Benet Tvedten, O.S.B.
In 1980, when the Benedictine world celebrated the 1500th anniversary of Benedict's birth, a friend of mine suggested that we collaborate on a book about monks. He proposed this to another friend--an editor at Knopf--who was enthused, and told us to go for it.
So, I wrote letters to most of the male monasteries in the United States, asking for character sketches about real monks: legendary characters, curious personalities, loveable and/or irascible types. Only a few monks responded with stories about their confreres. What was intended as an average size book and a best seller, appeared as a small, now out-of-print booklet with only characters from four monasteries represented.
I concluded then that oral tradition is more important than the written word. In every monastic community of men or women there are members who show the potential for becoming legendary characters. We recognize them when they are still with us, and when they are gone, we make certain that our memory of them never diminishes. Oral tradition is very important in monasteries. Whenever I visit monasteries, my hosts can be expected to reminisce about memorable characters in their communities. And I, of course, will respond with stories about my own confreres.
These stories are family heirlooms. Perhaps this explains why so few monks responded to my request. They were fearful of giving away family heirlooms. Our stories were not to be given away. The more proper way of preserving them-the monastic way-is to relate them to other generations of community members by word of mouth.
One of my jobs at Blue Cloud Abbey is the writing of death notices (bearing the signature of the abbot) and then mailing them to other Benedictine monasteries. Some of these, along with personal recollections, account for the stories I'm about to tell. Obituaries tend to be more honest these days, it seems to me. Here are excerpts from some I've read. "Brother Wilfrid thoroughly enjoyed his reputation as a misogynist and affected a great dislike for guests, but this actually allowed him to avoid social situations with which he was uncomfortable, and make exceptions for anyone he liked, astonishing young monks who thought they knew him."
"Though at times Sister Michael could make life in community difficult both for herself and for others, she had many loveable qualities."
"Sister Therese had an instinctive courtesy and a boundless desire to help and console others. This involved her in an unconscionable amount of talking."
What will they say about us? What stories will they tell about us?
Years ago in an article about monasticism, a monk stated: "I don't think people realize that monasteries are the last refuge of the real kooks." Sometimes characters may almost drive us over the monastery wall, but every community will admit (sooner or later) that it is proud of its quirky members. This pride is reflected in the stories we tell about them. Occasionally, one hears a monastic brother or sister lamenting that the really great characters seem to be passing from our midst. There is no need to worry. We've never had to go far in order to find replacements.
Not everyone in a monastic community earns the title of "a character," but everyone in the monastic family, as in a natural family, deserves remembrance. And, oh how we remember them. Sister Ruth Fox in an address on integrating new community members offered storytelling as "a practical and effective way to help integrate new members." She said, "The stories of community invite the listener to take up residence in the heart of the lived experience of the members. Stories encircle the new members like a blanket that enwraps them in a warm, human community of real people."
Necrology: Brother David Tegart died on May 9, 1962, at the age of thirty-three
THE FIRST TO DIE
Brother David died in his sleep at St. Michael's Indian Mission in North Dakota. Having someone so young be the first to die was a terrible shock for the community. This was the most abrupt thing Brother David had ever done. Although he'd intended on becoming a monk, the Selective Service got to him before he could get to the monastery. He spent two years in Korea and then came to Blue Cloud Abbey. David entered the clerical novitiate to pursue the priesthood. In 1958, as a cleric, he began another novitiate in order to become a brother-monk instead of a priest-monk. Shortly after his second novitiate and profession as brother, he was assigned to St. Michael's, where he assisted Brother Vital in the carpenter shop. He also drove a school bus, and taught for a short time.
Brother David was easygoing and imperturbable. He was methodically slow in his performance of some things, but when he was in a hurry, it paid to get out of his way. During the second novitiate, Brother David spent more time at recreation adjusting the high fidelity sound system he had built than playing records. When he got around to putting a record on the turntable, some novices left the recreation room. Not everyone shared his love for classical music played so loudly. I was one of the novices who didn't mind.
Necrology: Brother Gerard Nilan died on November 30, 1967, at the age of sixty-five
Brother Gerard was born in Louisville, Kentucky. His education ended with the eighth grade, and he worked in a grocery store until the age of twenty. Then he entered monastic life at our mother abbey in Indiana. When our monastery was founded in 1950, Brother Gerard was assigned here as our cook, a job for which he was ill suited. Cooking was a chore for him, but he accepted it as an act of obedience, a means of sanctification. More than anything else, Brother Gerard wanted to become a saint. This resolution was discovered in his personal papers after his death: "Each day I must strive to do better than the day before. I must work earnestly and sincerely if I wish to make up for losses. If I wish to become a saint, there is no time to lose. Now is the day of salvation. Now is the acceptable time." One of the monks always said, "If Gerard would get his butt out of church and into the kitchen, we'd have supper on time." He did spend a lot of time at private prayer in the church.
