March 2013

March 2, 2013

Dear Friends of Saint Albert’s,

A great deal has happened since I last wrote. A Pope has resigned, we are witnessing a friend’s very holy death, the squirrels kept their part of the bargain I mentioned in last month’s reflection, the Priory is presently filled with young men taking a look at our Dominican way of life, and we’ve made our way through an election for prior of Saint Albert’s.

My feast day is February 12, which, this year, happened to be Mardi Gras – and the last day of my term as Prior.  As the day approached, I found myself, like Judy Collins, asking, “Who knows where the time goes?” The three years of my term seemed to have passed so quickly, I had to check the Province Directory a couple of times to make certain I hadn’t miscalculated the date. As things turned out, I’d counted correctly, and my term had indeed come to an end. Our law doesn’t allow us to set a date for an election until the office is vacant, so we gathered on February 16 to decide when to hold the election. No one particularly wanted to come back for another meeting, so we decided to vote that night. I’d promised the squirrels their fill of Triscuits (they, like some of my Dominican brothers, have decided they’ve had enough Wheat Thins) if they stood by me, and stand they did – outside the glass doors to our common room – with signs reading, “Three More Years!” To my furry friends’ delight – and my great honor – I was chosen to lead the community for another three years. Other priors have been chosen for jobs elsewhere, or have declined re-election, so I am the first prior in nearly two decades to serve two terms. 

The death we are privileged to witness is that of Sr. Maria Goretti, the Oakford Dominican who directed the kitchen at St. Albert’s for thirty or more years. She was an astonishingly good cook, but her gift with left-overs was even more astonishing. She had the capacity to turn a previous night’s dinner into an irresistible lunch, and when food came from the kitchen it appeared as if an artist had assembled it.

I stand in awe of my Dominican brothers, like Jude Eli, who are true chefs; I am merely a competent cook, and I owe a great deal of that competence to my association with Sr. Goretti. I believe the year was 1989 when St. Albert’s hosted the General Chapter, our international legislative assembly. Dominicans gathered here from around the world, and for thirty days, St. Albert’s functioned as a pretty efficient hotel. The Chapter’s steering committee put me in charge of the food, but no one had any doubt who was really the boss. Sr. Goretti and I, with three or four others, spent hours in the kitchen, preparing meals for more than a hundred individuals three times each day. Everything was simple, everything was fresh, and everything was devoured. Each day we prepared more, to keep up with the volume of what had been consumed the day before – until finally Sr. Goretti threw up her hands and said, “These people are no longer eating!”  What they were doing was left to our imagination, but when I was chosen to attend the Order’s General Chapter six years later, a number of my European brothers came up and remarked how fondly they remembered the meals we had prepared for them in Oakland.

About six months ago, Sr. Goretti was diagnosed with cancer, and she appears to have developed a brain tumor. This past Wednesday the Dominican sister with whom she lives sent us this note:

"Our Sister is now moving along the last stage of her journey Home. She sleeps much of the day and night, recognizes us and can still speak though her confusion increases. She is pain free, and she decided today to stop eating though she will take fluids. She prays so beautifully for all of us, for the world, for her family. There is no confusion when she is praying! But this disease takes its toll. At times she experiences the Presence of Jesus, Mary her Mother, sometimes her family members who have gone before. At other times she experiences absence and this is disorienting for her and painful, though she responds gratefully to reassurances that she is not left alone, Jesus is coming very close.
The Hospice folks are very good, will be here again tomorrow to check on her; will respond at any hour if I call. And we know what lies ahead for our Sister, so there is much peace of heart in the midst of tears for the touching beauty and love of her life among us. I gave her Communion this morning and, when she became restless, anointed her with the holy water she brought from Lourdes. She became very peaceful, raised her arms wide and said “Jesus! Jesus! Come for me. I give you always my whole heart!”

No one could ever doubt Sr. Goretti’s deep – but essentially practical – spirituality. When I was a student, one of our foreign missionary priests, Fr. Louis Robinson, died quite suddenly. I’d never met him, but he had been immensely popular, and everyone was very, very touched by our loss. I was helping to serve dinner the night of his funeral, and one of the older brothers said, “Isn’t it sad about Fr. Louie?” Sr. Goretti shot him a severe look and asked, “And what’s wrong about dying a priest?” Two of us paid Sr. Goretti a very brief visit yesterday afternoon, and neither of us would have thought to say, “How sad,” lest she retort, “And what’s wrong with being eighty-nine and dying a Dominican sister?”

