Fathers and Sons

I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy,

To be calm, when you’ve found something going on.

But take your time, think a lot,

Why, think of everything you’ve got.

For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

“Father And Son” by Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), 1970


My father died when I was 13 on Mothers’ Day, the year before my freshman year at Archmere. This year marked the 42nd anniversary of his death. It is hard to believe that it has been that long, because I often think about him.

father_son_silhouette

My father was hard working and family-oriented. I remember my dad working around the house on weekends, fixing the cars, repairing window screens, digging in the garden, and taking care of projects for his mother – my grandmother, who lived next door to us. On Sundays, he wore a white shirt and tie all day, from morning Mass to afternoon walks with me along the Delaware River, sometimes to get an ice cream cone at one of the only places open on Sunday in those days.

My father had to quit school when he was in the eighth grade at age 13 or 14, because his father died suddenly at age 50, leaving behind his 40-year-old wife and eight children. My father, being the oldest, had to grow up quickly and take responsibility for providing for the family. He and his oldest sisters left school and began to work – his sisters in the mills on the Brandywine, and my father in a variety of jobs that led him to become a mechanic on the Penn Central Railroad.

Every morning, my mom and dad woke up at 5:30 a.m., and she would send him off to work with his lunch. Sometimes, I would wake up and hear them talking over morning coffee, not understanding the words, but knowing that the conversation was about my three brothers and me, about the extended family, and about getting through the day, the week, the year.

At 4 o’clock every afternoon, my dad would return home, eager to hear about all that happened in my day at school. We would sit down to dinner at 4:30, and sometimes not leave the table for more than an hour or two. My dad was interested in everything I was learning, and everything I did, as he was with all of my brothers. But I recall that as I got older, and my brothers who were 14 to 18 years older than I were married and moved out of the house, I enjoyed the sole attention of my dad at weekday dinners.

Twenty-six years after he died, it was memories of my dad that encouraged me to pursue my doctorate degree. Because he was only able to have an eighth grade formal education, my father instilled in each of his four sons the belief that education was critically important, not just to be successful, but to complete a life journey of inquiry, discovery, and fulfillment. Not having the opportunity to receive advanced degrees, Dad schooled himself by regularly reading the Bible, pouring over the daily newspapers faithfully, and listening critically to the nightly news. Debate on any subject was common in our house – that’s how I knew my Dad.

I have often wondered what our lives would have been like if he had not died so young. While I have so many wonderful memories, it is curious to me that they are not focused around those things we had in common – hobbies, father-son projects, and other bonding experiences. I know he enjoyed music, as do I, and he was always interested in my academic studies. But he and I never spent long periods of time together doing things. We didn’t fish, or hike, or camp together. He was not a sports enthusiast; nor was I, so we didn’t go to games or even watch sports on TV.

My father enjoyed repairing cars and fixing things, and I had little interest in any of it. But I will always miss him, and I will always think of us as close.

child_holding_hand

In 1990, my wife and I had our first child – a son. Two years later, we had our second child, a daughter. Through the years, I often thought about my relationship to my children as their father, reflecting on my own relationship as a son with my father.

Particularly as they moved through their teen years, I thought about how I never had the experience with my father that were having with me as theirs. Sometimes, I felt disconnected from their interests and daily lives, and I did not have my experience with my dad to know if that was “normal” in the growing up process.

As an example, our son is artistic and athletic. He enjoys all sports. My foray into sports was trying out my freshman year for Archmere’s Track team. Let’s just say I “hit the wall” about a quarter of the way through the second lap. I can still point to that spot on the track where it wasn’t pretty. And that was the extent of my Archmere athletic experience – one and a quarter laps.

Now I have a son who is a three-season sports enthusiast! I wonder how our relationship will mature in the coming years, particularly our conversations using sports vocabulary.

Just two weeks away from Fathers’ Day, we finished the impressive Baccalaureate and Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2014. This emotional time of beginnings and endings, punctuated by thoughtful speeches and heartfelt congratulations, often causes us to pause and reflect on what we truly value, and what is most important in our lives. We recognize the commitment, resources, and relationships that have been invested in these wonderful graduates, with the hope and prayer that they will live fulfilling and happy lives.

As they grow and mature, I pray that you, their parents, seize those opportunities when you can enjoy their successes and support them in their difficulties. And I also pray that you not be discouraged or feel as though you have lost touch, should there be times when you may not feel connected or even shut out from their lives, wondering about how relevant you will be when they become independent adults.

I believe that, while I may not have fished with my son or my father, took apart and reassembled a car engine with my son or my father, or even used the correct terminology to describe a play in hockey, football, baseball, basketball, soccer, rugby, etc., with my son or my father, they both know how much I love them. And the same is true with my daughter, who has an incredible work ethic and unique creativity that continually amazes me.