Brother Gerard was hard of hearing. Even when he was wearing his hearing aid, he would cup his ear and say to us, "Whit? Whit?" His hearing was imperfect. There was no way of correcting it, but he strove all his days to perfect his life. "I will strive to observe the poverty of St. Francis, the purity of St. Aloysius, the meekness and patience of St. Francis de Sales, the obedience of St. Gerard, and the charity of all the saints." The last few years of his life, when he was totally helpless because of a stroke, were, no doubt, given to him as a further means of sanctification.
Necrology: Brother Vital Hammerer died on March 29, 1972, at the age of eighty-six
Brother Vital was born in Salzburg. As a young man, he learned cabinetmaking and excelled in this craft until he became crippled by arthritis in his old age. When he was in his late twenties, he left Austria and entered the Abbey of St. Andre in Belgium. The Benedictine monasteries in his homeland were not engaged in missionary work, but St. Andre was. Franz, as he was known then, was attracted by the idea of being a monk who was sent to another part of the world. He dreamed of going to Africa or China, but war broke out the first week he was in the monastery. In 1914, Franz was indeed an alien in a foreign land. He had to leave Belgium. Soon after his return to Austria, he was drafted into the army. Having completed his training and being sent to the front, he was promptly taken prisoner. Franz spent the remainder of the First World War in Russia, where his talent was employed in making skis for the captors.
After the war, he came to the United States as a candidate for our motherhouse in Indiana. The abbot of St. Meinrad's Abbey had gone to Europe to recruit young men. A good number of them, mostly from Germany, responded. Franz received the name Vital when he professed vows. His desire to go to the missions was fulfilled when he was assigned to St. Michael's Indian Mission in North Dakota. For thirty years, he practiced his trade there. With the founding of Blue Cloud Abbey in 1950, he built our first choir stalls in the carpenter shop at St. Michael and also a vestment case that is still in use here at the abbey.
In 1964, he retired to the abbey. The Indian children were especially sad to have him leave the reservation. He could always be interrupted in the carpenter shop to make things for them. At the abbey, he worked faithfully in our library until he became bedridden several months before his death. Besides being afflicted with arthritis, he was a diabetic with a heart condition. Nevertheless, he had great stamina. In the summer he could walk a mile supported by two canes.
The eldest member of our community, he liked to pretend regret at every birthday beyond the age of eighty. When Brother Alexius, his younger confrere by five years, died in 1968, Brother Vital observed, "The trouble with this place is that nobody dies in seniority."
He was an avid reader, and received many books and periodicals from relatives in Austria. Once when I took a meal to him in his room, he pointed to the book on his desk and said, "Ach, that book! I read it at night and when I go to sleep, I have bad dreams." It was a history of the Habsburgs.
Necrology: Father Cuthbert Hughes died on December 24, 1972, at the age of sixty-one
CUTHBERT (SOMETIMES KNOWN AS CUDDY)
Father Cuthbert was born in New York City, and he was working on Wall Street when the crash came. He was a gentle, happy man. Although silence was supposed to be observed in the corridors of the monastery, I remember him passing by my room, whistling and snapping his fingers. His usual greeting, when meeting you face to face, was "Pax!" At one time he was my confessor. After the words of absolution, he said, "Go in peace and sin no more. Ha, ha."
Finding himself in a generation gap after Vatican Council II, he disliked some of the changes that turned on the young monks in the 1960s and 1970s. "If the haunting echo of the organ leaves them unmoved while the plunk of a guitar can set them off in ecstasy, let's not get excited," he said. When informed of the price we paid for the pipe organ in our new church, he sarcastically replied, "For that amount we could have bought two thousand guitars."
On Thanksgiving, 1972, he suffered a massive stroke. Two days previous to death, Father Cuthbert returned from the long stay at the hospital with joy and gratitude that he had come home for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, shortly before supper, he died while watching a football game on television. A slip of paper had fallen out of a book that he'd had with him. Written on it in his hand was Today is the day. We wondered if this referred to the Feast of Christ's birth or to our confrere's death.
Necrology: Father Ildephonse Kreidler died on September 5, 1975, at the age of eighty-seven
Father Ildephonse came to this country from Germany when he was twentyyears old. He professed first vows at St. Meinrad, Indiana, two months into World War I, and he was ordained to the priesthood the same month the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Had he remained in Europe, his studies for the priesthood would no doubt have been delayed by military conscription.
