Stewards of the Gifts We Have Been Given

On Tuesday, February 4, 2014, Fr. Domenic Rossi, O.Praem., spoke to the students, faculty, and staff at an assembly. Father is the Founder and Executive Director of Bethesda Project, one of Philadelphia’s largest interfaith homeless housing and support organizations. In a very charismatic and passionate presentation, Father explained how he was called to this work, which began by leading a prayer group in 1977 at Daylesford Abbey.

While they were praying together, asking for understanding from God as to what He wanted of them, they all opened their Bibles to a random page. Several of them opened to the same exact Scripture passage from Isaiah:

You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Houses in Ruins. (Isaiah 58:4-12)

This prayer time was followed by a dream, in which Father saw his grandmother abandoned. He mentioned that he had a close relationship with her and was so disturbed by the dream that he woke up immediately and asked himself, “What does this mean?”

He said that in his mind’s ear he heard a voice say, “You should be upset at anyone being abandoned as much as you are upset at the thought of your grandmother being abandoned.” Father said that he stilled prayed for guidance because he did not know exactly what all of these things meant. After another dream in which he cared for a stranger by offering him something to eat, he received an unsolicited offer to take over and manage a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. He agreed, and with a group of volunteers began what would become the Bethesda Project.

As Father described to the assembly, the mission of the Project is to be “family” to those who have none, to be interveners of the homeless who are in need of healing, to not make them feel like a meaningless number lost in a social services agency. Bethesda Project provides shelter, housing, and programs that reach out to chronically homeless men and women. Those who work in Bethesda Project want to assure that each person’s uniqueness is recognized. Father said that the staff and volunteers of Bethesda Project follow a creed of compassion. It is about knowing another person and building a relationship not based on money, but on a desire to know someone and his or her unique story.

The assembly left a lasting impression on me, and I would guess, on many other students, faculty, and staff who listened to Father so intently.

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Earlier this week, I happened to read a piece of research completed by Bill Meehan, III on the library of John J. Raskob. Bill spent some time in The Patio library, reviewing portions of Mr. Raskob’s collection that was returned to Archmere over the years by family members. Combined with research completed at Hagley Museum and Library along with other sources, Meehan presented an overview of the contents of Raskob’s library that he kept at Archmere, his New York apartment, and at Pioneer Point Farm.

One particular collection that caught my interest was entitled, Pocket University. In 1925, Raskob ordered a set of these books, which provided a curriculum of “essential” liberal arts reading for the year as determined by the books’ publisher Nelson Doubleday. Meehan quotes Raskob in a letter dated February 18, 1925:

The course of reading prescribed is one which can easily be followed as it is not arduous and with a little persistent attention in the beginning, the following of the course soon becomes a habit, and habits once established are, of course, easy to follow.

Meehan comments that Raskob was assembling his library during the “golden age” of book collecting, which ended with the Great Depression.

As I considered these two ideas this week in preparing this monthly letter, I tried to reconcile in my mind the two quite disparate images — homelessness and antiquarian book collecting for private home libraries. How are they at all connected?

In fact, it would seem that one would be embarrassed to admit that he or she were spending energy on collecting books while people were in need of a home. And yet, that is precisely what had occurred and still occurs. Many question what could be done with the resources spent on “luxuries” to alleviate the serious social concerns that forever remain with us, particularly homelessness. As Fr. Rossi suggested, many of the homeless are transparent to us; we choose not to see them, or we consider them to be someone else’s concern.

To reconcile these thoughts requires perspective. For example, while Raskob was acquiring his books, reading voraciously and giving creative thought to what he read, he was also very philanthropic to Catholic and civic causes. Not only did he contribute financial resources to a variety of projects, he often provided the idea or the innovation for the creation and sustainability of processes intended to improve the quality of life for the larger community. He conceived of the idea of endowments for non-profit causes, suggesting wisely that proceeds from annual returns on investments would add greater stability to organizations, which had to raise funds annually to operate.

