Dear Friends of St. Albert’s,
If you joined us for prayers last week you saw our numbers vastly increased, as the priory community welcomed Dominicans from Alaska to Guatemala, and Salt Lake City to Nairobi to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Western Dominican Province. To be sure, Dominican friars have been established in the west for half a century longer, but shortly after our arrival in California, in 1851, we lost the numbers required to maintain our legal status as a Province. In 1912, the Master of the Order, Hyacinth Cormier, re-established the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.
As a result, Fr. Cormier holds a special place in the hearts of Western Dominicans. And he holds an even more hallowed spot in the hearts of two Dominicans who have had the honor to serve as prior at St. Albert’s. One is Fr. Denis Reilly, who now works in Salt Lake City; the other is the humble scribbler of these lines. In 1994 we learned that Fr. Cormier was to be beatified by Pope John Paul II. One of our brothers, teaching at the Angelicum (our international Dominican seminary in Rome) sent a note to the Provincial remarking that one airline or another had advertised a “two for one” sale, and he suggested the Provincial and I (I was the Provincial’s assistant in those days) come to Rome for the beatification.
The Provincial, Fr. Daniel Syverstad, hated to travel, so he told me that if I wanted to go I should find someone to accompany me and represent the Province at the event. Fr. Denis was Prior at St. Albert’s, and the famous “Prior’s Window” overlooks the Provincial Office. I peeked out of my window and saw a light on in Fr. Denis’ room. I walked over to St. Albert’s, knocked on his door, and made my proposal. “Can we stop in Venice?” he asked.
One of my Dominican brothers asked my mother whether I had been a difficult child to rear. She replied, “No, he was very obedient; he always did exactly what we told him to – right before he did whatever it was he had in mind to begin with!” As I look back, I was always seeking ways to annoy my mother, small ways she couldn’t object to, because (on the surface, at least) they appeared rather noble. One of these was my choice to study German when I went to college. I no longer recall why this disturbed my mother, but it did, and of all the European languages, German has been the least useful when I’ve travelled – except when it has proven absolutely indispensable, as it did in Venice, where the Dominican community was largely composed of Germans, some of whom spoke no English.
Venice in November was magical, with buildings appearing and disappearing in the fog – and Fr. Denis complaining I was trying to kill him with my relentless sight-seeing. After three or four days we boarded a train for Rome and all the festivity that accompanies a beatification. These affairs are splendidly organized, so after the beatification Mass the Dominicans who attended were led into a small room where the Pope came in and shook our hands. Someone behind him – I have no idea how he kept us all straight – whispered who we were, so the Pope was able to say a few words to each of us.
And thus, by a somewhat round-about and rambling Gothic tale, we return to last week’s Assembly. The week began with Mass, at which Fr. Paul Scanlon preached. Fr. Paul is another Dominican who has recently enjoyed the view “From the Prior’s Window.” He was elected Provincial when I was a novice, and led the Province throughout my years as a student. His homily was quite stirring, and it reminded me how very, very excited my classmates and I were when we learned he had been chosen to be our Provincial, in 1969. Our present Provincial, Fr. Mark Padrez, spoke to us after dinner that first night of the Assembly. His words were as compelling as Fr. Paul’s, and contained a challenge for each of us to renew ourselves through prayer, study, and reconciliation.
The next morning Fr. Augustine Thompson, the historian in our midst, gave a series of reflections on the recent history – the last fifty years or so – of the Western Province. To prepare for this presentation, Fr. Augustine asked each of us to identify our “heroes” among the Western Dominicans who have died. He was able to build upon the lives and ministries of these friars, some of whom were nothing but names to the younger members of our community. In the afternoon we gathered at our cemetery in Benicia, where we celebrated Mass, and had an opportunity to learn more about the history of our Province.
Four of us were selected to speak, at various spots, in the cemetery. Groups of friars moved from one station to another and learned about the history of the cemetery itself, the history of the Dominican School, and the very Romantic history of Concepcion Arguello, an early vocation to the San Rafael Dominicans, who is buried in the cemetery. I filled the fourth spot, and offered reflections on three of our brothers buried around us.
Someone had asked me to speak about Fr. Lawrence Breen, who died in 1907. I gather our brother chose Fr. Breen at random, but he chose well, for Fr. Breen lived the sort of Dominican life that any of us would be proud to live, and left a testimony any of us would be proud to claim. He was born in San Francisco during the Civil War, in 1864. He joined the Dominicans when he was only 16 years old, professed vows in 1882, and was ordained six years later, when he was 24 years old. He was very timid when he preached his first sermon, but a Dominican who attended the Mass remarked, “The writing was good.”
