June 21, 1930-October 13, 2019
Hugh Francis Clarke was born in Newark, NJ, June 21, 1930 to Patrick Clarke, born in Co. Cavan, Ireland, and Catherine Carolan, born in Hamilton, Scotland. Abbot Brian was pre-deceased by his parents, and siblings, Marie (Gillespie), Raymond and James. Innumerable nieces, nephews, cousins, and great nieces and nephews survive him, including his sister-in-law, Lorraine Clarke.
Hugh attended St. Peter’s Grammar School, Newark, graduating in 1945, and matriculated to St. Benedict’s Prep, also in Newark, graduating in 1949. It was there where the Benedictine monks of St. Mary’s Abbey fostered his vocation. Upon his graduation from St. Benedict’s Prep in 1949, Hugh applied to St. Mary’s Abbey, then in Newark. Abbot Brian recalls a baseball team, the Shamrocks, in a largely Jewish neighborhood around Weequahic High School. “My brother Jim was an infielder on the team and Abbot Gerard [who succeeded him as abbot!] an outfielder,” Abbot Brian remembered.
After novitiate from 1951-1952 at St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Ks., Hugh professed simple vows on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, September 8, 1952, and became known as Brian. Frater Brian received a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa., in 1954, and undertook theological studies at St. Mary’s School of Theology, at Delbarton in Morristown. On May 31, 1958, the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady, Fr. Brian, along with Frs. Benet Caffrey, Conall Coughlin and Thomas Confroy, were ordained priests at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Paterson, NJ. Fr. Brian celebrated his First Mass at his home parish, St. Peter’s, Newark. Over these early years, Fr. Brian also worked on a Master of Arts degree in English at Seton Hall University, South Orange, which he completed in 1967.
Beginning in 1954, Fr. Brian began his long career of teaching, at both Delbarton School, Morristown, and St. Benedict’s Prep, Newark. He taught Latin, Modern History, Religious Studies and his passion, English, in which he introduced students to his love of literature. A Delbarton alumnus recently related how much he enjoyed reading Catcher in the Rye with Abbot Brian. Fr. Brian’s love of Flannery O’Connor was also readily apparent. Abbot Brian generously taught for over sixty years, and mentored with his humor, wit and kindliness generations of young men.
In the 1960s, Fr. Brian also undertook fulltime parochial ministry at St. Benedict’s Church, Newark, and Sacred Heart Church, Wilmington, Del., both staffed at the time by the monks of St. Mary’s Abbey. In 1967, Fr. Brian was appointed novice master in Morristown by Abbot Martin Burne, and prior in 1971 by Abbot Leonard Cassell. On June 13, 1975, the chapter of St. Mary’s Abbey elected Fr. Brian as their seventh abbot. The abbatial blessing was celebrated July 19, 1975. Abbot Brian served as abbot for twenty years, submitting his resignation at the age of sixty-five, according the Constitution at the time.
Abbot Brian admits: “Those twenty years were very challenging ones for the Church and this monastery.” Indeed the Church was experiencing growing pains following the Second Vatican Council. Abbot Brian was steadfast in leadership and an example of monastic observance to the brethren, and he faithfully served out his mandate as abbot. During those twenty years the abbey infirmary was built and continues to be a place where the sick brethren are served as Christ, as St. Benedict insists in the Rule. The nursing staff, as usual, are to be cherished for their loving care of Abbot Brian in his final years, and all the monks in need. A succession of headmasters during Abbot Brian’s twenty years expanded and improved the school, adding facilities, increasing enrollment and raising the academic standards.
The first few months of Abbot Brian’s years in office met with a significant challenge. Following the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese army in 1975, waves of immigrants even made their way as far east as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The United States Army at Fort Indiantown Gap, which served as a refugee camp for more than 32,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, contacted Abbot Brian. Among the group who were given temporary housing at St Mary’s Abbey was a monk from a monastery closed by the North Vietnamese. Br. Tarcisius eventually transferred his vow of stability to St. Mary’s Abbey and remained close to Abbot Brian, and survives him.
In December 1975, a devastating fire raged through the old monastery (now Vincent House). Providentially no one was killed, and four monks were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Three Vietnamese refugees were also living in the building and safely evacuated. “In the ensuing year or two the monastery sponsored some seventeen refugees and was active in helping numerous others to get placed in homes and jobs,” Abbot Brian proudly recounts. In 1980, the USCCB honored Abbot Brian with their humanitarian award for his work with Vietnamese refugees.
In 1996, following his resignation in 1995 as abbot. Fr. Brian enjoyed a year sabbatical. He began with studies at Marianella, in Dublin, Ireland, in a program for priests. He studied and shared stories with forty-two other priests from all over the world. In addition to the studies, golf and pubs, Abbot Brian was able to rekindle relationships with his extensive family. After three and a half months in Ireland, Abbot Brian’s sabbatical took him to Israel, which, he says “was an even greater experience.” He studied the Hebrew Scriptures, and Islamic history and culture. The sabbatical also included visits to many archeological sites.
Abbot Brian resided in Ein Karem, “the town associated with John the Baptist and thus the town where Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth,” he reports. He continues: “I used to sit on an outcropping of rock on one of the hills, look to the north and thus Nazareth and imagine Mary coming on a donkey to visit her cousin with the glad news.” When he returned Abbot Brian was noticeably refreshed and his preaching had taken on a whole new dimension.
Until a few years ago, Abbot Brian enjoyed part-time teaching and preaching, weekend assistance at Christ the King, New Vernon, and St. James, Basking Ridge, and chaplaincy work at the Carmelite Monastery, Morristown. Abbot Brian moderated for many years the Delbarton Parents of Graduates Association, which he found difficult to give up as his health declined.
He was an ever-present fan of sports on campus, especially baseball and basketball. The former took him back to his days on the Shamrocks in his native Newark. The latter became an exciting winter diversion, and he always had a reserve seat courtside with the team, where he could cheer on the Green Wave. He developed close ties with the players and coaches as a mentor and number one fan.
For decades, he hosted at Delbarton an annual family picnic in July, with multiple generations in attendance. In addition to these picnics, Abbot Brian visited family and friends at the Jersey Shore and the Chesapeake Bay, something he enjoyed in his youth at Laurence Harbor. Fr. Brian always looked forward to seeing everyone at the picnic, the shore or wherever he traveled. In fact, it seems Abbot Brian could travel almost anywhere, and find a relative.
His passion for the abbey orchard never wavered. This facet of his life began in the 1950s, and would become “therapy,” especially when his abbatial duties became taxing. Generations of postulants, novices and juniors enjoyed the colorful autumn days with Abbot Brian harvesting (and eating) apples. From time to time gravity would get the better of one his helpers who was perched inside a tree for those hard-to-reach apples, and who wasn’t savvy about the proper placement of the ladder. The monks continue to enjoy apples from trees Abbot Brian lovingly cultivated for decades.
Abbot Brian’s body will be received at the abbey church on Thursday, October seventeenth, at 11 a.m. The Office of the Dead will be sung later that evening at 6:45 p.m. The Funeral Mass and interment will begin at 10:30 on Friday, October eighteenth. Friends may pay their respects on Thursday, October seventeenth from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and from 7:15 to 9:15 p.m. Donations in Abbot Brian’s memory to support the abbey capital improvements health care of the monks or abbey endowment may be made using the following link: https://www.saintmarysabbey.org/support-us.
Abbot Richard and the monks of St. Mary’s Abbey request the customary suffrages for our confrere, Abbot Brian.
— Abbot Richard Cronin, O.S.B. & the monks of St. Mary’s Abbey