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Father TimothyFather Timothy

More than a dozen generations separate Father Timothy Horner from the "Little Jack Horner" of nursery rhyme fame. But he is indeed descended from the same Horner family of Somerset, England. His official biographical summary on file at the Priory contains another piece of family history that must have caused the compiler (but not the subject) to blush. Hence the statement, beginning with what sounds like disclaimer, "He says that his family’s fortune was based on loyal service to Henry VIII in the dissolution of the monasteries."

In the ideal world, unending generations of Priory students would be exposed to the old English charm. . . and occasional "wraaath". . . of Father Timothy Horner. He symbolizes the early Priory, perfectly cast in the role of our first headmaster—the Moses who led his people to the Promised Land. His presence gave the Priory instant credibility both within the Saint Louis community. . . and among the nation’s leading colleges and universities.

There are two images that come to mind in thinking of the red-headed, pipe-smoking monk with the unmistakable air of command. First is the withering stare—a stare that could freeze the blood of a Jesse James or an Attila the Hun, not to mention a roomful of unruly school boys. Second is the dazzling smile- complementing (and sometimes complimenting) a rapier-like wit and delight in repartee.

The England that made him was the England of empire. The son of an English Political Officer, he was born in Quetta, in what was then India and is now Pakistan. He was to return to the Indian subcontinent in World War II, as an officer in the British army. But that was after acquiring the finest of English educations.

"Toward the end of my time (as a student) at Ampleforth," Father Timothy has written, "I gave some thought to the idea of seeking to become a monk, but decided quite firmly that I wanted to go to Oxford on my own and as a layman, which I did."

At Oxford, Father Timothy became a scholar of the first rank-fluent in Latin and Greek and deeply immersed in literature. He received both bachelor and master degrees from Oxford. He was also captain of his college cricket club at Oxford.

The war and soldiery followed his first tour of studies at Oxford. He served in the Royal Artillery and on the Divisional Operations Staff from 1940 to 1946, stationed in India, Burma, Thailand and Malaysia. For distinguished service he was awarded the Member of British Empire Medal by Queen Mary. He retired with the rank of major, and found himself in a deep quandary over what to do next.

Homeward bound, on a ship somewhere in the Indian Ocean, he decided that he wanted to return to Ampleforth to become a monk. As he recalls, there were "no tongues of fire, no rushing winds, but a quiet and deep conviction that this was it, as indeed it was." "After that it remained only to write to the Abbot, which I did in an embarrassingly formal and military style."

A Benedictine joins a monastery because he wants to stay there the rest of his life. Father Timothy was no exception. Thus he replied "No" when first asked if he wanted to go to Saint Louis. He was surprised when Abbot Byrne of Ampleforth called him in, and stated, "Father, I am going to uproot you." He was, he learned, to be made "Headmaster of a non-existent school in a foreign land."

One can speculate that the Abbot recognized in him a capacity for leadership as well as a strong appetite for challenge, adventure and travel.

In December of 1955, two months after decamping in Saint Louis, Father Timothy set off by car on a five thousand mile tour, becoming personally acquainted with the best American colleges and prep schools in the East. A few months later, he and Father Columba made a similar trek through the far West.

One of his memories from the earlier trip: "I recall losing the way in the dark in Cincinnati on the way to the Sacred Heart Convent, and being rather frostily received when I banged on the door of what turned out to be the girls’ dormitory."

When the doors first opened for school on September 6, 1956, Father Timothy and the three other founding monks were prepared—but just barely. In the fine English tradition of eleventh-hour heroics (not to be confused with poor planning), they spent most of the night before assembling the desks.

The rest, as they say, is history. A high standard of academic excellence was set from the beginning. The first Priory graduating class, in 1960, included three National Merit finalists, and placed students into Harvard, Yale, Brown, MIT, Georgetown and Notre Dame. Of still greater importance, the Priory quickly acquired a strong identity and sense of mission. The people who mattered most—students and parents—fell in love with the place. As a result, recruitment was never a problem.

In thinking of Father Timothy—and of us, his students—one is reminded of Rupert Brooke’s poem, The Soldier:

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped and made aware
Gave, once her flowers to love, her ways to roam.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

To honor the founding headmaster of Saint Louis Priory School, THE FATHER TIMOTHY HORNER, O.S.B., TRUST FUND will be established to underwrite his history of the Abbey and to strengthen our British ties by financing exchanges of faculty between Ampleforth and us.


