Propter Amorem: The Pastors

“In a few years, dear Bishop, we will all have passed away and few will remember us either in praise or prayer.”
—Rev. Eugene O’Callaghan, pastor 1877-1880

In 1834, just a year before Rev. John Dillon began the long journey from Hamilton County to his new post as the first resident pastor for Ohio City and Cleveland, his bishop confided to his diary, “I doubt very much whether I shall ever allow him to receive Holy Orders. He seems to me conceited & vain.”

Bishop John Baptist Purcell enumerated Dillon’s many faults: he was “frequently overcome with liquor,” he caroused in theaters, he spoke to his superiors impertinently. In every way, young Dillon seemed to exemplify the criticism that had been made of unworthy Ohio seminarians by an influential layman who had written to the new bishop complaining, “We have made priests of every one that has come this way.”

Subsequent developments provide every reason to think that Purcell’s first impressions of Dillon said more about the bishop’s own youth, inexperience and still-maturing character than it did about the seminarian. And the most immediate of these developments occurred in mid-September of that very same year.

That month, Bishop Purcell did indeed confer Holy Orders on the man who had so recently been deemed unworthy. One Wednesday, Dillon was ordained a subdeacon in the modest one-story wood structure that served as Cincinnati’s Cathedral of St. Peter. On the following Friday, he and his seminary classmate James Conlan (who, by contrast, had been praised by Purcell for his “uniform piety and correct deportment”) were raised to the diaconate, and on Saturday, the priesthood.

Enclosed in a letter to the Leopoldine Society in Vienna that Purcell sent just a few days after Dillon’s ordination, Fr. John Henni included a detailed account of missionary activity throughout Ohio and bordering states. Here, he speaks hopefully about the long-awaited church that he hopes the young priest will be able to begin in Cleveland, to serve the growing number of Irish families that came to build the canal. From Berichte der Leopoldinen-stiftung im Kaisertume Österreich (8-15), available on HathiTrust.

In less than two more years, Fr. Dillon, age 29, would be dead of the bilious fever that seemed to rise malignantly from the stagnant waters of the Cuyahoga as it made its sluggish way across the Flats. The diocesan newspaper that was the organ of Purcell’s office would lament his passing. “It is truly astonishing that so much prejudice should have vanished, so much piety have been evinced, and so much substantial good done during the short term of his ministry.” Cleveland’s Catholics and Protestants were united in their grief.

Life was so compressed back then.

While Dillon’s body rested beneath the sod in Erie Street Cemetery, decades passed and memories of him faded. Railroads and canals transformed Ohio. Catholic farmers and Catholic laborers from Ireland and Germany crowded America’s unwelcoming shores and trudged westward to clear the fields and sculpt the earth. Purcell  accepted the burden of an archbishop’s pallium when Pope Pius IX placed it on his shoulders.

But throughout the long years of a ministry that carried him from the bustling Queen City to the Appalachian foothills to the same Ohio City parish that had been served years before by the friend of his youth, Rev. James Conlan remembered. And when he saw his own death approaching, he chose a profound and durable way to preserve that memory.


Last month, Bishop Nelson Perez made his first visit to my parish, St. Patrick Church on Bridge Avenue, for the installation of our new pastor, Rev. Michael Gurnick. During the course of his remarks, the bishop mentioned that neither he nor Fr. Gurnick knew even the number of men who had filled that office, much less their names and accomplishments.  

For the two of them, both new to the parish, this is completely understandable. We are just one of dozens of parishes in this diocese, each of them possessing an interesting history. But personally, I felt a twinge of guilt. For several years, while vacuuming the rugs in the church narthex, I have pondered why only one individual who has served the parish in a pastoral role has ever earned a monument on the entryway wall. It seemed unlikely that only one of them was worth remembering.

John Dillon lived, served, and died before there was a parish dedicated to St. Patrick. But since he served the poor Irish laborers who were destined to found this congregation—and because his ghostly presence plays an important part in the story of his successor—it seems appropriate to have begun by remembering him.