After ordination and studies at Notre Dame, he taught in Jasper, Indiana, at a boys' academy staffed by the monks of St. Meinrad's. When the school was transferred to Aurora, Illinois, he became a founding member of what is now Marmion Abbey. From 1940 until 1950 he was in North Dakota as the superior of St. Michael's Mission on the Fort Totten Indian Reservation. His ability to raise money became evident here. Under the hardship of war, he was able to build a church with sandstone trucked to North Dakota from the quarries at St. Meinrad.
When our community was founded in 1950, he came to Blue Cloud and was assigned our fundraiser as we began the construction of our permanent monastery. Father Ildephonse knew the right people, some of whom organized an annual Cadillac Dinner in Minneapolis. The diners paid over a hundred dollars per plate, and one of them won a new Cadillac at the end of the meal. Father Ildephonse was always present for the dinner. Once when he was in town for the fundraiser, he visited the archbishop, who complained to Abbot Gilbert that a semi-truck had delivered the priest to the episcopal residence. The archbishop thought this was a terribly undignified manner in which to call on him. Father Ildephonse had hitched a ride with two of the monks who'd gone to the Twin Cities for building supplies.
A wealthy benefactor once gave us a Cadillac. I'm sure Father Ildephonse must have discouraged her from doing this, but the chauffeur drove it here from Minneapolis. And drove it back. It would have been unseemly for monks to be seen driving around in a Cadillac, the abbot said. We did have an old Chrysler, though, that had belonged to the Pillsbury milling family in Minneapolis.
When I was making the retreat in preparation for final profession, Father Ildephonse was asked to give me a conference on the vow of obedience. To illustrate how difficult obedience could be, he told me about an incident in his own life. He was in Texas for the purpose of soliciting a donation from a millionaire. The oilman was on the verge of coming across when Father Ildephonse received a phone call from Abbot Gilbert asking him to come back to South Dakota. His assistance was needed in a parish that particular weekend. Father Ildephonse also sought contributions from Catholic celebrities. Bing Crosby and Lawrence Welk were on his appeal list. One of them sent him a box of used clothing for the Indian missions.
After having helped establish two monasteries, and having been a mission superior for ten years, he was not ready to retire at the age of seventy-five. For the next five years, he was the chaplain of a hospital and nursing home in Milbank. Someone would bring him out to the abbey every Friday evening to help hear our confessions. I was assigned to drive him back to Milbank. Once we ran out of gas and had to stand hitchhiking on U.S. Highway 12 in our Benedictine habits. The man who stopped to assist us owned a filling station. Every Friday from then on when got into the car, Father Ildephonse would ask me, "Do you have gas?"
He came back to the abbey for good, following a stroke that left him deaf and unable to speak coherently. He gracefully accepted this burden, but was still eager to work. Until the last year of his life, he went to the library every day. The only time I ever saw him become angry was when a prank was played on him in the refectory. At breakfast one of the monks had put a sliced grapefruit on Father Ildephonse's chair, and he sat on it. Whenever a member of the community would drop by to see him after he'd taken to remaining in his room, Father Ildephonse extended a firm handshake, a gracious smile, and a delightful laugh. Then he would speak gibberish, but often the last word was discernibly German. And everyone knew that Liebe means love.
Necrology: Father Xavier Hillenbrand died on November 28, 1978, at the age of forty-three
Father Xavier was born in Evansville, Indiana. He had sort of an accent. Some of us called it a Hoosier accent; others said his speech was the result of growing up in a part of Indiana that was so close to Kentucky. Reading at table about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, popularly known as The Little Flower, Father Xavier called her "The Little Flyer." One of the monks asked him to repeat, "There's a fire in the fire tower." What he said was often quoted to him in jest: "There's a far in the far tar."
Father Xavier was among our first three monks assigned to Resurrection Priory in Coban, Guatemala. In 1972, he was appointed prior of the community. At the time of his death, besides being the superior, he was also serving as novice and junior master, and director of Centro San Benito, an education center for the Kekchi Indians. Father Xavier was enthusiastic about the assignments he received and the projects he undertook. He was christened Michael, but took the name Xavier when he professed vows. This was in admiration of the sixteenth-century missionary saint. Before going to Guatemala, he did pastoral work among the Ojibwa people on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was an energetic person who excelled in sports and conversation. His death was the result of a heart attack at a moment when he was about to partake of some relaxation. It occurred on his way to a movie.