Father LukeFather Luke

"YEA,
though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of debt,
I will fear no evil."

A prayer for Father Luke

Back in 1955, Abbot Byrne of Ampleforth made not one, but three brilliant choices in selecting the first three monks to found a school and a monastery in Saint Louis.

First, he chose Father Columba Cary-Elwes, 52, to be the Prior, or spiritual leader.

Next, he chose Father Timothy Horner, 35, to be the Headmaster.

Last, he chose Father Jerome Luke Rigby, 32, to be the Procurator, or, in plain English, the Business Manager.

By his own admission, Father Luke, who studied Literature at Oxford (B.A. and M.A. degrees), knew nothing of balance sheets and income statements or of managing a complex enterprise. Nevertheless, he succeeded so well that he made the jump from Business Manager to Prior (and then Abbot) without even pausing to become Headmaster.

Abbot Byrne may have been impressed by the fact that Father Luke had banker’s blood in his veins—being the son of an officer at the old Dominion, Colonial and Overseas Bank. More probably, the Abbot recognized an acute and highly pragmatic intelligence, combined with an unflappable disposition and an unusual dexterity in dealing with people.

From the first footfall in Saint Louis, Father Columba and Father Timothy were secure in one way: Each knew exactly what he wanted. Father Columba wanted a monastery centered on a church (and not just, as the sponsoring group of laymen had supposed, a small chapel). Father Timothy wanted a school, with all the trimmings in the way of a physical plant. It was up to Father Luke to attend to the "materialities."

Where is Father Luke? Oh, dear me, where is Father Luke?

That runs as a kind of refrain through Father Timothy’s amusing written account of D Day Minus I, the final day before opening for classes. It is a scene of general pandemonium, with trucks converging upon the Priory from every direction. Where is all the stuff to go? Father Luke, it seems, is downtown doing some final shopping, and Timothy and Father Ian are, well, almost clueless. Fortunately, Father Luke is back by supper-time, and everything is pulled together in time for next morning’s school bell.

Similarly, the Priory Church, now established as a Saint Louis landmark, looked for a time as though it might be unbuildable and unfinanceable. In his reminiscences, Father Columba gave credit to Father Luke for making it happen. "Father Luke was carrying this huge undertaking on his shoulders while he was grappling with all the endless complications of running the finances, the catering and the maintenance of the whole establishment," the first Prior wrote.

Thrown in the deep end of the pool in running the business side of a monastery/school complex, Father Luke not only learned to swim, but to enjoy it. "I found it fascinating," Father Luke recalls. "I did it by seeking guidance from the (lay) founders, by studying finance and accounting on my own and by going off (to Marquette University) to take one or two courses for school business managers."

In the process, Father Luke discovered an unexpected affinity with some of the teachings of Saint Benedict, who founded the order before the year 520. While devoting their lives to praising God, Saint Benedict did not want his followers to be a burden upon the larger community. He taught that they should earn a living, be useful to others and put bread upon their own table. Under the guidance of a leader who was practical as well as inspirational, the religious group should be self-sufficient.

After 12 years as Business Manager, Father Luke was appointed Prior in 1967, then elected to the same office when the Priory became an autonomous monastery in 1973. At that point, knowing his bones would be laid to rest in this land, Father Luke applied for American citizenship, which he was granted the following year. The monastery was then raised to the status of Abbey in 1989, and he was elected Abbot. He retired as Abbot in 1995.

"The child," Wordsworth intoned, "is father of the Man." That may be interpreted to mean that the firsthand experiences of youth provide the best preparation for the larger responsibilities of later life. That is close to the way Father Luke views his own development. He does not hesitate to draw certain analogies between running a business and running a religious community.

First, says Father Luke, the leader must have "a grasp of finance," or, if he should choose to delegate, absolute confidence and trust in someone else who does. Otherwise, the group is sure to founder.

Second, the leader must unite the group behind a common vision. "You cannot have a lot of sub-groups simply doing their own thing, with Sales, for instance, acting in opposition to Production. The job of the monastic superior is to help the monks arrive at a common vision of what their life’s work should be. . . or, if you like, what their product is."