Very Rev. James Conlan, V. G. (1853-1875)

“…sound mind and memory…”

A leisurely morning’s walk would carry you from James Conlan’s birthplace in the Irish market town of Mohill, County Leitrim, to the rural townland of Drumconny, where John Dillon spent his youth. Much of the way, you would pass down lonely, narrow lanes bordered by hedges of rowan and whitethorn and bisected by a strip of scrubby grass that bespeaks the area’s low traffic volume.

Though the hedges and the even the lanes themselves might have been familiar to these boys, the loneliness probably would not.

Born at the dawn of the nineteenth century, just a few years after the native Irish of the county and their French allies had suffered a devastating rout by Crown forces at nearby Ballinamuck, James and John were part of a birth explosion that doubled the county’s population in twenty years. Even after the Great Famine wiped out more than a quarter of its men, women and children in the 1840s, there were still four times as many residents of County Leitrim as there are today. It was one of the most impoverished and overcrowded corners of Ireland, a hatchery of discontent colorfully described in Anthony Trollope’s first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran.

During their childhood, the Penal Laws suppressing Roman Catholicism in Ireland were still in effect, though not necessarily enforced. Catholics were required to pay tithes to maintain the Protestant church, and records of their baptisms, marriages and deaths are virtually nonexistent. It seems possible that young John and James learned their catechism in a “hedge school,” and may have even taken their first communion in the open air at a “Mass rock.”

I have uncovered no histories that outline how Conlan and Dillon met, when they emigrated, or how they ended up at the edge of the American frontier. But since recorded history provides only the briefest glimpse of their friendship—from 1833, when Purcell arrived in Cincinnati to find them enrolled in the seminary on Sycamore Street to 1834, when duty sent them in different directions—it’s worth reflecting on how connections that form between people whose child eyes took in the same scenery can penetrate much deeper than the roots of the rowan tree.

I’m not sure that the two Leitrimites ever saw or even corresponded with each other after Conlan rode off to start his first assignment in Steubenville. The priests of the far-flung diocese were not called together for the first informal synod until after Dillon’s death. But when Fr. Conlan made his will in 1875, he revealed not only deep charity for women (the bulk of his estate was distributed in bequests to his nieces and to charitable institutions for orphaned and “wayward but penitent” girls), but also enduring brotherhood. For there he declared:

“Being of sound mind and memory…I will and bequeath the sum of five hundred dollars ($500) to be appropriated to curb the lot wherein I shall be buried, and to erection of a suitable headstone over my grave and that of Rev. Father Dillon deceased whose ashes I desire to be gathered and placed in my own coffin.”

In making this poignant gesture, Fr. Conlan was not motivated by concern about burial in unconsecrated ground. Dillon’s remains had been removed from the Erie Street Cemetery and placed beneath the main altar of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist while Conlan was ministering there in 1852—surely, an appropriate and honorable final resting place for Cleveland’s first resident pastor. So what could have prompted the elderly priest’s request?

There is some reason to suspect that his peers may have been uncomfortable with Conlan’s plan. Maybe they thought it implied inappropriate intimacy? Or maybe, since Conlan had been notoriously opposed to fraternization with the Germans or even the Yankees, they just decided to give him posthumous credit for an intercultural fraternity he struggled to achieve in life?

For whatever reason, rather than simply following Fr. Conlan’s instructions regarding the headstone, his nephew Rev. Thomas J. Conlan and others commissioned J. K. O’Reilly of the Woodland Avenue marble works to create a much larger, more ornate and much more expensive monument than the one that Fr. Conlan had envisioned. But instead of two priests memorialized, there are three: O’Reilly added the name of the Very Rev. Alexis Caron, who had died in December, 1873. Maybe some of the additional cost of the grave marker was borne by Caron’s estate, the sole beneficiary of which had been the Vicar General of the diocese, Felix Boff?

There is one enduring place where the special friendship of Revs. Dillon and Conlan is memorialized. In the second volume of A History of Catholicity in Northern Ohio and in the Diocese of Cleveland, published in 1903, historian Michael W. Carr collected biographical sketches of hundreds of Ohioans who had contributed to the promulgation of the faith. Among these, he includes a single entry for “The Rev. Fathers Conlan and Dillon,” even though their sacerdotal careers overlapped very little, and he had ample text for a tribute to each individually. They are the only non-married people to receive such a treatment.

