A Different Kind of Dad

A tribute to my FATHER, a complex man

My father, Paul DeWitt Urbano, was born in 1917 in New York City to an Italian Episcopal priest and an upstate New York lady of Dutch heritage. He grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, went to Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and graduated from Williams College.

Upon graduation, much to my grandmother’s dismay, he got his hunting and trapping license in Juneau, Alaska, worked as a long-shoreman at the Yukon docks for $.99 an hour, went to Fairbanks, and then on to Lake Minchumina to trap for the winter.

The weather was treacherous, and he and his partner nearly died.  It was there, near Lake Minchumina, that my father discovered Jesus Christ and made Him a promise. He returned east to the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

My father, Paul Urbano, in 1941

He didn’t finish at that time because the day after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was trained for the Ski Troopers in Camp Hail, Colorado, in the 10th Mountain Division, 87th Regiment, and sent to the Aleutian Islands. He later became a Medic and served in Italy. He spoke very little of the War.

The 10th Mountain Division during WWII

While home on leave in 1943, my father met Mary-Louise Strong at a cocktail party in Manhattan. She was a Juilliard-educated concert pianist and a beauty. After a courtship-by-correspondence, they were married on December 31, 1943, at St. James Church in New York City, where Mary-Louise had grown up.

My Mother, Mary-Louise Strong circa 1943

My sister Marilou was born during the War, and my mother and Marilou stayed with Mamá’s parents in New York City until my father returned for good and graduated from seminary. He was then called to be a curate at St. James Church in South Pasadena, California, where I was born, and ordained a priest in May of 1948.

In 1952, after positions in San Gabriel, where my sister Alice was born, and Beaumont, we moved to Phoenix, where my father had accepted a position as curate and soon became the first rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

My father’s preaching was an amazing mix of scholarship, sound theology, and beautiful writing. He was tall, handsome, and had a deep voice. He would place his hands over the top of either side of the pulpit and wait patiently for people to settle down before speaking.

God help you if you had to blow your nose.

He would say a lot in 10 minutes — his self-imposed timeframe – make his point and end the thing. People loved that. And his reputation as a brilliant preacher quickly  spread, taking church services from a date barn to a parish hall to the large structure that stands today at 6300 N. Central Avenue.

The Rectory was built for us at the end of the property, and we moved in when I was in the fourth grade. By then we had two more kids in the family, Francesca and Paul. My mother was the busy mother of five and a piano teacher.

The parish had grown into the largest Episcopal church in Arizona, and my father began to plan a day school, which now sits next to the church and has spread out over the adjacent 10 acres.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Phoenix, AZ

In spite of the demands placed on him, my father made time for me and encouraged me. He took me out to the desert to practice target-shooting with a rife and a pistol, and taught me how to fly-cast and shoot a bow and arrow. When I got to high school and had learned to sew, he made a deal with me that he would pay for the clothes I made. So, I sewed up a storm.

One summer when I was about 12 and my siblings were off on junkets with my grandmother, my mom, and friends of the family, I stayed home to take care of Papá. I planted flowers so that I could put then in his study. I learned to cook. And I read voraciously. He loved horror movies, and we saw “Godzilla” and “King Kong” that summer.

Papá loved toys, and somehow managed to have them, despite his minister’s salary. He had a string of sports cars, beginning with a TR3. Next came an Alpha Romeo, and several Porsche 911s (which I was not above “borrowing” to go to orthodontic appointments, cruising Central Avenue on the way), and finally, a “Benz” convertible. He had a 16′ Glasspar boat, and he would occasionally let me skip school and go fishing with him on Canyon Lake. And when I was 17 or so, he was given a BMW 1200 motorcycle. I’ll never forget my dad riding around in his clerical collar, fringed leather cowboy jacket, and ropers.

During high school, I read lots of books my father was reading because I found them lying around, and they looked interesting. Some that stayed with me are The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant, Madame Bovary, Mere Christianity, and Sri Ramakrishna. The last one was fascinating, and an example of my father’s open mind and curiosity. He felt that there were many paths to the same God, and I do, too.

My father told me I was intelligent, wise, and beautiful, and made me believe it (even during my skinny, flat-chested girl-with-braces stage). His attention made me feel loved and confident. But much as he loved and appreciated women and said more than once that women are the superior sex, he could be sexist. For example, he did not like having females as acolytes; he felt they were a distraction at the altar. And he did not see the need for girls to go to college, although he helped me when I pushed back and began applying to small liberal arts schools.

My parents were beautiful dancers, and I learned to dance standing on my father’s feet. I remember with great pride the night he presented me at St. Luke’s Ball, and I curtsied and danced with him in each of the three ballrooms at the old Westward Ho Hotel.

Papá and I 1966

 I loved dancing with my dad, and as it happened, so did others. He and my mom were divorced during my freshman year of college. His was the first divorce in Arizona of an Episcopal priest. He and my mother had to ask Bishop Harte for special permission, and it took some time for the bishop to agree. 