Third, the leader is deeply concerned about the future. Like Father Columba before him, Father Luke has always seen the monastery as the real key to the future . . . for the entire enterprise, including both the church and the school.

Part of his genius, then (and this part stems from the pastoral as opposed to the business side of his personality), has been to involve "the greater Abbey family," as he calls it, in the ongoing development of the Abbey in its entirety. For many Priory alumni and their wives and families, the ties that bind are not just academic or nostalgic but deeply personal and religious.

To honor Abbot Luke Rigby, O.S.B., founding monk, Procurator and for 28 years the Prior and Abbot and now the current novice-master: A FUND is being established to provide for the ongoing education of monks to ensure the perpetuation of the monastic community at the Saint Louis Abbey. Indirectly if not directly, this is a FUND that greatly supports the future of the Priory School.


Father IanFather Ian

Suffer the little ones to come unto me.

For more than a decade, the little ones at the Priory were suffered unto Father Ian, as Headmaster of the Junior House. Those seventh and eighth grade boys are now all in their 40s and 50s—and when he died on November 4, 1996, many of them were devastated, feeling almost as if they had lost a parent or a protective older brother. They never stopped feeling that they were in his care.

Mr. Chips, he wasn’t. Far from being a forgetful old codger, left over from another era, Father Ian was intense, demanding and quick-tempered. With his trademark tennis shoe as a disciplinary device, he meted out swift justice on the backsides of the guilty.

But if anyone could say, with upraised arm, "This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you," it would be Father Ian. He hated both discipline and conformity—regarding the one as a necessary evil and the other as one of the more unfortunate consequences, for all too many, of growing up. Fun and funny, he was, among other things, a superb mimic. His message—then, and (in a different way) later—was one of joy.

Emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, Father Ian was fated to live an interesting life, as opposed to an easy one. Craving certainty, he was beset with doubt; striving for perfection, he was haunted with feelings of inadequacy. "His whole life," as Father Luke observed at a memorial mass for Father Ian, "was a homily"—rich in the kind of meaning that can only arise through the combination of pain and perseverance.

He was born of middle class parents in Sussex, England. Though bright and curious, he grew up feeling he was a terrible student. He said he knew the agony of not understanding, and the dread of exposure, and he applied that knowledge to his teaching by being especially attentive to "the lesser of the students," and those who felt they were unable to cope.

It was his intention to go straight from high school (Ampleforth) to the priesthood (at Ampleforth Abbey). But it didn’t work out as smoothly as that. He left the monastery when his temporary vows ran out, and did not return until four years later, having worked in an assortment of jobs, including teaching, hotelry and insurance. Upon ordination in 1956, he was dispatched to Saint Louis, joining Fathers Columba, Timothy and Luke as one of the four monks present at the creation of the Priory School. He was 34 years old at the time.

For a dozen years, the Junior House was his oyster. He taught Religion, Math and French, in addition to serving as the Head of the Junior House and as a coach in several sports. He was a fine teacher—an avid teacher—but his great strength was in his relationships with people. As one former student put it, "I always felt I could take any problem to him, even things I couldn’t discuss with my parents. He always seemed to have an understanding of what was going on inside of me."

Then something snapped—and it was a critical string. This is how Father Luke, his longtime friend (and one-time fellow novice), described it in his eulogy:

"In 1968, amidst all the turmoil and changes in the Church. . . Ian’s concept of God could no longer sustain him and he came close to a breakdown. He had to be relieved of his school duties abruptly and then began the darkest and most painful period in his search for God—a dark tunnel where, but for his deep faith, trust and courage, he could well have lost his way. During this time he was immensely helped by entering into the Charismatic Renewal in the Church. . .

"Some three and a half years later, and back in England, Ian emerged from that tunnel and spoke of śmy painful journey from the God of fear to the God who forgives and cares.’ From then on Ian lived and preached tirelessly of the God who had revealed Himself to him in a new light—the light of love that overcomes fear."

Almost miraculously, it seems, life came full circle for Ian. The priest who had been riven with doubts became a leading figure in the Charismatic and ecumenical movements. He preached and held two- and three-day retreats all over the world, and still found time to author half a dozen books.

