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 familys 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
headmasterthe 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
nations 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 starea 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 preparedbut 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 moststudents and parentsfell in love with the
place. As a result, recruitment was never a problem.
In thinking of Father Timothyand of us, his studentsone is reminded of
Rupert Brookes poem, The Soldier:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That theres 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
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 bankers
blood in his veinsbeing 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
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 Timothys 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 mornings 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
"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 lifes work should be. . . or, if you like, what their
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.
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 50sand 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 wasnt. 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
But if anyone could say, with upraised arm, "This is going to hurt me more than
its going to hurt you," it would be Father Ian. He hated both discipline and
conformityregarding 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 messagethen, and (in a different way)
laterwas 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 didnt 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
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 teacheran avid teacherbut 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 couldnt discuss with my parents. He always seemed
to have an understanding of what was going on inside of me."
Then something snappedand 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. . . Ians 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 Goda 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 lightthe 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 senseof 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 yearsoften 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, "Ive 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.
The plays 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. "Thoult 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,
"Theres 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 eccentricthat 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!"
One wonders what his mother would have said about the huge tatty black coatwith
the big number "7" on the backthat 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
lifeconverting from Anglicanism to Catholicism.
This meant giving up a religion that "didnt 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 heavens 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? Its a different story when
youre on our side.
After a certain amount of to-and fro-ing within the confessional box, the convert is
again convertedpersuaded 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
Ampleforthsubjects 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
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 Abbeys
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.
"I dont believe in mathematics."
"Oh, for heavens sake, do be quiet!"
Father Pauls 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 fireor his imperturbability in the face of
Whats 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 againthe second time to pursue a
In a pamphlet distributed by the Saint Louis Abbeys 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
At Ampleforth College, he was an outstanding studentranking 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 oncea 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 didnt 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
professionteaching (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 Priorys 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 Priorys 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 schools breadth and depth in terms of students, faculty and
recognition among the nations 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
Greeleys 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 Missouris 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
"Hail to thee, blithe spirit!"
Father Ralph (rhymes, incongruously, with strafe) is Priorys "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 monks habit a tall, stork-like figurecaused a
state trooper to pull over and make inquiries (one solicitous; the other incredulous).
If Illinoiss 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 manwith the gentle demeanor and sensitive
nature of a true poethad 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 troublefor 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 Gibraltarrevered 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 brothers ring upon the latters 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 fathers 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 Benets
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
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 studentsand
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 waywith 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 Abbeys 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
Of 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
wordsaintliness. 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 Gregorys parents (Henry, now deceased, and Mavis) were early
enthusiasts of the Priory is an understatement. Moments after his birthon October
20, 1957Henry Mohrman called Columba to break the newsand 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:
"Dont 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 Gregorys 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 Johns University in Minnesota,
earning a masters in Theology. He was ordained in 1986, and joined the Schools
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 Priorya too great friend and
admirerhad 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 poundsor 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
were 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 Gods instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a
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, "its as competitive today as its
ever been. . . and more so. You can look at the AP scores, National Merit scores, college
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.