From my humble experiences, I can say that love supersedes all experience. And if we continue to express the love that creates us and binds us, as we palpably felt at the Baccalaureate and Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2014, then we can only provide the correct measure of support for our children who will respond in kind.

Best wishes to the entire Archmere community over this well-deserved summer break. I look forward to hearing about the countless summer adventures when we return to campus in the fall!

An Old Order in a New World: Norbertine Tradition in America

One of my favorite summer activities is to catch up on reading that I put aside during the school year. The most recent book in my stack that I just finished is Dr. Jean van Stratum’s biography of Abbot Bernard H. Pennings, O.Praem., founder of the Norbertine Order in the United States.

Dr. Jean van Stratum (Rick Evans | The Compass)

Dr. Jean van Stratum
(Rick Evans | The Compass)

Before reading the biography, I knew the historical outline of the Norbertine missionaries’ arrival in the United States in 1893, and the subsequent founding of Saint Norbert Abbey and Saint Norbert College on the Fox River in De Pere, Wisconsin. But van Stratum’s work adds dimension and color to the outline of dates and accomplishments. He assembles stories of people with sometimes common, and sometimes different, visions about the role of the Norbertine community in the New World – stories of collaboration between religious and lay, stories of tension between religious tradition and interpretation of that tradition in Abbey religious life “in ministry” to early 20th century America. I could not help but think how these fundamental issues of “how we should live” are a part of our current thinking.

According to van Stratum, Abbot Pennings addressed a letter to Abbot General Crets in August 1932, asking his support of “two great enterprises.” One of those “enterprises” was the takeover of the Dutch parish of Saint Willebrord in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The other was the purchase of John J. Raskob’s Archmere estate to create Archmere Academy, a boarding and day school for boys. Van Stratum suggests that Abbot Crets felt positive about these Norbertine developments in America.

hagley digital archives john j raskob estate

John J. Raskob Estate, 1927
Dallin Aerial Survey Company

As headmaster of Archmere today, I found it particularly interesting, helpful, and humbling to try to gain insight into Abbot Pennings’ vision and style of leadership. On one hand, he accomplished extraordinary projects in administering parishes and establishing schools, thereby rooting the foundation of Norbertine communities in the United States. On the other hand, some of his confreres criticized his non-collaborative leadership style, and what they considered to be his lack of attention to the spiritual life of the Abbey.

Abbot Bernard H. Pennings, O.Praem.

Abbot Bernard H. Pennings, O.Praem.

A vibrant and well-respected figure in the Church and community, Abbot Pennings enjoyed a long life, singularly leading the Norbertine community until age 86. At that time in 1947, Abbot General Noots recommended that the community elect a Coadjutor Abbot to assist with the duties and responsibilities of the office and assure a smooth transition once Abbot Pennings could no longer serve as Abbot. The transition to a collaborative form of leadership was difficult for Abbot Pennings after so many years of being “in charge.” It was equally difficult for the Coadjutor, 42-year-old Abbot Sylvester Killeen.

I am sure that these were difficult conversations, just as they would be today. However, by reading and studying the dynamics between Abbot Pennings and his colleagues, we can learn about how to be more effective in similar present-day circumstances.

Abbot Sylvester Killeen, O.Praem. saint norbert college

Abbot Sylvester Killeen, O.Praem.

A significant issue that kept surfacing throughout Abbot Pennings’ term was the balance between communicating transparently while maintaining appropriate confidentiality. Managing these two opposite forces, at times, seems impossible – even for effective leaders today. What communities believe they need to know, should know, and want to know can be very different.

Consider that several members of Saint Norbert Abbey that were most critical of Abbot Pennings’ authoritative leadership style were raised and educated in a country with democratic ideals – concepts antithetical to the hierarchical models of the Church and European society. Certainly, Abbot Pennings’ charismatic leadership continued to be effective, but attentiveness to the voice of the growing community seemed to be an issue, particularly as its members became more informed through formal education, religious training, and work experience.

Did Abbot Pennings fail to adapt his communication and leadership styles to adequately address the concerns of the younger community members?

Perhaps he was aware of the need for change, but he simply did not know how to implement such a transition in leadership style. Van Stratum points to a 1949 letter from Abbot Pennings to confrere Alphonse Diedrich:

Reflection on what to do in the case that a new abbey would somewhere be established, he [Abbot Pennings] said that this should occur ‘always where people are, in or near a city.’ In the old times, as he continued, an abbey would be built in the country side ‘ but they had none or little active work – only to sing the office, but that was 700 to 800 years ago: no colleges, only some parish work. It is different today because Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis.’ (Times are changing and we have to change with them). It sounded like the genuine if not lifelong conviction of the 88-year-old-man. (p. 369)

This duality of mission – monastic and ministerial – is something very Norbertine, and it is subject to varying degrees of interpretation. That interpretation depends on the vision of the Abbot elected by the independent Abbey communities, each influenced by its particular local, national, and international history and circumstances.