Without a doubt, he was charismatic in the original Greek sense—of being, or giving the impression of being, divinely inspired. Favored by a particular god or goddess, the Greek heroes were said to speak "with winged words" and to take on an awesome appearance at critical moments in time. In much the same way, people return again and again to expressions like "spell-binding" and "extraordinary" in describing the impression made by Ian as a public speaker.

But not everything changed in this last and climactic stage of his life. While reaching out to the many (Protestants as well as Catholics), he maintained close personal ties to people in Saint Louis. Former students flocked to his retreats, held in Saint Louis every two or three years—often bringing wives, children or even parents. Twenty-five or thirty years after graduation, Priory boys continued to depend on his guidance, especially in times of crisis or tragedy.

Though his friends all believe he found peace in the end, Ian may have gone to rest thinking that the only faith worth having is the kind you have to struggle for. On his deathbed, he wrote, "There are times I can reach that peace; but many times I do not." Then, just hours before he died, one of the sisters who was looking after him came to his room to tidy his bedclothes. On entering she said, "I’ve come to sort you out." With a wry smile, he replied, "Sister, the Benedictines have been trying to do that for fifty years."

In honor of Father Ian Petit, O.S.B., a FUND is being established to finance the restoration of the Commons Room at the Junior School. It will bear his name.


Father AustinFather Austin

The play’s the thing.

Father Austin Rennick never doubted it for one second.

Big and powerful, with a great shock of white hair, he was perfectly cast as King Lear. One remembers him in the final scene, wild-eyed with grief, sinking to his knees, with the lifeless body of an imaginary Cordelia cradled in his arms. "Thou’lt come no more," he wails. "Never, never, never, never, never."

"Had I not become a monk and a school teacher," Father Austin wrote, "I might have taken a crack at being an actor." Without a doubt, however, he found his best and truest stage in the classroom, where he had a 53-year run of success, including 25 years at Ampleforth and another 28 here at the Priory.

He liked to point out that an amateur (from the Latin amare) is someone who does something out of love. As a teacher of English and music, he prided himself on being the passionate amateur rather than the dispassionate professional. In his own words, "There’s so much teaching which is thought to depend upon accuracy of observation and interpretation, when what you really want is zest." His mission was to move others to a sense of genuine wonder and passion in the presence of great poetry, drama or music.

Of course, he was a great eccentric—that is to say, more than a little off-center. . . revolving in one of outer orbits in the human social system, as opposed to one of close-in orbits where most people are clustered.

When he was 21 years old, his mother, a great friend and a fellow eccentric, refused to be seen in public with him unless he bought a new pair of trousers. Why is that, he asked. "Because the ones you have on look like the hindquarters of a stage elephant!" she shouted.

One wonders what his mother would have said about the huge tatty black coat—with the big number "7" on the back—that he wore everywhere he went around Saint Louis, including to concerts at Powell Symphony Hall.

The son of an English political officer, he was born in Singapore in 1906 and spent his early childhood in India. From the age of seven to seventeen, he attended Protestant boarding schools in England. He went on to Oxford, with a major in classics, philosophy and ancient history. It was here that he made the biggest decision of his young life—converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism.

This meant giving up a religion that "didn’t impinge much" and was almost synonymous with the Englishness of being English. More than that, it meant going off in pursuit of the "Scarlet Woman," as the Church in Rome was sometimes called. To him, that was something to be savored, then and later. As he wrote in "Let Me Tell You A Story," a book of memoirs, "Converts have an advantage. Their conversion is an explosion, a Nova. For converts there is a sense in which a rebellion against their upbringing is inevitable. I count it as the richest of luck to have had my rebellion into the Church."

Upon leaving Oxford in 1929, he took a job as a lay teacher at Ampleforth. He gave no thought to becoming a monk for almost a year. Then, in a visit to the confessional, he came to another turning point. This is his account.

Confessor: Mr. Rennick, have you ever thought of becoming a monk?
The future Father Austin: No, for heaven’s sake!
Confessor: Why not?
Austin: Well, you live such an easy life, on your side of the screen.
Confessor: Huh, it looks that way to you? It’s a different story when you’re on our side.