But I expect Fr. Conlan will have his own way in the end. In 1 Corinthians 15: 51-52, the resurrection of the body is ecstatically described:We will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

On that great day, on Woodland Avenue in Cleveland, two Leitrim lads—far from home but filled with energy and courage and gladness—will face their eternal life together.


Rev. Michael Kennedy (1854-1855)

“Lux perpetua luceat ei”

He required that his burial vestments be new. The casket needed to be metallic, not some crummy pine box. The headstone—marble, mind you—needed to cost between $100 and $150, not a penny more or less.

Reading a stranger’s last will and testament can be like standing inches from his face. You might gaze deep into his eyes and sense that you have caught a glimpse of his soul—as in the case of Fr. James Conlan—or you might find yourself staring at a cluster of nasil hair. Our proximity to the will’s author can feel awkwardly intimate. This is what happened to me with Fr. Kennedy.

From History of St. Patrick’s Parish, Cleveland, Ohio 1853-1903, Francis Moran (ed.). Available on HathiTrust and Google Books.

The brief biographical sketches I’d been able to find for Rev. Michael Kennedy had been especially dry. These sources informed me that the young priest who served as pastor pro tem during Conlan’s ten-month absence from the parish in the mid-1850s had been born, ordained, assigned briefly to parishes and missions in all corners of the state, and buried. Slap on boilerplate language about supreme piety and great length of funeral procession. End of story.

Even his obituary in the Cincinnati Telegraph could have belonged to almost any priest of that era. If I wanted to find something memorable about this pastor, I needed to dig deeper.

The problem was that he had died too young, apparently without a friend who was determined to secure his memory as James Conlan would do for John Dillon. Small wonder that he did his best to secure it himself.

According to the 1860 census, Fr. Kennedy was born in Ireland around 1826. He may have spent some of his youth in the Sandusky area before his ordination by Bishop Rappe in July, 1852. After brief assignments in Dungannon, Summitville, and St. John’s in Canton, he was sent to fill in at St. Patrick’s temporarily while Fr. Conlan acted as administrator for a diocese in Vermont. Here, he kept the wheels in motion for the construction of the first church building, on Whitman Avenue. Afterwards, he left the diocese of Cleveland.

In the Cincinnati diocese, he spent a few years at St. Mary’s in Piqua, a few years at St. Mary’s in Chillicothe, and a few months dying at St. John’s Hospital in Cincinnati. When he breathed his last there on January 13, 1864, most of the beds were occupied by wounded soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy, since the hospital near the Ohio River was a major terminus for “floating hospitals” carrying the casualties of battle. Even his death might have been overshadowed by this more momentous drama.

The less hard evidence there is about a life, the more imagination is inclined to supply the details. So I began to speculate. Why, I asked myself, did this priest work in such widely different places, all for relatively short stints? Why did he die so young?

The first answer that occurred to me was that he might have been on the fringe of the scandalous tribe of “tramp priests”—ordained and anointed men whose ties to an order or diocese frayed or were severed, causing them to wander here and there without lasting occupation. In 1880, one deeply disgruntled priest described this unfortunate situation in Sacerdos Vagabundus, blaming it on the arbitrary discipline meted out by missionary bishops who were free to move priests about or cast them aside at will. Perhaps Fr. Kennedy had proven unsatisfactory. Perhaps his early death saved him from ignoble dismissal.

I raked the shallow soil hoping to turn up something—anything—to contradict this impression. And I thought I’d found it toward the end of A History of Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary of the West. After the authors acknowledged apologetically their inability to name every donor to the school’s first library, they identified the major ones. And then: “The Library is also indebted to Rev. Michael Kennedy, formerly of Piqua, Ohio, for a small number of works.”

Good enough, I said. Now I was free to imagine not a lazy or incompetent wastrel, stumbling along a tipsy path from one short-term assignment to the next, but a bookworm with his head in the clouds. That’s the thing about amateur history: both jumping to conclusions and mixing metaphors—totally allowed!

The only little burr under my saddle involved the timing of Kennedy’s book donation. If it was made as a posthumous bequest, good. His legacy might be found even now among the stacks at the Atheneum of Ohio, whose respected library collection remains a valuable resource for theological and church history scholars. But if he’d donated before his death, then chances are that his “small number of works” were among the very large number of works that were pitched pell-mell out the library’s second-floor windows during a devastating fire in 1863.

