Life started simply for Leonard LaRue, who was born on 14 January 1914 and attended the Pennsylvania Nautical School, serving aboard the Schoolship Annapolis, graduating in 1934. He then served as the skipper of the SS Meredith Victory during the Korean War. Merely days before Christmas 1950, U.S. Merchant Marine Captain Leonard LaRue and the SS Meredith Victory were delivering military supplies to the besieged port of Hungnam in northeast Korea. Nearly 100,000 Korean refugees had gathered there though, hoping to find escape on ships that were evacuating approximately 100,000 UN Command soldiers, arms, and supplies to safety further south at the port of Busan (then called Pusan).
When Captain LaRue was peering through his binoculars on 23 December 1950, he surveyed the heartbreaking scene from the deck of his ship. Thousands upon thousands of Koreans — men, women and children, with their eyes filled with fear — were crammed onto the docks of the City of Hungnam, desperate to flee the invading Chinese and North Korean communist forces that were closing in quickly during those early months of the Korean War, in fact only hours away from them. LaRue made the decision to unload nearly all of the arms and supplies on the ship in order to board as many refugees as possible, ordering the ship to be made ready to hold the refugees, so that they could evacuate as many as possible out of Hungnam. The ship had been built to accommodate only 12 passengers, in addition to its crew and staff.
Time was of the essence for Captain LaRue, who after the war became Benedictine Brother Marinus of St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey (USA), and the brave crew of his U.S. Merchant Marine cargo freighter, the SS Meredith Victory, to save as many of those ragged and frightened refugees as possible. Artillery fire roared above them, as they wasted no time in loading their new passengers, who took only what they could into the ship’s hold and on deck and then steamed out of port and imminent danger. Armed with courage and compassion, the captain and crew risked their lives to transport their new precious cargo —the last remaining 14,005 refugees — on a perilous 450-mile voyage through treacherous mine- and submarine-infested waters to the safety of Geoje Island. The mission — undertaken against all odds — has been called a “Christmas Miracle” by historians, in fact, the largest humanitarian rescue operation by a single ship in world history.
The SS Meredith Victory had sailed south with no equipment for mine, no doctor or interpreter on board, no lighting or heat in the holds, no sanitation facilities, and no military escort. The only gun on the entire ship as it traveled south was the pistol in Captain LaRue’s pocket. In spite of the fact that the refugees were packed together tightly, with most people having to stand up, shoulder-to-shoulder silently and nearly motionless in freezing weather conditions during the entire voyage, there was not a single injury or casualty on board. Five babies were born during the rescue sailing. The people were virtually unable to move, and there was very little food or water. The ship arrived in Busan on Christmas Eve and then headed to its final destination, Geoje Island, arriving there on Christmas Day.
“I think often of that voyage. I think of how such a small vessel was able to hold so many persons and surmount endless perils without harm to a soul. And as I think, the clear, unmistakable message comes to me that on that Christmastide, in the bleak and bitter waters off the shore of Korea, God’s own hand was at the helm of my ship,” Brother Marinus, a Benedictine monk at St. Paul’s Abbey from 1954 until his death in 2001, said in a reflection.
Recognizing that heroic voyage of Brother Marinus and his crew and his profound faith in God, Bishop Arthur Serratelli has opened his cause for sainthood in the Diocese of Paterson.
On 25 March 2019, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, the Bishop signed and sealed a decree that opens “the informative process for Beatification and Canonization” to “study the heroic virtues and reputation of the holiness of the Servant of God, Brother Marinus” — the first step in his cause. With this historic decree, the Catholic faithful can pray to God through the intercession of Brother Marinus, who has been bestowed with the title “Servant of God.”
In 2017, the Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America, a non-profit, private association of the Christian faithful, based in Port Arthur, Texas (USA), had petitioned Bishop Serratelli to open his cause for sainthood. Recently, the Bishop announced that he planned to open Brother Marinus’ cause during a meeting of the New Jersey Catholic Conference — another part of the first step.
Bishop Serratelli’s signing of the decree, in part, also recognizes the providence of God, who sent a group of monks from South Korea to Newton in 2001 to save St. Paul’s from closing — nearly 51 years after Brother Marinus and his crew of the SS Meredith Victory rescued those desperate refugees at Hungnam. By 2000, the number of monks at St. Paul’s had declined, causing discussions about closing the abbey and transferring the rest of the monks to other abbeys. The next year, six monks from the Waegwan community in South Korea accepted St. Paul’s invitation to live and serve in Newton, arriving two months after Brother LaRue died on 14 October 2001 at 87 years of age. St. Paul’s has become a dynamic spiritual center for the Korean Catholic community.
“The heroic account of Captain LaRue saving 14,000 Korean refugees under such perilous conditions is most impressive. That the ship, the SS Meredith Victory, has been called the ‘Ship of Miracles’ is truly appropriate,” Bishop Serratelli wrote in a letter dated 9 May 2017, to Father Sinclair Oubre, past president of the Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America and director of the Apostleship of the Sea for the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas (USA), in response to an earlier letter from the priest, suggesting the cause. Later that year, Father Oubre visited the Diocese to meet with the Bishop and the monks of St. Paul’s to discuss a cause. “I totally agree with Brother Marinus’ later reflection of that voyage: ‘God’s own hand was at the helm of my ship.’ This statement is an example of Brother Marinus’ humbleness. I do not think it is a coincidence that Captain LaRue saved 14,000 Korean refugees and, decades later, Brother Marinus’ abbey is saved from closing by the arrival of Korean monks,” the Bishop wrote.