After a certain amount of to-and fro-ing within the confessional box, the convert is again converted—persuaded to visit the Abbot the next morning, with the upshot that he signs up for an O.S.B. novitiate. In 1937, he became a priest.

Trained as a classicist, Father Austin wound up teaching English and Music at Ampleforth—subjects in which he had no formal training. In order to learn, he threw himself into amateur theatricals; and he taught himself the cello, the viola and other instruments, before going on to teach himself to conduct and compose. As an autodidactic, he brought the same zeal to teaching that converts are said to bring to missionary work. His students at Ampleforth included three of the four monks who went on to become founders of the Priory (i.e. Fathers Luke, Timothy and Ian) plus several others who came at a later date.

He was 52 years old when he arrived in Saint Louis in 1957, the second year of operation for the Priory School. In addition to Priory students, there are many others who came to see Father Austin as a great teacher (or, what is close to the same thing, an important catalyst and collaborator in their development).

There were, for instance, the nuns of Saint Joseph. Shortly after his arrival, he formed a small orchestra with the nuns. It went on to achieve a near-professional level, becoming the resident orchestra at Saint Louis University.

A small but telling tribute comes from Father Ralph, now the Saint Louis Abbey’s director of vocations and a published poet. Father Ralph says he would not have begun to take his own poetry seriously without the enthusiastic encouragement of Father Austin. Almost certainly, one suspects, he would not have begun the practice of writing occasional bits of poetry "under the cowl" during Matins.

The late Father Austin Rennick, O.S.B., was a great teacher who taught others not only to appreciate great music and literature, but to cultivate the creativity and beauty within their own minds and hearts. In his honor, A FUND is being established for the landscaping and beautification of the Priory campus.


Father PaulFather Paul

"I don’t believe in mathematics."
—Einstein

"Oh, for heaven’s sake, do be quiet!"
—Father Paul

Father Paul’s math classes crackled with creative tension. It was the kind that arises when students think they can get away with murder. Never was a teacher more sorely tested upon the rack of his own good nature.

But Father Paul not only endured; he has indeed prevailed.

No one ever succeeded in getting his goat. He never lost his sense of calm or composure. His grace under fire—or his imperturbability in the face of provocation—was amazing.

What’s more, he was astonishingly successful in getting students to master the complexities of algebra, trigonometry and calculus. Under his leadership, it became almost routine for Priory students to achieve near-perfect math SAT or ACT scores.

How did he do it?

Father Paul could be credited with being the first (at least at the Priory) to apply passive resistance as a pedagogic technique. If the class was noisy, he would simply stop teaching, and refuse to go on, until everyone was ready to pay attention.

Matthew Arnold must have had someone like Father Paul in mind when he wrote an essay entitled "Sweetness and Light." As many a student who has tried to provoke him knows, his personality combines an unassailable modesty (unassailable because unfeigned) with a keen intellect and a true desire to serve.

He was born, John Michael Kidner, in Oswestry, a small town in the west Midlands of England, in 1931. His father, a dental surgeon, was a convert to Catholicism. His mother came from a Catholic family of ancient lineage. It produced a number of priests and religious, including the Blessed Thomas Pickering, martyred in 1679.

Like several other Priory monks (i.e. Columba, Luke and Timothy), Father Paul followed a path that led from Ampleforth to Oxford, and back again—the second time to pursue a vocation.

In a pamphlet distributed by the Saint Louis Abbey’s Director of Vocations, Father Paul wrote: "People were a stronger influence on my vocation than books, especially the monks at Ampleforth who had taught me for six years and whom I liked and respected. The variety of characteristics and talents struck me; they were not all of the same mold."

At Ampleforth College, he was an outstanding student—ranking first in math and physics, and second overall, in a class of about 80. As a result of his proficiency in math, he won a scholarship to Oxford, where he majored in civil engineering. He expected to pursue a career with an international construction company, with the idea of being able to indulge two passions at once—a continuing fascination with math and physics, and a love of travel. The latter came to the fore at Oxford. On a lark, he set the height record for a London taxi by driving it over the Mont Cenis pass in the Swiss Alps.

With graduation fast approaching, the time came to apply for engineering jobs. . . and he discovered a sinking feeling in his heart. He didn’t want to do it. He hoped to sort things out in revisiting Ampleforth over the Easter break. And this is when he decided to become a monk.