“The most valuable sets were wet by water, torn, mutilated, and numbers lost….By this sad misfortune the most valuable portion of the Library perished.”

Fr. Kennedy would have remained a praiseworthy bookworm, but he would have died with the awareness that the generosity that would have cost a priest so much had been futile.

The only way to avert that pathetic tragedy: check the will.

I have known of excellent people, kind and generous people, who have put an inordinate amount of energy into arranging their going-away-from-life party. One of my good old college professors was said to have plagued the minister of his church with constant revisions to the funeral music program. It’s a way of creating closure, of keeping a grip on the steering wheel.

Maybe that’s what Fr. Kennedy had in his heart when he got so nitpicky and fastidious in his funeral instructions. But on first reading, my cheapskate sensibilities were offended. A new set of vestments? For a dead guy? At a time when the diocese was still heavily dependent on crates of donated altar linens, chalices, statues and other goodies shipped from European benefactors to needy American missionaries, this seemed almost obscenely extravagant.

The primary business of Benziger Brothers then and now was publishing; selling religious articles like vestments was a sideline. So I’m not even sure that there was a local supplier in Cincinnati where Fr. Kennedy’s executors could walk in to buy a complete suit of vestments off the rack in time for the funeral. Image from the Catalogue of Vestments, Banners and Regalia issued by Benziger Brothers for their booth at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. Available on HathiTrust.

Moreover, there was the priest’s insistence (he repeats it twice in one short will) that he is the procurator of the seminary. If he was, his tenure must have been so brief that it escaped mention in the seminary’s history. This is possible. During the time in question, the financial operations of Mt. St. Mary’s had already begun the slippery-slide that would end in catastrophe and closure after the Panic of 1873. But his obituaries identify his last office as pastor in Chillicothe.

And then there were his instructions for choosing a burial place. While his first choice was to be buried near his father in Sandusky, as he lay on his deathbed at St. John spelling out his final wishes, he mulled contingencies. Maybe it would be better to rest with his fellow priests in Sandusky? Or perhaps Dayton? Sheesh!

What was I doing here? Hating on a dead priest? This had to stop.

In my haste to jump over the legal mumbo-jumbo that prefaces many wills, I had overlooked some important bequests, and it was time to go back and review those.

There were a number of them. The books were a posthumous gift, thank goodness. The nuns who cared for him were remembered with a gift over and above the cost of his medical care. Cash to the brother in Ireland; cash and clothing and personal effects to the brother in Ohio. He spread his small fortune as widely as he could.

To his surviving sister, he left $200 “to her own and children’s exclusive use.” Was he looking out for a beloved sibling whose spouse might not have been so open-handed? And to his mother, the surprisingly large amount of $600 in cash and exactly $594 in gold, plus his bed and his cloak.

His aged mother had been listed in his Chillicothe household in the 1860 census. Where would she go now? To the sister who might have an ungenerous husband?

It was at this point that a plausible solution to the problem of Rev. Michael Kennedy occurred to me.

Maybe this was a young man slightly overwhelmed and preoccupied by the requirements of looking out for a large family and a widowed mother on the meager salary of a priest. Maybe he had scrimped and saved accumulating that sack of gold, when he would have happily spent every penny on his treasured books. Maybe the fancy funeral was for them, this family that had escaped famine only to find themselves enduring civil war.

That’s the other thing about amateur history: the more maybes, the merrier. Or at least, sometimes, the more merciful.


Rev. Eugene O’Callaghan (1877-1880)

“Catholics are too timid; they seem to go upon the principle that, if they are tolerated, they are doing well. This is a mistake; if we let our rights go by default, we should not wonder if we lose them. We must be decided in our demands, and present a bolder front to our enemies.”
—The Right Rev. Richard Gilmour, 1873

In the last half of the nineteenth century, more than five hundred Roman Catholic churches were built in Ohio, and every time one was consecrated, priests traveled from near and far to assist in the solemn and glorious rites. Among other things, it made for a pleasant reunion of friends and colleagues.