Men loved my dad, too, because he was brilliant, original, and accomplished. He was an outdoorsman, having trapped fur in Alaska. He tied his own flies and made his own bullets. When he decided something was interesting, he threw himself into it, whether it was the Bible or fish. He had a bank of aquariums in his study filled with all manner of fish. He taught me a lot about them and raised Bettas and even sea horses and the brine shrimp to feed to them.

Papá’s study was a fascinating place. It was the room where he did his counselling of parishioners, where he wrote his sermons on Saturday mornings (using two fingers, smoking, and nursing a vodka), and where he entertained his friends. It had sliding wood doors along one end, which, when opened, revealed a wall of equipment for tying flies, reloading shotgun shells, and making bullets (which he did on the patio).

Papá spoke Spanish and French, played the banjo, and practiced the same piece on the clarinet – Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major – over and over the whole time I was growing up. I never heard him finish it.  And I never tired of it.

Papá was a Barry Goldwater conservative. And his best friend was Paul Roca, a true liberal. The relationship worked because they shared the same values. They were both Episcopalians, they believed in the innate goodness in all people, and they were kind. The two men explored Sonora every springtime, Roca writing two books on the old Spanish missions and Papá collaborating and taking a lot of the pictures. In one of Roca’s books, The Paths of the Padres, they mapped out all the missions they had visited.

The adventures on these trips were numerous, from finding cave people to eating raw meat to sleeping in a rat-infested barn. Papá was bitten by rat fleas on that trip and came down with the first case of Typhus in Arizona in 20 years. He never recovered completely.

Papá had remarried in 1972 to a remarkable woman 20 years his junior, Carol Belcher. Carol got his finances in order and was content to live a quiet life with a man who had lived a life of adventure. 

In 1975, Papa was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He let Carol and my stepsister Teri take care of him. He stopped smoking. He drank all sorts of concoctions Carol and Teri made from the enzyme juicer. He ate tons of almonds. And when the cancer metastasized to his brain, I remember sitting in his study with Roca, his wife Lucy, and Carol, hearing him say, “I won’t live that way.” Four months later, at age 61, he was gone.

People still tell me how wonderful my father was, how much they loved him, and how he brought them to Christ. I believe he was a great teacher, and I know he was a great preacher. I adored him, warts and all. And I miss him every day.

A Gift Returned


Introduction: This blog is based on a story I wrote for Facebook last year about this time. I have elaborated on a couple of points.

NYC, 6/20/2019: Today I get to do something special. Here’s the backstory:

My great-grandfather Salvatore Urbano, a school teacher and mayor of Palermo, Sicily, killed a member of the mafia in a duel. Fearing for his son Francesco’s life, Salvatore put Francesco (who would become my grandfather) on a ship to America. Upon arriving in New York City from Ellis Island, Francesco, an Anglican, walked to Grace Church on Broadway and East 10th Street and was taken under the wing of Episcopal Deaconess Jesse Gardner.

Grace Church, Manhattan

Deaconess Gardner put him to work washing windows and ended up sending him to Phillips Andover Academy. From there, he attended Rutgers University, where he received his BA and MA. He then attended Yale and Yale General Theological Seminary, after which he was ordained an Episcopal priest.

The Rev. Francesco Giglio Urbano, 1913

During his years at Rutgers and Yale, Francesco (We grandchildren called him “Padre.”) returned on weekends to Grace Parish, a smaller church down the street from Grace, now Immaculate Conception (purchased by the Catholic Diocese), where he had an Italian ministry. According to an article in “The Churchman,” dated July 11, 1913, Deaconess Gardner had begun to take care of the children in the Nursery, mostly Italians, and their parents who, “for the most part, had ceased to care for the Church of Rome.” Padre became their minister.

Fast forward to this winter: My stepsister Teri Fitch found Padre’s traveling communion set among her mother’s things. It was a gift to Padre from the Italian Congregation at Grace Chapel upon his ordination in 1913, after having worked with them for eight years. Teri, with the blessing of my sisters Marilou Urbano Rolfe and Francesca Urbano Kerr, sent it to me to take to Grace Church, since I had this trip planned.

My grandfather’s traveling communion set

So today I take Padre’s 1913 communion set to the Rev. J. Donald Waring, Rector of Grace Church in New York. Don is expecting us and has been incredibly gracious. Gene and I can’t wait to meet him!


Don welcomed us into his study in the Rectory and had all kinds of archived goodies waiting for us, from my grandfather’s wedding record to 3×5 cards with different members of the Urbano family on them.

My grandparents’ wedding record from 10/10/1911

He had some wonderful information on Deaconess Gardner, too, documenting her work with the Italian immigrants Padre ministered to. (Deaconess Gardner had a summer home in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, across the Sound from Nantucket. My father spent many summers there as a boy, with his mother, Pauline, and brother David. I have a pair of whale oil lamps from her house in Edgartown, which was once a major whaling port.)

Don then walked us through the church, constructed in 1843-46 of unfinished marble, and the gym of the day school for boys and girls from pre-K to twelfth grade. The church has about 1,000 parishioners and is doing much good in the world.