"My initial reaction to the thought of the priesthood," he recalls, "was What, me? —a feeling of unworthiness." Abbot Herbert Byrne saw the rightness of his decision and told him not to worry too much about the nature of monastic life. "You will learn by living it," he told him. Only after he announced his decision to his parents did Paul discover that his mother had been praying that God would call him to be a priest.

Immediately following ordination, Father Paul was assigned to the Saint Louis Priory. He was 27 years old, and he was headed to a foreign country and a new profession—teaching (something he had not done at Ampleforth). While Father Paul had his usual doubts about becoming an effective teacher, he was thrilled at the prospect of expatriate life. It was the chance he thought he would never get again to explore other places and people.

As day follows night, the brilliant but modest student turned into a humble but superlative teacher. He headed the Priory’s mathematics department for almost two dozen years (1960-82), and taught not only math, but also physics, science, Latin, and religion, while also serving at various times as head coach of the tennis, track, cross country and swimming teams. Along the way, he was recognized as an Outstanding Educator of America in 1972 and Outstanding Teacher of Mathematics by the Mathematics Club of Greater Saint Louis in 1977.

A corporate-style resume would not fail to note that he has occupied "positions of increasing responsibility." He succeeded Father Timothy as the Priory’s second Headmaster, and served in that capacity from 1974 to 1983, a period of "consolidation," as he describes it, or of building upon an excellent beginning, by extending the school’s breadth and depth —in terms of students, faculty and recognition among the nation’s leading colleges and universities.

He has served as Prior of the Saint Louis Community since 1989 (when Father Luke was elected Abbot, vacating the position of Prior). He also continues to teach math and computer science, and serves as the associate director of college counseling.

From the start, he took to his adopted land with great enthusiasm. Heeding Horace Greeley’s famous advice, he headed west in his first summer in the U.S.—after answering a local newspaper ad from someone wanting a car delivered to San Francisco. Since then, he has travelled extensively throughout the U.S., including three summers of studies at Stanford. He is also an avid canoeist on Missouri’s streams and rivers. In 1993, Father Paul became an American citizen.

To honor Father Paul Kidner, O.S.B., who made mathematics a center of excellence at the Priory, a FUND is being established to finance a Chair in Mathematics that will bear his name.


Father RalphFather Ralph

"Hail to thee, blithe spirit!"
—Shelley

Father Ralph (rhymes, incongruously, with strafe) is Priory’s "blithe spirit." Within the rookery of monks at the Saint Louis Abbey, he is, distinctly, a bird of a different feather.

Take his arrival in Saint Louis in 1970. It was not by plane or bus. He completed the last leg of his journey from England by hitchhiking down from Chicago. Twice, the unlikely sight of a hitchhiker in monk’s habit —a tall, stork-like figure—caused a state trooper to pull over and make inquiries (one solicitous; the other incredulous).

If Illinois’s finest were further startled upon hearing an English accent, they would have been even more surprised had they pressed the hitchhiker for more details regarding his identity and purposes.

They would have learned that this man—with the gentle demeanor and sensitive nature of a true poet—had been trained in jungle warfare. Even more interestingly, they would have discovered that he was, in a sense, a fugitive, having bolted a well-known English lock-up, called Ampleforth, wishing to put some distance between himself and two of his blood brothers. If they had been especially acute, the state troopers might have sensed that he was headed for trouble—for what Father Ralph has subsequently described as "one of the worst years of my whole life." But all this is getting ahead of the story.

To begin at the beginning, he was born in Ollerton, England, in 1938. His father, a plain-spoken engineer, was a local Rock of Gibraltar—revered rather than feared as the CEO of a mining company and a community leader. His mother was the literary and expressive one. Both were devout Catholics. Together they produced four boys. Remarkably, three of the four are now Benedictine monks. That includes Father Timothy Wright, the new Abbot of Ampleforth.

"We went in not because of each other, but in spite of each other," Father Ralph notes. He adds mischievously that he would like to see a video of his older brother kissing his younger brother’s ring upon the latter’s election as Abbot in 1997.