But on one such occasion, as the clergy came together at the new Immaculate Conception Church in Bellevue, even more trouble than usual was brewing between a charismatic former pastor of St. Patrick Church and his frequent antagonist, Bishop Richard Gilmour. Raw feelings—of jealousy, hostility, distrust and even bitter loneliness—would soon be poured out in a series of remarkable letters between Fr. O’Callaghan and the bishop. A foretaste can be detected in the bishop’s homily as summarized in the Bellevue Local News.

“The Bishop deprecated any controversy,” the reporter begins. Gilmour called for the end of “bitter strife and contentions” and a renewed unity to “stem the current of infidelity and impiety now threatening to flood the land.” He expressed indignation at having heard “men daring God to his face and insulting High Heaven.” He demanded “obedience to country and to God.” He could well have been thinking, “And to me, too!”

Although the outrage he thundered over the heads of a congregation that had gathered in feast and celebration was framed as defense of the Lord, there was more than a little bit of self-defense implied, I think. And the people the bishop accused of perpetrating such affronts to his dignity were not unfaithful lay people or impious unbelievers, but his own clergy.

Detail from “Bellevue, Ohio, Sandusky & Huron counties 1888,” by Burleigh & Norris. Library of Congress. The Immaculate Conception Church is in the center of the image, at the intersection of Broad and East Center Streets.

There is no shortage of memorable vignettes from the life of Eugene Mary O’Callaghan. He had already gained great renown as a legal scholar, leader and writer before making his way to St. Patrick’s. In the first few weeks of Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration, the president’s agenda included ending Reconstruction, beginning the Nez Perce War, and attending a reception for Fr. O’Callaghan—a fair indicator of the cleric’s standing in the community. And many 21st-century parishioners have heard tell of the strapping priest (a former navvy on the Miami and Erie Canal) who helped drive wagons to Sandusky every week for two years, to quarry the stone that formed the outer walls of our present church.

But above all things, Fr. O’Callaghan was a warrior for justice, and the less familiar story of O’Callaghan’s tempestuous relationships with bishops is so consequential that it could—and did—fill a book. At a time in our nation’s history when identity politics and infighting have so damaged civil discourse, we could learn a lot from the example provided by this priest and this bishop, and how they handled a serious conflict at this particular moment in their long and difficult relationship.

From History of St. Patrick’s Parish, Cleveland, Ohio 1853-1903, Francis Moran (ed.). Available on HathiTrust and Google Books.

On Sunday, August 3, 1884, Bishop Gilmour’s anxiety must have been rising long before the nine-coach Nickel Plate excursion train to Bellevue pulled out of the Broadway Avenue depot. The pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, Rev. Walter Gibbons, had been transferred to that assignment under protest, and although he had lost his appeal when he took it to the Vatican, this had done little to relieve Bishop Gilmour’s worries.

Like his predecessor Amadeus Rappe, Gilmour was deeply distrustful of a close-knit group of Irish priests of which Gibbons was a member and O’Callaghan the recognized leader. Considering them a sort of new world Ribbonmen, he believed they were continuously fomenting revolt against the American church hierarchy, contributing to internecine strife with German Catholics in the region, and insubordinately going over his head in carrying their complaints to Rome.

He was not, then, in a frame of mind to be indulgent when, as the priests gathered in Bellevue to prepare for the joyous occasion, their collegial banter got out of hand.

The scene is described in a subsequent exchange of letters between the bishop and the priest. Fr. O’Callaghan stood at the center of a boisterous, chummy group that included several other powerhouse personalities. Rev. Thomas Smyth had been elected to two terms on the Cleveland Board of Education before being sent to Sandusky, possibly in an effort to break up the group that Bishop Gilmour had labeled “a cabal.” Rev. James Molony of St. Malachi’s, O’Callaghan’s best friend since their County Cork childhood, would later lead an Irish-dominated effort to prevent the installation of a German bishop as Gilmour’s successor. The priests were energetically discussing their favorite topic: church politics. And in an adjacent room, excluded from their conversation, sat their boss—alone.

While reading about Bishop Gilmour’s contributions to diocesan strife, I kept recalling this gentle passage from the children’s reader that he wrote for parochial schools. It’s good to remember that people are complicated.