The squirrels haven’t said whom they’re supporting in the upcoming Papal Conclave, but everyone else seems to have an opinion. Fr. Augustine Thompson and I have settled upon Angelo Bagnasco, the Archbishop of Genoa. Fr. Joseph Sergott, who serves as assistant to our Provincial, is holding out for Luis Tagle, Archbishop of Manila. Yesterday was my turn to hear confessions of the Dominican nuns at Corpus Christi Monastery, in Menlo Park. One told me she has hopes for Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. I remarked, and she agreed, he seems an extremely dark horse, but when I related this to a friend he replied, “Don’t ever – ever! – underestimate those women.” As I’m finding no consensus among my two-footed friends, perhaps I should consult the squirrels. They, by the way, have abandoned the scruffy oak trees outside my Birch Court window, and, my brothers tell me, are frolicking – apparently with amorous intent – on the lawn outside our common room. I seem to spend most of my days writing at my desk, so I’ve been very tempted to move my computer to a room with a southern window so I might watch them at play. In the meantime, I’ve been tossing food in their direction, and none of it survives the night, so I can report they seem to enjoy stale sourdough baguettes (with seeds) and left-over popcorn.

When I last wrote, a friend and I were preparing to drive to Mexicali, to celebrate Fr. Martin Walsh’s 75th birthday. I paid Mexicali a visit, twenty or so years ago, when I was assistant to one of our Provincials. The change in two decades is amazing – the entire downtown area looks a great deal like the San Fernando Valley of my youth. The main streets are multi-lane boulevards, with wide planting strips down the center. When the trees reach maturity, and the flowers are in bloom, the place will be magnificent. As things stand now, the city boasts housing tracts with two-story, tile-roofed homes, and the Dominican house has an electric gate and – more to the point (my point, at least) – a kitchen that boggles the mind!  

I don’t recall what the folks wore when I visited the first time, but I’m willing to bet the women weren’t nearly so thin and elegantly clad in the black dresses they wore to the first night’s reception to honor Fr. Martin, nor the men so well-barbered and dressed in dark suits. The friend I travelled with has read that only a decade stands between Mexico’s emerging as the world’s fourth or fifth economy, and the predictive evidence was certainly on view. I kept a list of the familiar businesses we saw, which included McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr., Wal-Mart, Circle K, 7-Eleven, Office Depot, Starbucks, Blockbuster Video, Costco, Home Depot, Best Buy Hardware, Domino’s Pizza, Little Caesar, and Budget Rental Car. Our host served us French champagne before dinner, and we enjoyed some very nice local wine with our meal. “This ain’t your daddy’s Mexicali!” I whispered to a friend during dessert.

The following day Br. Richard Maher (who has interrupted his studies to spend time his Residence Year working with the Dominican community) fetched us, Fr. Anthony Rosevear, and this year’s novices for a visit to the Dominican mission at Villa Zapata. This was an “old Mexicali” neighborhood, reminiscent of my first visit, but the chapel is quite new, built according to the new ecological principles one reads about in modern architectural journals. The place is open-aired, the roof supported with pillars constructed of hay bales covered with stucco. The “church yard” is surrounded by a fence identical to the one around St. Albert’s, which means its security depends largely on the manners of those it is intended to keep out. In this case, they don’t match up to those of the would-be intruders in Oakland, as the Dominicans have lost the “bell” (apparently no more than an iron ring) with which they summoned the faithful to worship. Perhaps more telling is to learn that, in winter, the Saturday evening Mass is celebrated at 3 o’clock – this so the worshippers can make their way home in daylight and not be molested by drug traders. 

In the course of our sight-seeing Br. Richard drove us past a couple of affairs that looked a great deal like the Nazi concentration camps I saw pictured in my youth. These turned out to be Evangelical Protestant centers for drug rehabilitation, and their walls and manned watchtowers convey the impression those in charge are deadly serious about their mission. I have the world’s worst sense of direction, so even with MapQuest at our service, I managed to get us lost a number of times. On one highway I realized we would have to turn around, but we saw no sign of an off ramp. I still drive a car that belongs to the Rosary Center in Portland, so it has Oregon license plates. When I saw a turn-out area for use of the highway patrol, I slowed down and took advantage of it – much, I’m sure, to the annoyance of the driver behind me; even my companion was somewhat startled. “This is one of the nice things about driving in California with Oregon plates,” I said, “I don’t have to behave. Californians think Oregonians are all clowns, so no one expects us to know any better!”

As if to prove me a liar, when I said the squirrels had deserted Birch Court for the back lawn, a moment ago, a squirrel just raced across the tree-scape in front of my window. He paused long enough to look in my direction and nod his regards to all of you who have grown to be such fans of him and our other elegant friends. I add my regards to his, and I pray that these days of Lent are happy and grace-filled for you. Each of them brings our grateful prayers for all that your kindness allows us to do at St. Albert’s. The students are well into the Spring semester, busy with classes, papers, and ministry assignments. If you’d like a preview of coming attractions, I invite you to attend Evening Prayers at 5:15pm in the Priory chapel on Saturday and Sunday, when the students take turns preaching. God’s people, I assure you, will be very well-served when these men have completed their training. 

As you might imagine, this education and training is a costly enterprise. We depend upon your prayers and support to educate and train the young men who will be the Christ’s voice in the 21st Century. Thank you for your willingness to be a part of our future!

Gratefully, in Christ,
--Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.

 5890 Birch Court   ~   Oakland, CA   ~   94618-1627  ~   510.596.1800   ~   Western Dominican Province
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