It is hard to see how such rivalry could arise in a family so dedicated to helping others. Soon after the birth of Ralph, for instance, his parents became acquainted with a visiting doctor from Czechoslovakia. When the news came that Hitler had invaded his country, they immediately invited the doctor to spend the duration of the war at their house. And so he did.

Father Ralph felt the stirrings of a Calling from a young age. However, since the oldest brother, from the age of 13, had said he wanted to become a monk, Ralph decided to follow in his father’s footsteps in becoming an engineer. So he loaded up on math and physics courses one year at Ampleforth. Bad idea. He found himself out of his depth and so fled back to classics. He also discovered a deep interest in poetry.

Upon graduation, he pondered three options. One, proceed into the priesthood. Two, go on to Oxford (where he had won a minor scholarship in classics). Three, go into the Army and do something totally out of character. He took the third option, and that is how he wound up in Malaysia in the late ‘50s, learning jungle warfare.

In 1959, Ralph entered the novitiate and monastic training at Ampleforth, a two-year program. He was ordained in 1970. The intervening years were filled with higher-level education: earning an undergraduate degree in "Greats" at Saint Benet’s Hall, the monastic college at Oxford, and a masters degree in Theology at Fribourg, the only Catholic University in Switzerland.

He became fluent in both German and French while studying at Fribourg. He also took to hitchhiking across France in his many trips between England and Switzerland.

Soon after his ordination, the Abbot at Ampleforth asked him to join the new community in Saint Louis. He was thrilled, seeing this as an opportunity to join a "new venture" in a new land at a time of great ferment in the Catholic Church as a whole. He also admits to thinking, "Maybe two (rather than three) Wrights are enough at one monastery."

Ah, but poor Father Ralph. He was not fully prepared for the fate that awaited him in the fall of 1970. As a new priest with little teaching experience, as a (self-described) poor disciplinarian, and above all as someone who was facing American school boys for the first time, he could be likened to the tuna in a game of sharks-and-tuna. Moreover, with the Vietnam War in full flood, this was an agonizing period of time for students—and for anyone else with the acutely sympathetic nature of a Father Ralph.

Father Ralph recovered by learning to make teaching fun. As a teacher of English and Religion, he has done that in his own inimitable way—with humor, with ingenious ways of encouraging the creativity of students, and with generous dollops of his own poetry thrown in wherever possible for good measure. To borrow a line from a well-known hymn, "Behold a Mystical Rose from thorny stem has sprung."

He has the gift of inspiring the devotion of his students. Many Priory alumni remember him as their favorite teacher. More than a dozen have asked him to officiate at their weddings. One student, a published novelist, submits his manuscripts to Father Ralph for his review before sending them to any publisher.

His career as a poet has also flourished, comprising both frivolous verse and serious poetry (collected in five published books). He has also contributed more than two dozen hymns (both translations and originals) to Hymnal For The Hours, one of the standard hymn books used by religious communities in the English-speaking world. Along the way, he has done many other strange and wonderful things, such as completing a dozen marathons and coaching the Priory tennis team to five consecutive ABC championships — despite the lack of facilities for hosting even a single match at the Priory. He became an American citizen in 1977, and is currently serving his second "term" as Saint Louis Abbey’s Director of Vocations.

In honor of Father Ralph Wright, O.S.B., a FUND is being established to finance the construction of a new set of tennis courts upon the Priory grounds. There will be a plaque in his honor at courtside containing one or two of his limericks on finer points of the game.


Father Gregory

Father GregoryOf all Priory monks, past and present, Father Gregory Mohrman may have been called at the earliest age. According to family legend, the first Prior, Father Columba Cary-Elwes, a frequent and favorite guest at the Mohrman household, "put a hex on him" before he was even a year old.

This is a story that makes perfect sense to anyone who knew the late Father Columba, a man who exuded a sense of wisdom, calm and —there is no escaping the word—saintliness. No less a giant among men than the great Arnold Toynbee once wrote to Father Columba, saying, "Feeling you are one of my closest and dearest friends, I also feel you are my most direct door to God."

To say that Gregory’s parents (Henry, now deceased, and Mavis) were early enthusiasts of the Priory is an understatement. Moments after his birth—on October 20, 1957—Henry Mohrman called Columba to break the news—and to enroll the newborn in the Priory School.