Loneliness was a condition to which Fr. O’Callaghan was unusually sensitive. Most of his agitation against episcopal authority could be traced to his compassion for brother priests who were denied the company of peers, the stability of tenure among a settled congregation, and the security of long-term care when they became too old or frail to work. For years, he had hosted gatherings in his home for supper and conversation, as much for the purpose of banishing loneliness as for political organizing. So when he saw Bishop Gilmour sitting alone, he rallied his friends to try to include him in their discussion.

But it all went wrong. Someone mentioned the possibility of the pope teaching heresy. Someone joked, “the Church is a trimmer.” Someone exclaimed hyperbolically that “all the evil in the Church comes from Bishops!”

Hence, the bishop’s sermonizing on obedience.

After stewing for a couple weeks, Gilmour composed himself sufficiently to send a letter frankly accusing O’Callaghan of heresy and speaking against canon law. He must have done a lot of studying and praying over that letter. Both men were very painfully aware of O’Callaghan’s legal prowess, and his fearlessness in advocating for the rights of priests and nuns even when it set him in direct opposition to the bishop. Only a few months earlier, a priest who O’Callaghan was representing in an appeal to Rome against a Gilmour decision had suffered a career-ending stroke before his case could come to trial. There was some tension.

As a result, the response O’Callaghan sent to Gilmour was a prompt, terse, thorough, and well-researched defense and denial. However, it was not enough. The bishop was adamant: “You and your confreres should be less wild and scandalous,” he scolded. He reiterated the main thrust of his rebuke, and O’Callaghan parried, quoting the page numbers of the legal authorities to which he thought Gilmour ought to refer.

“Do you take it as a trifling matter to brand a priest as a malicious, persistent and active heretic? Do you think I have no feeling; no sense of honor; no conscience; no duty to Religion; that I should tamely submit to this outrage especially coming from my bishop?”

But by the end of this letter, the priest’s righteous anger was turning to grief. He ended by explaining how he had intended not to offend the bishop in Bellevue, but to befriend. “But while intending to please you, I only gave offense.”

To his credit, the bishop lowered his own foil. “Now we have spoken truly, man to man…If we have jarred each other, the jarring has quickened and purified us.” He acknowledged his longing for loyalty, and even opened himself enough to reveal his feeling of alienation from the clergy.

“You and your friends meet regularly…and you do not invite me to join you. You have treated me as a stranger in your midst…”

In his analysis of this exchange, former diocesan archivist Rev. Nelson Callahan marks these letters from the summer of 1884 as a watershed moment. Although there would be serious differences of opinion, rebuke and opposition, they had now taken a fair measure of each other, and both had emerged from the exchange with a better understanding of the delicate art of loyal opposition.


In researching church history, I have sometimes encountered an argument in favor of soft-focus and diffused lighting when writing about the clergy. When in 1919 Sister Mary Agnes McCann contributed a transcription of Bishop Purcell’s diary to the Catholic Historical Review, Dominican scholar Victor F. O’Daniel (at the behest of “one of the highest ecclesiastics in the country”) peevishly objected: “It is unfortunate for the reputation of its author that he left such a book of useless notes, exaggerated statements, morose reflections and unkind criticisms. It is a pity that it was ever brought to light.”

But when the impurities are rinsed from history, the color is flushed away too. We are left with lists of dates and places, undocumented legends, and frequently implausible hagiography. The first we forget, the second we disbelieve, and the third we dismiss as hopelessly beyond our mortal reach.

By my count, 22 men have served a pastoral role in my church—some for a few months, others for a few decades. There’s the one who got his feet wet as the president of Loyola University of Chicago before diving into the really deep water on Bridge Avenue. There’s the one who was a revolutionary poet. All worth remembering.

If I could ask all 22 a single question, it would be, “What else did you love?” They would first answer God and the Church, of course, and rightly so. But what else? Because while the first two loves make them priestly, I think it’s that third-favorite thing that makes them memorable.

2 thoughts on “Propter Amorem: The Pastors”

  1. So fascinating and your writing made me smile, laugh and wonder at such a colorful history and how it has shaped our church today.
    Thanks for the diligent research.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your article about these priests. In recent years I have visited both St. John Cemetery and St. Joseph Cemetery.

    It was good to meet you when I went to Cleveland on Matin Luther King Day and look forward to reading more of your reflections.

    You are an excellent writer.

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