The people in Guatemala respected and loved Padre Javier. They carried his coffin in procession from the monastery to the cemetery a mile away. When a new parish was established in the city of Coban, it was named San Francisco Javier. No doubt the parishioners were more mindful of our Padre Javier rather than St. Francis Xavier, the Spanish Jesuit who never went anywhere in Latin America.
Necrology: Father Timothy Sexton died on July 20, 1988, at the age of eighty
DID HE REALLY SAY THAT?
In speaking of the monastic life and the priesthood, I once heard Father Tim say that he wasn't called by God. Some of his good friends in Indianapolis were going to high school at St. Meinrad's, and he didn't want to be separated from them. So, he just followed along. When they entered the monastery, so did he. As a young monk, however, he was sent away from the Indiana monastery-even before his ordination. Having contracted tuberculosis, it was believed that the Dakota climate would be beneficial to him. Although he was left with only one functioning lung, Father Timothy chain-smoked cigars until a year or so before his death. When he was a hospital chaplain, the smoke from his cigars set off the fire alarm more than once and brought the volunteer fire department to his door.
Within a short time on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota, he had mastered the tribal language, and was editing a weekly newspaper in Dakota. Years later, when he succeeded Father Ildephonse as the hospital and nursing home chaplain, Father Tim put out a daily paper called Blab. It was a fitting title for an enterprise of his.
He had a sense of humor that was at times outlandish. Community meetings were livened up by his humorous remarks, but we all knew to look for something profound beneath his apparent nonsense. Still there were times when he was simply being silly. Answering the phone in the chaplain's quarters, he would say, "Duffy's Tavern" or "Catholic Chancery." Once he identified himself as "Bishop Hoch here." There was a pause before the party on the other end spoke, and then he said, "Father Timothy, this is Bishop Hoch."
One time I brought Father Tim home from a Sioux Falls hospital where he'd been a patient. He said the whole experience was like being interrogated and imprisoned by the Communists. When a nurse came into his room, Father Tim said, "Here's another one of those Commies." I heard her tell the orderly who was going to assist him from the building, "When he collects his personal items at the desk, make sure that he counts his money. He says that there is a thousand dollars in his wallet." If that were so, why did I have to pay for our supper at Country Kitchen?
He died in the hospital where he was the chaplain, two weeks before he would have observed the Diamond Jubilee of his monastic profession. At baptism, he had been named Emmett for the Irish patriot, Robert Emmett. Father Tim's ancestry was solidly Irish, and he inherited the wit and wisdom of his race as well as its conviviality-and prejudice. Some English farmers observing agricultural methods in our area, attended Mass with Father Tim as the celebrant. He said the damnedest things on that occasion, too.
Necrology: Brother Eugene Cler died on November 6, 1998, at the age of seventy-three
HE GREW ROSES
After graduating from high school in Pesotum, Illinois, in 1943, he enlisted in the United States Marines, and served in the South Pacific until the end of World War II. Returning to civilian life, he was employed for a while at a tile factory in Florida. Then he found the work that would become his life's passion-growing flowers.
Brother Gene was a grower for greenhouses in two Indiana cities before moving to Aberdeen, South Dakota. Having married in 1947, he was a widower by the time he and his four children moved to these parts. After the children were all grown and living away from home, their father entered the monastery. It took some visitors by surprise when they heard other guests calling one of the monks "Dad" or "Grandpa."
For several years, Brother Gene was our guest master. He was the refectorian until a few weeks before his death, and for a brief time he was in charge of the abbey's maintenance. But always he was our greenhouse grower. He grew exquisite flowers to adorn our church and refectory. Guests were pleasantly surprised to find roses in their rooms, and often they left here with a plant from Brother Gene's greenhouse. In the summer, the patio at the entrance to the monastery was arrayed with flowers. Summer was also the time when we enjoyed watching Brother Gene fly a kite high above the abbey grounds. His kite was attached to a fishing rod and reel. He was a creative sort of person. During his final weeks of living with cancer, Brother Gene was training Brother Chris to take his place in the greenhouse.
In more recent years, Brother Gene's creativity had turned to poetry also. A chapbook of his poems, Necessary Excesses, was a bestseller in our bookstore. He was a reader at our annual literary festival every October. A month before his death, in a weakened voice, he read one of his poems that had been printed as a broadside by his literary friends.
Brother Gene had requested that his body be donated to the University of South Dakota Medical School with the proviso that his ashes were to be returned for burial in our cemetery. They were brought back to us within a couple years. Until that happened, Brother Francis used to tell people that Brother Gene had gone to college. One day I heard him and Brother Chris figuring out how many credit hours Brother Gene should have earned by then.