CAUSE FOR SAINTHOOD
The decree states that Bishop Serratelli has appointed Father Pawel Tomczyk, Director of Youth Ministry and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for the Diocese of Paterson, and chaplain at William Paterson University in Wayne, as the cause’s postulator, who will represent the cause of Brother Marinus. The Bishop also named Monsignor Edward Kurtyka, judicial vicar of the diocesan Tribunal and pastor of St. Paul Parish in Prospect Park, New Jersey, as the episcopal delegate, who will oversee all aspects of the diocesan inquiry.
The first part into the inquiry of Brother Marinus will involve proving his heroic virtue — “that he was a holy man” — which will include testimony from the three surviving shipmates of the SS Meredith Victory. If the Vatican accepts that evidence, he will be given the title “Venerable.” Then, bishops in Rome will review Brother Marinus’ writings for theological errors. If they do not find any heresy, the Diocese will investigate claims of possible medical miracles that took place with the help of Brother Marinus’ intercession. The verification of one miracle would qualify him to become beatified with the title “Blessed”. A second miracle would make him eligible to be canonized as a saint, said Dr. Mary Mazzarella, Paterson’s diocesan Respect Life coordinator, who has been assisting with the cause.
“I was surprised that we reached the first step so quickly,” said Father Oubre, who credited Bishop Serratelli for being receptive to opening Brother Marinus’ cause so swiftly. In 2016, Father Oubre devised the idea of promoting Brother Marinus’ cause, after reading a book about his heroic voyage, Ship of Miracles, by former Washington Post reporter Bill Gilbert, and talking with one of his shipmates, retired U.S. Rear Admiral Robert Lunney. “This enables us to move to the next step: building a history of Brother Marinus to send to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints in Rome,” he said.
With the opening of the cause, Brother Marinus will follow the footsteps of another notable local Catholic — Blessed Miriam Theresa Demjanovich, a Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth from Convent Station, New Jersey, whose cause had been opened by Bishop Thomas McLaughlin of Paterson in 1945. She was beatified in 2014.
THE HEROIC MISSION
The mission of the S.S. Meredith Victory in early December 1950 involved delivering supplies to anti-communist forces in Korea, which included a stop in Hungnam, now part of North Korea. In the midst of the heavy fighting on land, Brother Marinus, also a World War II veteran, volunteered the ship to participate in the rescue operation — the refugees’ last hope of escape. To accomplish this, the crew had to dump much of its cargo of weapons and supplies. On 23 December 1950, they boarded the 14,000 refugees who were forced to stand packed in the hold and on the deck of the unarmed ship. This all happened under the threat that stray artillery fire could hit the passengers or the 300 tons of fuel on board and cause mass fatalities, according to recollections by Admiral Lunney.
As the last vessel to leave port, during the evacuation mission, the S.S. Meredith Victory set sail on 23 December with its passengers on deck subjected to freezing temperatures. The vessel steamed to the City of Busan, which was overcrowded with refugees and UN forces. Once he received food and supplies for the refugees, Brother Marinus pointed the ship to Geoje Island, 38 miles southwest of Busan, where the ship arrived on Christmas Day. The crew unloaded the passengers — which now included five babies born in transit — by amphibious landing craft because the island had no pier.
Over the years, the heroism of Brother Marinus and his crew has merited them countless honors for their rescue, such as the Gallant Ship Award from the U.S. Congress and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation. In 2017, Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea, visited the National Museum of the U.S. Marine Corps, in Quantico, Virginia (USA) for a wreath-laying ceremony at a monument for the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War. He told the audience that the crew of the SS Meredith Victory had rescued his parents and sister two years before his birth on Geoje Island. He added, “Had it not been for the valiant warriors of the Chosin Battle and the success of the Hungnam Evacuation, I would not even exist today.”
LIFE OF PRAYER AT ST. PAUL’S ABBEY
In 1954, Brother Marinus entered the Benedictine order at St. Paul’s to pursue a quiet life of humble prayer — influenced by Benedictine priests he had met in Brazil and Japan — and professed his first vows in 1956. Taking his religious name in honor of the Blessed Mother, he performed the menial tasks of washing dishes, working in the gift shop and ringing the abbey’s bell each morning. After having suffered for years from a lack of mobility and dementia, Brother Marinus died on 14 October 2001.
“We are so happy — Brother Marinus was our brother!” said Prior Samuel Kim OSB, superior of St. Paul’s community, who had seen the new Servant of God on a visit to the abbey in 2001. “He was a hero but also was a humble monk,” he said.
In his homily for Brother Marinus’ funeral, Father Joel Macul OSB, abbot of St. Paul’s community at the time, said that the monk “left the sea with all its drama and heroic opportunities for the intimacy of a daily sustained relationship with the Lord and his Mother.”
“In his own way, Brother Marinus was sharing the cup of the Lord’s suffering until he comes again in glory. In the Eucharist, he believed that he was joining the inhumanity he had witnessed around the world to the saving humanity of Christ, who died that all might be free and all might have a lasting homeland,” said Father Joel, now prior of the Christ the King Priory in Schuyler, Nebraska (USA).
For years, Admiral Lunney visited Brother Marinus at St. Paul’s. The monk, he said, once gave a simple yet profound reflection on how he was able to muster up courage to lead that daring and dangerous rescue in 1950: “The answer is in the Holy Bible — ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’”
[The Diocese directs any member of the faithful who has “useful knowledge” about Brother Marinus LaRue OSB to bring that information to the attention of Monsignor Edward Kurtyka at the Diocesan Pastoral Center, Diocese of Paterson, 777 Valley Rd., Clifton, New Jersey 07013 USA]
Adapted from an article by MICHAEL WOJCIK, News Editor, Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey (USA)