Gregory entered the Junior House in 1970. Though following in the footsteps of an older brother, it was not hard on his heels, but along a trail greatly obscured if not totally obliterated by the passage of time. Joe Mohrman, the older brother by ten years, is now an attorney in Saint Louis. His chief advice to Gregory upon entering the School: "Don’t be a bully." This was meant as more of a warning against the presence of such villainy than an admonition against his enlisting in its ranks.

Strange to say, even further back in time, big Joe and little Gregory became infatuated with the same girl. It ended happily, however, when Joe married Gregory’s favorite baby sitter. To this day, this excellent woman (the former Mary Beth Goralnik) remains attached to each of the brothers.

As a student at the Priory, Gregory excelled in English and science. He graduated in 1976. Without telling his classmates, he had already decided in his junior year to enter the priesthood. But as his father wished, he went on to college first, enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania, with a major in English literature.

He raced through in three years. Then, returning to the scene of his recent childhood, he entered the novitiate at the Saint Louis Abbey. His teaching career at the Priory began in 1980. He spent four years (1982-86) at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, earning a masters in Theology. He was ordained in 1986, and joined the School’s English and Religion Departments in the same year. He holds the dual distinctions of being the first alumnus-monk and, with his appointment as Headmaster in September 1995 at the age of 38, the first alumnus-headmaster.

It would be hard to pick a better example of the metamorphosis of a team player into a team leader. From the start of his career, he has been noted for pitching in and making himself useful in a wide variety of projects at the School and the Monastery.

While deeply versed in English literature, he is almost as proficient as an engineer or an architect in reading blueprints. This is a skill he picked up in succeeding Father Luke as the ex officio point man inside the community in dealing with improvements or additions to the physical plant.

About a dozen years ago, one of the star athletes at Priory—a too great friend and admirer—had him in a headlock and was endeavoring to stuff his head into a mailbox. As if to prove the law that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, Father Finbarr, the then Headmaster, chanced upon the scene at that very moment.

Physically speaking, the Gregory of today would be more of a match for the wrestler. No longer is he the scrawniest of prelates. Today he is fairly rippling with muscles, having taken up weight-lifting as a hobby. For the record, it may be noted that he can bench-press 200 pounds—or 15 pounds more than his own weight.

More to the point, however, something else has been added to the demeanor of this most open, informal and fun-loving of priests. That is, an unobtrusive but unmistakable air of authority and purpose. Rarely invoked, it is the kind of thing that can pin an opponent to the mat without violence or any visible expenditure of effort.

Will the Saint Louis Abbey become a self-regenerating institution or will it wither and die from a lack of vocations? Father Gregory represents a good beginning. In attracting vocations, he notes, it is crucial that students encounter a goodly mix of "fully formed monks they can admire and identify with." Now that the Abbey is buzzing if not swarming with monks and religious (20 in all, including 15 Americans), he is confident that more students will return to pursue vocations.

As Headmaster, he has set about the task of creating "a kinder, gentler" Priory than the one he knew as a student. This has involved "a real change in focus" at the School. In his words, "The School is very committed to trying to meet the needs of students as opposed to having students simply meet its demands. . . Now we’re more sensitive and more sensitized to the times we live in and the emotional stress the kids are under. Today we try to develop the whole person."

His overarching goal is to run the School, not as a monastery, but as a place of learning that fully reflects the spirit and values of Benedictine community life. In the words of Saint Benedict, this means a place where people "listen with the ear of the heart"; where teachers strive "to be loved rather than feared"; and where teachers "demonstrate God’s instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a living example."

Is there any danger, in all this, that the School may become any less competitive or rigorous academically? The very question causes his eyes to bulge with indignation. "By any benchmark," he avers, "it’s as competitive today as it’s ever been. . . and more so. You can look at the AP scores, National Merit scores, college admissions, anything."

In honor of Father Gregory Mohrman, O.S.B., the first alumnus-headmaster, a great friend and a strong advocate of the students, a FUND is being established to underwrite the new Commons Room in the main school building.


 

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Andrew B. Wilson
E-Mail: abwilson@swbell.net

26 Taylor Place Drive
St. Louis, MO 63108
Phone: (314) 361-1195

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