What is most touching about Fr. Breen’s very short life – he died when he was only 44 – was his reputation for kindness and his dedication to Dominican ministry. The obituary that appeared in the Portland Oregonian stated he was “A man of simple, unassuming nature and untiring zeal….” And the Benicia Herald added he was buried next to Fr. Samuel John Jones. “It is fitting,” the paper said, “that in death these two well beloved priests should sleep side by side, for in life they were companions, having entered the monastery together and been ordained at the same time.”
I chose Fr. Albert Muller on my own. He came from a distinguished military background. He was born at Fort Niobrara, Nebraska, in 1889. His older brother was a Major General, who served as Chief of Logistics under General Patton and, later, as Chief of Administration and Logistics for NATO forces under Dwight Eisenhower.
But the reason I chose to reflect on Fr. Muller is an accidental encounter with some of his writing. Br. Raymond was showing me around the Archives on day, and I looked at some notebooks in one of the files. I asked Br. Raymond, “Did Fr. Muller write novels?” Br. Raymond replied that he had written a number of them, all with a Western theme.
This was interesting to me because about ten years ago Fr. LaSalle Hallissey introduced me to something called NaNoWriMo – this is short for “National Novel Writing Month,” which is using November to write a 50,000 novel. Fr. La Salle had written a couple of stories before he got me hooked, and one year we lured Fr. Vincent Benoit and Fr. Carl Schlichte to join us. Fr. LaSalle and I are the only two to have kept up with the discipline, and even before I discovered Fr. Muller I thought there was a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written on the novels of the Western Dominican Province. With Fr. Muller in the mix – he is, at least for the moment, still the most prolix of us – this could be quite a study.
The third Dominican I spoke about was my teacher, Fr. Antonio Moreno. A friend is fond of staying that one way of dividing the population is to ask, “Did the good guys or the bad guys win the Spanish Civil War?” Until I arrived at St. Albert’s, my opinion of that conflict had been formed by writers like Hemmingway, so Fr. Moreno was the first person I’d ever met who not only represented the Royalist cause, but actually fought in the Royalist army – and sacrificed an eye for his belief.
I think Fr. Moreno is about as close as we’re going to come, in our day, to a Renaissance man. In Spain he was trained as an architect – a wing of the house of formation he designed and lived in is still standing – and he received a Master’s degree in physics from Cal Berkeley, in 1958.
Tony taught at the Dominican School for 26 years. He wrote one book and 55 articles. The topics ranged from Jungian psychology to calculus, and from the theory of evolution to the Spanish mystics. He said he was not a natural writer, and felt like the mother of the Dionne quintuplets every time he completed an article. But when the article is published, he wrote, “It produces a kind of paternal satisfaction.” This parental care was rewarded with the Master of Sacred Theology degree in 1994.
Wednesday brought an enlightening presentation from the directors of the Catherine of Siena Institute, a ministry of the Western Province dedicated to helping the laity discern the gifts they can place at the service of the Church. In this year when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and as we look forward to Pope Benedict’s issuing a letter on “The New Evangelization,” the work of the Institute is more and more prophetic.
Thursday found us in San Francisco, where we celebrated Mass at the newly-refurbished St. Dominic Parish, and made an Act of Consecration to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Patroness of the Americas. We then repaired to Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch with a splendid view, and the opportunity to honor our brothers celebrating jubilee anniversaries of their ordination or profession of vows.
Today, a week later, signs of the Assembly are still evident. I have not yet taken down some of the displays I put together (I am not nearly so efficient an Archivist as Br. Raymond!) and we are still scurrying around, readying guest rooms for the first of the groups that will visit us this summer.
What is most evident, though, is the quiet that has descended upon St. Albert’s as July has begun to unfold. Not only have our Assembly visitors departed, but the students have all left for their summer assignments, and for the first time in recent history, we will have no students among us until September! Friars have begun leaving for their vacations, so each day seems to herald a newly-diminished number of white habits in the chapel. We are more than ever aware of your presence, as you assume a greater and greater part in our daily prayers.
Your part and presence in our life reminds me of a conversation I had this morning, with one of the professionals the Province has engaged to take a look at how our various operations “work,” and how efficiently we manage our resources. The woman asked me to look ahead and describe the Priory’s strengths and weaknesses. Among the strengths, I counted the four young men who will profess vows on September 1st and join our community as they begin their studies for the priesthood. And I mentioned you – those of you who join us in our chapel, and those of you who are a part of our life from afar. Your prayers and your support are essential to what we do and who we are. You have been a part of every day of this last century of our history in the West, and I speak for every member of the Western Province when I say we are
Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.