Mrs. Raskob writes in the Raskob-Green Record Book that the library was “to cultivate the mind.” She elaborates further:

…a place where…books to suit all moods and supply knowledge might be found… He who loveth a book will never want a faithful friend, a wholesome counselor, a cheerful companion, or an efficient comforter. (p. 142)

She and her husband believed that education and knowledge acquired through inquisitiveness and persistent good habits of learning were crucial in shaping their children’s development. While the children were afforded much opportunity, it went hand-in-hand with much responsibility.

I believe that recognizing that we are stewards of gifts we have been given is key to understanding the great disparities between rich and poor, those who have and those who have not. For us to know our true vocation in life, we need to listen to the call to share our resources with others in proportion to what we have. The call may come in a dream, in a book, in an actual phone call, or even in another’s voice.

Lessons In Remembrance

The Archmere Academy community ushered in November with a Mass on the first day of the month celebrating the Feast of All Saints. In recent years, to prepare for this month traditionally set aside in the Church as a time when we especially remember all those who have died, we have begun the tradition of asking members of our Archmere faith community to send us names of relatives and friends who have died, and for whom they would like included in our prayer intentions.

During this year’s Mass, we sang the Litany of the Saints, during which we remembered deceased members of Archmere families. In addition, a Book of Remembrance with a lighted candle was carried in procession to the altar along with bread and wine at the Preparation of the Gifts. The candle represented all alumni, and it was placed on the altar with six other candles, which represented the other constituencies of the school. The Book includes the names of all deceased alumni, faculty, and staff. It has been placed in a specially designed memorial in the newly-renovated Saint Norbert Oratory.

Mr. Bill Gabriel, Campus Minister, explained all of these actions to the assembly at Mass. As I watched and felt the reaction of the students, faculty, staff, and parents in attendance, I thought how much that hour of prayer and remembrance embodied the essence of Archmere’s strength, uniqueness, and ethos.

Remembering our heritage is something we do well, and it is important for our current students, faculty, and staff to know about our roots as a place of learning and growth. The month of November holds special significance in Archmere’s history.

SS Veendam

SS Veendam

On November 1, 1893, Father Bernard Pennings, Father Lambert Broens, and Brother Servatius Heesakkers left as missionaries on board the ship Veendam bound for the United States. From their home at Berne Abbey in Holland, these three men traveled to the Wisconsin frontier. They were asked by the Bishop of Green Bay to minister to the spiritual needs of the Dutch-speaking settlers in the remote, rural areas of Wisconsin by taking over small mission churches. This was a difficult assignment, since there was little, if any, infrastructure to support them in their ministry. Harsh weather conditions, miles of travel, minimal living conditions, and little financial support were all significant challenges they faced. Nevertheless, Abbot Pennings wrote with optimism on the morning of November 13, 1893, from Hoboken, New Jersey:

Thanks be to God, we are safe and sound on land again; over an hour ago, about 11 a.m., our feet touched dry land. All morning we have been admiring the beautiful shoreline …picturesque, with hills, and dales, villas and castles; all around us it was teeming with boats, large and small.

From that day forward, the Norbertine ministry in the United states grew under the guidance and vision of Father Pennings, who, with his confreres, wrote seven letters over the month of November – the first month of their great American adventure.

The three missionaries reached Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and in his sixth letter dated November 24, Abbot Pennings wrote about the adventurous trip through the wilderness:

Sometimes the road was so bumpy that we and the luggage were catapulted into the air, and Father Lamberts and I burst out laughing…”

augustine_wiki

In addition to it being the 120th anniversary of Nobertines in America, November 13 is an important day in our school history for two other reasons. First, it is the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in 354 AD. After his conversion, he became a great bishop, writer, and founder of a religious order. Saint Norbert adopted the Rule of Saint Augustine – a way of community life – when he founded the Norbertine Order.

Second, November 13 is celebrated as the feast day of All Saints of the Norbertine Order. One of those saints, St. Siard, was the fifth abbot of Mariëngaarde. He was a good administrator and leader in both spiritual and material matters, and the apostolic spirit of the order thrived at Mariëngaarde under his leadership.

siard2-2

Whenever Siard went on a journey, he took along a large basket full of bread and other food to distribute among the poor. Because of this he is usually depicted with a basket at his feat. He had the gift of appeasing hatred and reconciling enemies. Siard urged three things upon the confreres who had to leave the monastery: a joyous departure, a peaceful sojourn, and a happy return. We celebrate St. Siard’s particular feast day on the day of his death, November 14, 1230.