He often told us that he was the only monk in our community who understood women. This was because he'd been married to one. A novice who was answering the phone on the day following Brother Gene's death, commented, "All afternoon I was taking calls from broken-hearted women."
Necrology: Father Odo Gogel died on November 28, 1999, at the age of seventy-five
DON'T WALK. RUN!
Father Odo had numerous assignments in his lifetime as a monk of Blue Cloud Abbey. He approached each of these with great fervor. Sometimes the stretch of his enthusiasm was excessive. A student in the church history class Father Odo taught during the days when we had our own seminary, remarked, "Odo covered six centuries in one hour."
Soon after he arrived here from the mother abbey in Indiana, he was assigned to take courses in agriculture at South Dakota State University. This was in preparation for becoming our farm manager. He became our procurator instead.
His assignments outside the monastery were varied: the pastor of several parishes, and the chaplain of high schools and a community of Benedictine Sisters. For a time, he was stationed at one of the missions we staffed on a reservation. In later years, he was a hospital and nursing home chaplain. In addition to all of these works, Father Odo kept going back to school, and earned three master's degrees: in theology, psychology, and education.
The great disappointment in his life came in 1995, when he was called back to the monastery. "There's nothing to do here," he was overheard commenting to visitors. But he soon found things to do. Writing "spiritual snippets" to a multitude of people was a daily occupation. He made a point of meeting people, and putting them on his mailing list.
Father Odo was an intense kind of person. He seemed to look upon relaxation as a burden. Conducting one of several kinds of spiritual retreat was how he liked to spend a weekend when not committed to other duties. Near the end of his life, he became involved in doing Residents Encounter Christ (REC) retreats at prisons.
For two summers before he died, Father Odo set about destroying every thistle on our property. Afflicted with a respiratory problem, he had an attack while out in the pasture with a college student who was spending the summer here. "What shall I do?" the young man asked. Gasping for breath, Father Odo pointed a finger at the ground and said, "Get that thistle."
St. Benedict, in the Prologue to the Rule, says that as we progress in the monastic life, "we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love." Father Odo was certainly one of the all-time great runners.
Necrology: Father Lawrence Kratz died on July 10, 2000, at the age of eighty-seven
Father Lawrence was a convert to Catholicism. He often repeated the story about his Lutheran grandmother's introduction to Abbot Ignatius on her first visit to St. Meinrad's. She admired his pectoral cross, a symbol of abbatial authority, and asked where she might procure one like it for her grandson.
As a young man, Father Lawrence had joined an archeological expedition to the Yucatan. This experience formed his enduring love for the lands and peoples south of our border. He located the site for our foundation in Guatemala, and helped get it off the ground before answering a request to assist the monks from St. Meinrad's with their work in Peru. Father Lawrence spent a good number of years as the pastor of a barrio parish in Lima. Before either of these assignments, he had been on loan to the monks from St. Joseph's Abbey, Louisiana, at Guatemala's national shrine of Esquipulas.
During the construction era at Blue Cloud Abbey, Father Lawrence was in charge of the appeal office. A benefactor once told him that he had the "ability to charm the birds out of the trees." He did have a way that endeared him to people wherever he went. A woman motorist stopped one time when the car he was driving had a flat tire. He charmed her into changing it for him. After he returned to this country from Latin America, Father Lawrence spent several summers in the Red River Valley ministering to Mexican-Americans migrants who labored in the sugar beet fields of North Dakota and Minnesota. His Spanish-speaking parishioners called him "Padrecito." So did many of the monks.Father Lawrence's last assignment was in Watertown as chaplain for the Benedictine Sisters at Mother of God Monastery. During this time, his health began failing. One year at Christmas Midnight Mass, he fainted. An ambulance was called. While their chaplain was on the way to the hospital, the prioress suggested that they sing something. She got them started on "Joy to the World."
The last year of his life, he was confused, and sometimes he appeared not to recognize us. He remained jovial, however, to the end of his life. I stopped to see him one day, and he told me all about the dinner party he'd arranged at a fine hotel. "How was it?" I asked. "No one came," he said. Not long after that, he left for the heavenly banquet.
St. Odo of Cluny says of Benedict that when we "who have been gathered from both sexes and all ages" have all arrived at this banquet: "With what joy will he then dance at having been able to assemble these cohorts." Don't you look forward to seeing St. Benedict dance? I certainly do. Now there's a story that certainly bears repeating -- St. Benedict dancing!