I experienced this on our 2012 Heritage Tour of Norbertine Abbeys in Belgium and France. While each community had uniqueness and felt “more” or “less” monastic, there was a common bond of confraternity and hospitality rooted in the Rule of Augustine as interpreted and lived by Saint Norbert nearly 1,000 years ago.

Similarly, Archmere Academy – founded by Norbertine Fathers, more specifically Abbot Pennings – has evolved over its more than 80-year history in its understanding of mission, governance, commitment to academic excellence, and Norbertine spirituality. With many lessons learned from the past, I am excited and hopeful that the members of the Archmere community are in contemporary dialog about these fundamental questions of purpose and relevancy that seem to be in constant evolution and change.

Perhaps Saint Norbert designed it to be that way.

bernard ardura

In Norbertine History and Spirituality, Fr. Bernard Ardura, O.Praem., claims that Norbert’s intention in establishing abbey communities after Premontre was not to build a hierarchical network of houses, which were tightly linked and managed by the founder. Rather, Norbert, with Hugh of Fosse, created a confederation of linked, but independent abbeys with the hope that their communities would grow and respond to the needs of their individual locales. Uniquely, members of the Abbey, in addition to their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, took an additional “vow of place” – a vow to be a member of that particular abbey community for life. This Vita Communis underscored the intentional uniqueness of each abbeys’ work that was to respond to the needs of the larger community, in which it was founded.

A missionary and pioneer, Abbot Pennings was raised in a 19th century, lower-middle class household in an under-industrialized Netherlands where every penny mattered. He was asked to found, grow, and lead a religious community in a New World where adaptation and amalgamation were critical for success. Drawing from his humble upbringing and life experience, Abbot Pennings proved to have the right mix of skills to make a lasting foothold in the then underdeveloped United States frontier. He founded and led a Norbertine community, enduring harsh Wisconsin winters, economic recession, religious schism, and language and cultural barriers.

Can we, as leaders of today’s Norbertine legacy, be as effective as Abbot Pennings in advancing the missions of our institutions? Can we be of the world and not in it, address the needs of our communities and “place,” demonstrate value and importance to exist within the larger international community?

I believe we can.

With the advantage of studying nearly a millenium’s worth of Norbertine successes and failures, we can extract the best lessons that our contemporary culture has to offer and effectively relate them to the unchanged, fundamental beliefs of our Catholic faith. By remaining open to the Holy Spirit, which directs and guides us in the present, we allow ourselves to be filled with God’s will rather than our own.

patio

The Patio at Archmere Academy

Last month, during the week-long Saint Norbert Leadership Corps Program, my wife and I were able to visit with two of my former Archmere teachers – Fathers Sal Cuccia and Steve Rossey, who now live at Saint Norbert Abbey. Father Sal works at the College in Campus Ministry. Annually, he brings his students to visit Archmere as part of their community service trip in working with the Daylesford Abbey initiative Bethesda Project for homeless men in Philadelphia. Father Rossey continues to be my aesthetic inspiration for the revitalization of The Patio.

As my first art teacher and founder of the visual arts program at Archmere, Father Steve is a wealth of knowledge, and he is an important resource for the development of a 21st century Patio that works effectively with the school’s future plans while also respecting the tremendous artistic and historic place it has in our national history.

Throughout the week, we made connections, fortifying relationships between Archmere, Saint Norbert College and Saint Norbert Abbey – Archmere’s founding Abbey. I think Abbot Pennings would have been pleased to see Archmere students being instructed by the faculty of Saint Norbert College.

A highlight of the tour was the students’ visit to the crypt under the Abbey Church where Abbot Pennings and Abbot Killeen are buried. Father Cuccia, in his wonderfully nostalgic teaching style, recounted stories about the history of the communities from Premontre and Berne Abbeys. The students were attentive, respectful, and I think, aware, that they were in a special place and part of a special history. It felt like an afternoon of family story-telling.

As lay men and women who have been entrusted with this wonderfully rich legacy of a millennial religious tradition, we need to work in collaboration with one another and with the ordained members of the Norbertine communities, both in the United States and abroad. As counter-cultural institutions, it is important that we support one another as school and abbey communities, sharing key strategies that are effective in sustaining and fulfilling our missions.

