I learned that he was having serious heart problems. The fourth week of June, Romie took a big turn for the worse. On July 5, 1990, I returned home from errands to be enfolded in Ed’s embrace and told that the older of my two brothers, Bryan Grimes Williams, Jr., had just died of a heart attack. Ten days later, Romie died. Five days after that, Ed dropped dead in my arms from a massive heart attack. Seven months later in February 1991, my other brother, John O’Donnell Williams, died from a heart attack. All in all, in under five years, I buried fifteen loved ones: husband, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, sister-in-law, mother-in-law and my parents’ housekeeper, Lillian Crews Freeman, who had been a central figure in my world from the age of four. Fr. Jerry Lewis never left my side; never left my families’ sides. He was there for us as family, friend and priest. Although my children were essentially grown, the youngest two in college, being a sole parent is a very scary thing. Fr. Lewis provided me with the ballast I needed to maintain an even keel as I emerged from the ashes of my former life.
About sixteen months had passed since Ed’s death, and as I resumed functioning emotionally again, I began looking for a way to say “thank you” to someone who had meant so much to so many of my family. I couldn’t write Fr. Jerry a check; he would give it to someone in need before the ink was dry. He didn’t need any new vestments, a new chalice, a new breviary or anything along those lines. How could I say “thank you” in a meaningful way?
In the fall of 1991, an idea began to form, having had its roots in a project suggested to me the year before by Ed’s Princeton roommate, Ralph Nader. Their class of 1955 had created a permanent class project, Princeton Project 55 (now known as Princeton Alumni Corps), in the spring of 1989. The idea was to be voted on at their 35th Reunion in June 1990. The purpose of PP55 so interested Ed that he returned to that reunion as the only reunion he ever attended. Six weeks later, he died. Ralph had suggested to me the creation of an endowment, to help support a Princeton student as a summer intern/year long fellow under PP55, as a way to honor Ed’s memory and promote good works at the same time. Using Ralph’s idea, I set out to find a need within the Raleigh Diocese, which was unaddressed, begin an endowment and name it in Fr. Jerry’s honor. This was something he could “give away” but not give away. After several suggestions and discussions, it was realized that there was nothing in place to honor teachers in the Diocesan schools. That focus was a wonderful fit. Ed was a teacher to the core of his being and had been in university level education his entire professional life. Fr. Lewis had always been a strong proponent of education and spent active years working to enhance the Diocesan schools. In January 1992, the Father Gerald Lawrence Lewis Award for Excellence in Teaching was endowed, and the first Recipient recognized on his 60th birthday that October. The Excellence in Teaching Award is presented on an annual basis.
Fr. Lewis was once a priest I knew; then he became a priest who was a friend. Since 1990, he has been a close and beloved friend who just happens to be a priest.
Anne Winn Grimes Williams Stahel
Although the Lewis Award came to be through the bond between Monsignor Gerald Lewis and Anne Stahel and her family, the Lewis Award itself is not about Jerry Lewis and/or Anne Stahel. It is about the love, caring, commitment, and nurturing of young minds, spirits and bodies by wonderful people who give much and receive little in return aside from the personal feeding of their souls. The Lewis Award honors, in as meaningful a manner possible, those who excel at what they do.
In as much as the Lewis Award for Excellence in Teaching is restricted to classroom teachers, another component of the Award, the Lifetime Achievement in Catholic Education, was set up. The Recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award may be in administration, faculty or staff. This individual has made extended commitments and significant contributions to Catholic education in the Diocese of Raleigh, and demonstrates notable and ongoing contributions to his or her family, church and civic communities. The Lifetime Achievement Award is an honor bestowed by the Lewis Award Committee at its initiative and presented only when the Committee deems circumstances warrant. The Award carries a monetary gift and a framed calligraphy Citation to the Recipient. The first Lifetime Achievement Award was presented in 1999. Currently, six individuals have been honored.