The whole experience filled me with joy!

The Rev. J. Donald Waring, Rector of Grace Church, New York City

My Other Mother


Grace Suft had a certain je ne sais quoi. (Bear with me while I practice my French.) I think of her as my other mother. I know her children and grandchildren were much closer to her, and I would never presume to be part of the family. But, still, with Mother’s Day right around the corner, this is a good time to tell you about Grace. Because she always had time for me.

We moved to North 11th Street in Phoenix when I was five. My father was the brilliant, charismatic rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and my mother was a beautiful pianist, Juilliard-educated, who did her best to raise five children. She brought us music, dancing, and fun, but we were often on our own to figure things out.

Here’s my mother with (l to r) Alice, Francesca, me, Marilou, and Paul.

It just happened that the new neighborhood was filled with parishioners, and, lucky for me, just down the street were the Sufts — Walt, Grace, Judy and Jimmy. Judy babysat for us. And I used to stop for Jimmy on the way to the school bus. Sometimes Grace would ask me in for breakfast, which on at least one occasion was pancakes. I had three siblings by then, and our house was a bit chaotic, so pancakes on a school day made a big impression on me.

There was a lot going on in the neighborhood, if you know what I mean. The woman across the street was crazy about my father, and even though I didn’t understand, I could sense my mother’s distress. Grace was like a light house, and I felt secure just knowing she was there. Because even then, I knew Grace cared about me, and I loved her.

We moved across town after a few years, and I didn’t see Grace much while I was growing up. My parents were divorced while I was in college, and Mamá moved to North Carolina the day after I was married, to be near her parents. We saw each other once or twice a year over the next 40 years.

When my husband and I and our new baby, Annie, moved back to Phoenix from Minnesota, I used to take Annie to the garden at All Saints’. She would sleep on a quilt while Grace took charge of our little group of volunteers. We would trim, weed, plant and feed the flowers. When Phoebe, my second child, was born, I continued to volunteer, and loved that time with three awesome women — my stepmother, Carol, Phoebe’s Godmother, Diana Hayward-Butt, and Grace.

We worked hard, stopped for Teatime, then worked some more. Grace taught me most of what I know about flowers and, without saying so, that hard work is fun if you’re doing something you love.

Grace became my other mother and my confidante. She remained a woman of her generation, but never judged me. I remember telling her I was going to ask for a divorce. She said, “Well, honey, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I think it’s important for a woman to have someone to go to, if she’s going to leave.” You see, Grace had been through that herself, and knew what I was in for.

Five years later, I remarried and moved to Tucson. Grace and Diana came to visit Gene and me one weekend in 2005. Grace was 90. had macular degeneration, and couldn’t hear very well. We had a tri-level house, and I worried about her on the stairs, but she went up and down like Loretta Young. She rode the tram into Sabino Canyon and walked around a number of local sites without a single complaint.

Grace and Diana, Tohono Chul Park, 9/05

I saw Grace occasionally when I was in town. One May morning in 2006, I was driving Grace to church, and as we were waiting to turn left into the parking lot, a woman (who told us later she was praying at the time) rear-ended us going 40 miles an hour. My glasses flew off my nose, and after a pause to recover, I looked over at Grace, afraid of what I might find. She was looking right at me and said, “Are you OK, dear?” Grace was resilient.

You know how, when you haven’t been with someone in a while and you have a little trouble seeing them clearly in your mind’s eye? Well, it was never like that with Grace. Her slim figure, bright blue eyes, beautiful smile and gorgeous, perfectly coiffed white hair have always been easy for me to picture. She was witty, irresistibly honest, and had an amazing gift: she made you feel special.

Grace was flexible, a marvelous trait in anyone, but especially in an older person. I could call at the last minute to see if I could come by, and if she was up, she always said, “Sure, Honey. I would love to see you.”

Grace was a listener, a happy listener, because she was truly interested in others. And while maintaining that Stephens College elegance, Grace got such a kick out of things. When she heard something funny, she would slap her hands together and laugh out loud. And she had terrific stories. I once asked her to tell me about something exciting she had done, and she described learning to fly a plane. Yes, Grace was a pilot.

When I came up to Phoenix on business, I often spent the night with Grace. One night after dinner, I had my iPad out, and she said, “Show me how that thing works.” So, I showed her how I could access my calendar, my contacts, my email and the internet, and how I could play Words with Friends with my sister in Seattle. Grace took it all in and said, “Boy that’s neat; I think I was born too soon.”

When Grace was 96 and still beautiful, I remember sitting outside with her at dusk, watching the peach-faced lovebirds at her backyard feeders. She could barely hear, and I was a blur. We just sat in each other’s company, bathed in the joy of being alive.

On Grace’s patio 3/12

You see, Grace had faith. She had faith in herself, faith in you, and faith in God. And it gave her a glorious sparkle. And when she took your face in her hands and looked you over, you knew you were loved. She was that wonderful.

Grace lived to be 101. And I have to say that the thought of death is a lot more appealing, knowing Grace will be there to greet me in the afterlife.