We can learn a lot from successful leaders such as Abbot Pennings while continually “re-learning” how to be in the world rather than of the world. Abbot Penning’s confreres criticized his strategy for balancing these opposing sentiments, but would we be the Norbertine presence in America that we are today without him?

Gothic Cathedrals to Gourmet Kitchens

Having just returned from a week-long immersion into the Nobertine Midwest culture of Saint Norbert Abbey and College in De Pere, Wisconsin, many ideas and images are circulating in my head. A short stop in Chicago on the return trip to engage Archmere alumni living in the area in an informal reunion added to the experience. It leads me to the question, “What is it about ‘Archmere’ that attracts so many to support the ‘idea’ in so many ways?”

Traveling from the airport to the city center of Chicago, my wife and I noticed so many steeples of churches, closely knit together in neighborhoods, each one so different in architectural style. Similarly, on a tour of Saint Norbert’s campus with Vice President for Academics Dr. Jeff Frick we saw two former Catholic churches. One was being transformed into a Womens’ Studies center, while the other church, completely renovated, was a concert hall. Formerly Catholic churches for specific ethnic immigrant groups, these beautiful buildings were repurposed with great care to provide new services to the 21st century community of Saint Norbert College.

As I thought about these images, I saw a tangible effect of our contemporary cultural transition from a church-centered, other-worldy, higher-order-thinking culture to a popular culture of immediate gratification. Along the ride into and out of Chicago, there were a number of homes that were being refurbished. I could not help but think of the HGTV show that highlights “miraculous” makeovers for couples and families moving into or remodeling existing homes. It always strikes me when newly married couples are looking for homes with granite counter-top kitchens, stainless steel appliances, and real hardwood floors. The kitchen and the home, in some ways, has become the “church of today,” with a focus on family life as the secret to happiness.

But what about the experience my wife and I had walking the Magnificent Mile? At practically every street corner, we encountered someone, usually a woman and her children, who was begging for help – money for a meal or a place to stay for the night. Walking in and out of the high-end stores with price tags we only laughed about, we wondered, “How do you spend $1,395 for a pair of shoes and simply walk by a beggar who is sitting on the sidewalk?”

I am not sure of the answer; I am sure that many people who shop in these high-end locales are also generous to philanthropic causes. At the same time, are we not asked the question, “And so what do you do in proportion to your own means?”

I often think of the comment that Jesus made to Judas when Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus with perfumed oils:

For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me. (John 12:8)

Judas comments that the funds for the oils could have been used for the poor, but Jesus responds that what Mary had done was an act of faith and devotion.

I suppose we all struggle with this fine line of what is practical and what is over-the-top. Maybe the lesson learned is to not be so judgmental form the perspective that only we see. At the very least, we take from Jesus’ teaching that, as we express ourselves and our questions, we should do so in a manner that is non-accusatory and authentic. In this way, we may engage in good conversation that may transform a process, policy, or approach that previously had been considered the “best” method. We do not intend to put down another, rather build upon each other’s ideas and thoughts. My impression of Jesus in his dealings with the people around him is that he tried very hard to get various factions to communicate on common terms – the same thing that effective leaders are trying to accomplish today.

The Saint Norbert Leadership Corps program at Saint Norbert College was developed collaboratively between Archmere Academy and the College with the purpose of infusing our students with the leadership skills, rooted in the spiritual context of Norbertine Charism, to be successful in school and career. The program involved 39 students – rising Sophomores, Juniors and one Senior – and eight teacher chaperones. Students were presented with servant-leadership models that provided contexts for ethics and faith-based discussion. The goal was not for the students to leave the week-long experience with all the answers, but instead equipped with the tools to become mindful Catholic Christian leaders of the new century.

Personally, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. My wife Diane and I stayed at Saint Norbert Abbey, while the students and chaperones lived in a residence hall on the College’s campus. Diane and I immersed ourselves in the daily rhythm of the Abbey with morning prayer at 7:30 a.m. and evening prayer at 5 p.m. We were fortunate to be able to attend the viewing of Father Gilbert, O.Praem., who taught at Archmere from 1955 to 1965. It was a most impressive event, and family and community were warmly welcomed at the Abbey.

On the heels of the recent sudden loss of Father Thomas Hagendorf, O.Praem., my Freshman religion teacher at Archmere, the experience reminded me how much like a family experience my Archmere years felt – both those as a student from 1972 to 1976 and as a staff member from 1984 to 1996. I said in my opening letter to the school community when I returned as Headmaster that Archmere is a “place that never leaves you.” I believe that even more after this past week. It is as if we have been tattooed on the heart with the Archmere charism. Once you have it, it is there until you intentionally burn it away.