Bishop John Barres glanced out at the 1,700 mourners packed into Harrisburg’s Holy Name of Jesus Church that bright May morning in 2013 and he paused.
About to deliver the eulogy for Bishop Joseph McFadden, Barres could have opened in so many ways.
He could have mentioned his late friend’s brief but memorable tenure as Harrisburg’s bishop, the summa cum laude status he’d earned at St. Charles Seminary, the faith his Irish-born parents implanted in the four children they raised on Hazelhurst Street in West Philadelphia.
Instead, Barres began with basketball.
“[Joe] experienced early on what so many metro Philadelphia boys have experienced through the generations,” Barres said. “A love for Big 5 basketball, for nail-biting tripleheaders at the Palestra, for Philadelphia’s Catholic League.”
And yet the church, not basketball, became McFadden’s career path, a development that sometimes puzzled him as much as the mysteries of his faith.
“I always thought I was going to be an NCAA basketball coach,” he admitted in 2010.
That screeching U-turn, from the hardwood to the holy orders, made McFadden unique, distinguishing him from all those other basketball-crazed, Irish-Catholic Philadelphians who became coaches, referees, college players.
Until his late 20s, everything McFadden did seemed to be pointing him toward a basketball life.
Nurtured by a West Philly neighborhood that included two of the city’s hoops shrines – Tustin Playground and Overbrook High – he quickly grew obsessed with the sport.
“He knew the game inside out and he cared,” said Fran O’Hanlon, the Lafayette coach who was McFadden’s closest boyhood friend. “Joey was a true gym rat.”
Along the way, McFadden compiled resume points not too dissimilar from those of future Philly coaches such as Herb Magee, Jim Boyle, or Jim Lynam. Like them, he was introduced to the game at a West Philly Catholic school (Our Lady of Lourdes) and honed his skills at nearby playgrounds (Tustin and Rose).
If there were a locked gym to be accessed, he knew it. And he rarely missed a Palestra game.
“Maybe two a year," McFadden once recalled. "Wherever the ball bounced, I’d be there.”
At St. Thomas More, where he was the Class of ‘65’s valedictorian, the 5-8 McFadden was Billy Hoy’s point guard and floor leader. As a college sophomore, he would coach the STM freshman.
“Billy Hoy loved him,” said O’Hanlon, who for a time was McFadden’s backup at St. Tommy’s. “He taught him all his old-man tricks. Joey would hold your shorts, do all sorts of things.”
A Daily News article once described the future bishop’s style of play as “guerrilla warfare.”
He was, O’Hanlon said, a born leader, serious-minded, hyper-competitive, intellectually curious, extremely organized, and tough as a week-old soft pretzel.
“One thing which set Joe McFadden apart from the rest of the guards in the Catholic League,” that Daily News article continued, “was his ability to pick up black-and-blue marks.”
As a St. Joseph’s freshman, he absorbed everything coaches Jack Ramsay and Boyle taught. At 24, he was the youngest athletic director in Catholic League history. At 26, he added head basketball coach to his West Catholic duties. Two years later, McFadden guided the Burrs to the league’s title game.
“By that time, there were some colleges trying to attract me,” he said.
And then, with the game-changing finality of a Hail Mary pass, Joe McFadden stepped away from basketball and into St. Charles Seminary.
“There’s a lot of apprehension,” he said at the time. “I’m a basketball addict and I expect there to be withdrawal symptoms. But it’s an idea I always had in the back of my mind. And it just kept coming back to me.”
He knew he was seminary-bound before his West Catholic team, led by the league’s all-time top scorer, Michael Brooks, lost to Bishop Kenrick in that ’76 title game at the Palestra. But he told no one.
“I didn’t want to make one of those `Let’s win one for the Gipper’ speeches,” he said. “I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on the kids.”
Afterward, before informing the players, he let his assistants know.
“They were sitting around and Joe came up to them and said, `I’m going to St. Charles,’” O’Hanlon recalled. “They were thinking that he was leaving to go coach another Catholic school. Then it kind of dawned on them.”
McFadden was again first in his class at St. Charles. Ordained in 1980, he began his priesthood as an associate at two Delaware County parishes. That’s what he’d wanted, to be a parish priest. But his brains got in the way.
“Joe was really smart,” said O’Hanlon. “He had like a 3.9 or a 4.0 at St. Joe’s. When Cardinal Krol saw that, he brought him in as his secretary.”
While McFadden served with Krol, he and O’Hanlon would occasionally sneak into St. Joe’s gym to play basketball. The priest also discovered golf about that time and it soon was a passion. He remained so competitive, associates in Harrisburg said, that the bishop usually won the volleyball games at diocese picnics.
“Make no mistake about it,” Bishop Barres said in the eulogy, “Joe McFadden might have been a kind and gentle bishop, but he always played to win.”
McFadden ascended rapidly in the priesthood. He was the first school president at Cardinal O’Hara, headed the archdiocese’s educational program, was made a bishop. Then in 2010, he was assigned to Harrisburg.
“That was strange,” O’Hanlon said, “Joey was such a Philly guy, I’m surprised they got him to go there.”
While attending a 2013 bishops conference here, McFadden was staying at St. Christopher’s rectory in Northeast Philadelphia. On the morning of May 2, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 65.
“He loved basketball,” remembered Brother Richard Kestler, then West Catholic’s president, “and he loved Philadelphia.”