From the Prior's Window
My return to Oakland from Anchorage has been nothing less than magnificent. First, I have a window once again, so I no longer feel I’m writing this reflection with a certain lack of credibility. Secondly, the day after my arrival was so warm I asked someone whether I was hallucinating or were we simply enjoying unseasonably warm weather. I was happy to learn the temperatures were unusually high.
What was far less consoling was to learn that Thomas More McGreevy, my Student Master – and one of my forerunners as Prior at St. Albert’s – was near death. A few days after I came home, on February 3, we learned that Thomas More had died. Thomas More had been a childhood diabetic; only his rigorous adherence to a strict program of diet and exercise had enabled him to live seventy-six years, far longer than any of his doctors expected.
His appointment as our Student Master came as a surprise to everyone – not least to him. The office very suddenly fell vacant, while Fr. Thomas More was quite happily engaged in leading the Catholic campus ministry at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Both he and the students at St. Albert’s were altogether unprepared for our superiors’ decision to appoint him our director. The next few years were “rocky,” at best.
Some of my classmates quickly discovered that Thomas More’s diabetes required him to observe an absolutely inflexible daily schedule. Thus, if they wanted permission to leave the house (this was the early 1970s, remember!) they would wait until they knew he was unavailable, and then knock on his door or call on his telephone – fully aware he couldn’t reply. Then they would seek their permission from his assistant.
I, on the other hand, determined to impress our Student Master by my “perfection” – or so I liked to call it. I had been assigned to clean the showers and toilets on my hallway. The student who’d had the job the year before (he left our Order years ago, so I’m telling no tales on one of my peers) had loathed the job, so I wouldn’t have had to work very hard to improve on his less than stellar performance.
In his defense, I ought to say that he had made himself so unpopular we used to go out of our way to provoke him. One year his job was to sweep the students’ hallways. I discovered that if the door to the stairway and the windows in my room were open at the same time, I could create a draft that sent the dust mice in my room scurrying into the hall – always (curiously enough) just after Brother X had put away his dust mop, and just before Fr. Thomas More made his rounds. But this is to interrupt my tale, which ends by no one’s predicting how high in the firmament of bathroom cleaners I would ascend.
In those days I was one of several students who rose early to run a mile or so each morning before prayers. We called ourselves the “Human Renewal Society” – the “Newals,” for short – so after I dressed for the morning run I hopped into the toilet room. I no longer remember whether we had aerosol cleansers in those days, but I armed myself with a brush and swished something around in the urinal, then did the same with the toilets. I polished them and, armed with a clean cloth, did the same for the sink. I then took a can of Lemon Pledge, with which I polished the toilet seats and, imitating the recruit from the film “No Time for Sergeants,” set all the seats at attention.
My predecessor at this task (he of the ill-fated hall-sweeping operation) hated to empty the trash can, so the room always overflowed the paper towels. I simply jumped into the trash bin, and crushed everything into submission, wondering why this simple expedient had never occurred to him. I’d then climb out of the bin and walk over to the table by the window, where I’d grab a can of air freshener. Starting at the table, I would walk backward toward the hallway-door, spraying until I could no longer see the window. When the later-risers approached the room they found it fresh-smelling, all the porcelain gleaming, the trash can in perfect shape, the toilet seats shining and awaiting their attentions. Hail, Brother Reginald, the Bathroom Hero!
Came then one day when the community gathered for midday prayer. Fr. Thomas More arrived and announced he wanted all the students to remain behind at the end of prayer, as he had something to say to us. “What now?” we wondered. “How many of you did your household chores this morning?” he wanted to know. Mine had taken no more than five minutes, as usual, so I raised my hand, and then looked around – to discover I was the only student with my hand up! At lunch, Fr. Thomas More came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and, laughing, said, “You had to put up your hand, didn’t you?”
After two or three years of what must have been a real trial for him, Fr. Thomas More was reassigned to the campus ministry at the University of Washington, and I had the privilege to work with him for a year after I was ordained. He was then assigned to be the first Dominican pastor of the campus ministry parish in Salt Lake City, and I (trembling) was named director of the ministry in Seattle. I don’t know what he thought about the assignment, but I was desolate at the thought of losing the leadership of someone I’d grown to admire.
But enough of these gloomy thoughts! At my age, and after all these funerals, I’ve begun to feel like Lieselotte von der Pfalz, the second wife of Louis XIV’s brother. She was related to all the crowned heads of the period, so she spent a great deal of her life in mourning. When she appeared at an event at Versailles in colored clothing, Madame de Sevigne, the diary-keeper of the age, greeted her, “Madame, I congratulate you on the health of Europe!”
Fr. Thomas More was born to be a teacher, and he loved to study. Everywhere he was assigned he built or improved the ministry’s library. St. Albert’s is no exception. As I write this we are having a plaque made to honor him, and our friends will have the opportunity to contribute to the library in his memory. In the meantime, I invite you to visit the Priory refectory (dining room) where I’ve displayed four antique manuscript pages given to the Priory to honor Thomas More. These are remarkable, beautiful works – a real tribute to a remarkable man and a faithful Dominican.
On February 11, a number of us attended a special event in nearby Crockett – one of those places I’ve heard of, and even seen (from a distance) but never before set foot on. St. Rose of Lima Parish was founded by Dominicans, but exchanged in the 1920s for St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Berkeley. St. Rose is celebrating its centennial this year, and the pastor extended a special invitation to the Dominicans to be part of a Vespers service and dinner. Our Provincial, Fr. Mark Padrez, was one of the participants, as was Oakland’s Bishop, Salvatore Cordileone. I asked someone else to drive, so I was able to nap on the way to and from the festivities, but the event was great fun, and no one could miss your Dominican brothers in their distinctive habits.
At the middle of the month – or what would be the middle of a month with the ordinary number of days – we celebrated the 80th birthday of our brother, Finbarr Hayes. Fr. Finbarr is not only a lawyer (one hears tales of his studying for the bar, with books held – discreetly, of course – beneath the table during a Provincial Chapter, while he was pastor of the Dominican parish in Los Angeles), he is one of the most accomplished story-tellers on the planet. At one of our Province Assemblies we gathered for a Memorial Mass at our cemetery in Benicia. After communion, he walked from grave to grave, telling anecdotes of the Dominicans he’d known or worked with. We were astounded – not only at what he knew, but by the grace and wit by which he introduced us to some of our otherwise unknown Dominican brothers.
For our Distant Readers, spring has exerted its force in Oakland, and we have been greeted by iris, primroses, calla lilies, cherry blossoms, magnolias, daffodils, and birds of paradise – an entire Eden of blossoms we only longed for at this time of year when I was assigned to Seattle and Oregon. The drawback, of course, is that we haven’t had any rain in California, so I beg your prayers for an end to our drought.
As we approach the season of Lent I also beg your prayers for our growth in Christ’s holiness, and I promise you not only my prayers but those of all the Dominicans at St. Albert’s.
In Christ’s love,
Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.