November 13 also takes on special meaning this year as Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pennsylvania, celebrates its 50th anniversary. The histories of Daylesford Abbey and Archmere Academy became interwoven years before the Abbey was even established.

The Norbertine Fathers of Saint Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin, founded Archmere Academy in 1932. They staffed and administered the school – originally a boarding and day school for boys. In addition to the Archmere educational venture, Abbot Pennings signed a contract on July 12, 1934, in which the Archdiocese of Philadelphia agreed to provide priests to serve as faculty members of a new diocesan school, Southeast Catholic High School for boys located at Seventh and Christian Streets in South Philadelphia. As both Archmere and Southeast Catholic grew, so did the local Delaware Valley community’s awareness of and affection for the Norbertine fathers.

Because of the Norbertine presence in the local community, there were a sufficient number of vocations to the Order by 1954. As a result, the Daylesford Priory was established in the former Cassatt Mansion on the Kelso Farms Estate in Easttown Township of Chester County, Pennsylvania. The estate was previously purchased by the Order in 1950, and it became the site of formation studies for novices – men joining the community to be ordained as priests. As numbers increased, the Norbertine community decided that Daylesford Priory should become an independent abbey. On November 13, 1963, new personnel were appointed and the official announcement of the membership of Daylesford Abbey was made – 70 years to the day after Abbot Pennings first stepped on American soil.

On behalf of the Archmere Academy community, I congratulate the members of Daylesford Abbey, their associates and friends, on such a joyous occasion. We are grateful for the years of administration and service given to Archmere by so many dedicated Norbertines.

Our history also includes John and Helena Raskob, who built the magnificent estate we now enjoy. In her Raskob-Green Record Book, Mrs. Raskob quotes an essayist:

When building, build forever – not for the present, but for such times as our descendants will thank us for. (p. 133)

The Raskobs had a vision for the future, not only evident in the architecture of their beautiful home, but also in their lasting philanthropic actions that have left a positive impact on the lives of future generations.

On November 11, we celebrate Veterans’ Day, a day of remembrance and prayer in honor of all those who served in the armed forces. This year, on saturday, November 9, we will dedicated the Armed Forces Tribute on campus, made possible by Mr. Larry Cylc ’73. The Tribute, along side the track and football field, is laid out in the shape of a five-pointed star with a flagpole at each point, flying the flags of the five branches of the armed forces. At the center of the star is the flagpole with the American flag. Our plan is to create a brick “Freedom Walk” leading up to the Tribute with the names of all alumni who have served or are serving in the armed forces. We know of many graduates who have served or are serving, but we would be grateful for our Archmere families to spread the word and be in touch with our staff to be sure we have a most comprehensive list of names.

On November 11, 1989, Father Justin Diny, O.Praem., fourth headmaster of Archmere Academy (1946-83), died. Since 1990, Father McLaughlin has celebrated a memorial Mass for Father Diny on the anniversary of his death. The 24th annual memorial Mass will be held in the newly-renovated Saint Norbert Oratory in Saint Norbert Hall at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, November 11. All are welcomed to attend.

In the Oratory, we have just finished the installation of nine stained glass windows that depict the life of Saint Norbert, the founder of the Norbertine Order and our inspiration today for living as a “Pentecost Community” – a community filled with the Holy Spirit, as were the apostles on that first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection. Saint Norbert’s zeal and passion for a vision of life gave him the resilience and faith to persevere and be “prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

As we look back and remember during this month of November, we also look to the future as we follow in the example of great people who have helped shaped the Archmere of today. And like the messages of the feast of All Saints and All Souls in the Church, we recognize all of those people who have contributed to a better life for all, yet who remain unknown to us but known to God as saints. We appreciate and honor them through the opportunities we have at Archmere to achieve a vision of the future with the same driving force that was behind their sacrifices and endurance.