Sunday, July 13, 2014

Golden Jubilee

On July 19th at our Carmelite Nuns Monastery, 7201 West 32nd Street, in Little Rock, I will celebrate my golden jubilee of Religious profession.  The Jubilee Mass will begin at 9:30 am Saturday morning and be followed by a reception.  At our Provincial Chapter in June, I was appointed superior of Marylake, so am in the process of moving there now from my former assignment in Dallas.  In preparation for my golden jubilee, I have prepared the following biography of my vocational journey to Carmel.  
Moving to Texas from California in 1945

Born in San Francisco in 1941, and moved to Texas when I was four.  Mom ran away with a sailor from Texas after the war.  He bought me some cool shades, and I wore the bow tie to show those hick country boys I was from the big city.  Adjustment to Texas was swift: gained a drawl, got some boots, and “was fixing ta” pose on my first house.  Gotta love this new dad: hey, he built me a house!  

First thought of studying to be a priest when I was a sophmore in Junior High.  Parish priest gave me a postcard of a minor seminary run by the Missionaries of Our Lady of LaSalette in Ipswich Mass.  When I graduated from High School, I wrote letters to Texas Tech in Lubbock, and St. Edward’s in Austin, thinking it would be fun to study engineering at a Catholic school, since all my schooling had been at state-run institutions. 

To pay for college I worked at a local grocery store.  It was the A&P: the great Atlantic and Pacific.  I had made it half across the country; who knows, before long I might even hit the East Coast.  It was at this time I first met our Carmelite Nuns, and feel in love with their quiet, cloistered way of life; but I did not want to be a Carmelite friar.  They were too strict and ate too little.  The Nuns found a seminary where I could study to be a “generic priest.” 
"generic seminarian" in 1962

So I began studies for the priesthood in Covington LA.  My second year there, I visited Marylake which I had seen on an old calendar my Dad hung in his utility room.  This place knocked me out, and I entered the monastery as a novice in 1963.  President Kennedy was shot in Dallas during my novitiate, right after dedicating Greer’s Ferry lake. 

my first mustache in 1972
I was clothed in the Carmelite habit on the feast of Our Lady July 16th, and made my vows a year later on the feast of St. Elijah, 1964.   

I’ve always been happier to be a Carmelite than to be a priest, although the priesthood was what God was always calling me to.  May His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  
Profession day with my Novice Master

 When I received the Carmelite habit in 1963 I took the name John Michael of the Child Jesus.  My Novice Master was the founder of Marylake: Fr. Evarist V. Foix.  Fr. Sam Anthony Morello was assigned as assistant to the novices.  I remember being called into the Assistant's office one day after prayer.  He said he was observing me during prayer and asked, "Who are you praying to?"  Well, "GOD!" I replied.  Who do you think?  He then suggested I try talking to Jesus during prayer. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Father Joseph Neilson died on March 17th; leave it to the Irish to die on St. Patrick’s Day. Joseph was born on 28-Dec-32 in New York City to Frederick Neilson & Josephine Clancy. His father died when Joseph was young, and his mother supported her two sons by working as a cook for a wealthy family in Manhattan. After being taught by the Christian Brothers in primary school, he attended Fordham. “My brother George was away in WW II, and while I was at home alone and sick, I picked up Therese’s Story of a Soul. That was my discovery of the Carmelite life.” He was received into the Carmelite order in San Antonio in September of 1951. Early in the morning of May 15th Brother Joseph and his fellow novices closed down our novitiate in San Antonio and headed north to Little Rock. They arrived at Marylake, the site of our province’s new novitiate around sunset. Felix greeted him at the back porch, took him into the chapel and invited the novices to view the rest of the monastery while Brother Victor prepared supper. Joseph was lucky to get a separate cell, because when the new group of postulants arrived from Mt. Carmel Center in Dallas on June 16th, the new boys spent their first evening at Marylake arranging a large room downstairs into a dormitory.

Brother Joseph was the first novice to make his profession at Marylake on the Feast of St. Thérèse in 1952. He had taken the religious name Joseph of St. Thérèse. Joseph and Sam Morello were sent to Rome to study theology and were ordained there on 29-Apr-62. His first assignment was at Marylake, and in 1966 he was elected 2nd Provincial Councilor and Novice Master. In 1969 he was sent to be the new superior of our Houston community. When Houston was closed, he was sent back to Marylake. He spent 1975 as a hermit in Placid’s hermitage on the back of Marylake’s property. In 1978 he was again appointed Novice Master and prepared John Magdalene for profession. Father John preached Joe’s funeral Mass at Marylake on March 21st.

Joseph loved to run. After running for a year from Marylake to our Nuns in Little Rock (13 miles each way) he ran the Boston marathon. He was always in demand by our nuns throughout the province (and beyond) for conferences on Carmelite history and spirituality. His spiritual conferences would often last all morning or afternoon. Our nuns soon learned to attend in relays. A few would slip out while Joseph was looking up something in a book; then slip back in after completing their chores while the next group relayed out.

In the 1970s, Joseph took on the cause of protesting abortion. He became the spiritual advisor of groups picketing abortion centers in Little Rock, then in Oklahoma. The Pearson Foundation, concerned with pregnancy counseling, named him their national Chaplain in St. Louis in 1984. He set up White Rose Counseling Centers in Texas and Arkansas. Being born on the feast of the Holy Innocents, he felt called to this apostolate.

Abba House was among the first ministries developed in the Little Rock diocese to give women an alternative to abortion. The idea for Abba House came from Father Joseph, who had begun praying outside abortion clinics in the city. By May 1979, Nielson began bringing homeless pregnant women to the home of Patricia Grabher for shelter. Assisted by several volunteers, the women received care through their pregnancies and help finding a place to live after giving birth.

Before long, the ministry outgrew the small Grabher apartment. Volunteers realized that a larger facility was needed to serve them. They found a rental house for sale on South Oak Street. Fr. Joseph approached Bishop McDonald about purchasing the property, and the diocese bought it through a donation from the Wrape Family Foundation.

Abba House soon became more than the Grabhers could handle. In January 1982, the volunteers, led by Nielson, asked Bishop McDonald to write to Mother Teresa of Calcutta to ask for her sisters to take over the shelter. Mother Teresa wanted to visit Little Rock to see Abba House herself before agreeing to send her sisters.

Mother Teresa arrived in Little Rock on June 2, 1982, and stayed with our cloistered Carmelite nuns. The following day, Bishop McDonald took Mother Teresa to Abba House. After touring the shelter, she addressed the crowd outside, saying, “Gold and silver I have not. That which I have I will give you. I will send you my sisters. Together with you, we will make something beautiful for God.”

Later that day, Bishop McDonald and Mother Teresa led a prayer service at Ray Winder Field. Addressing the 5,429 people at the event, Mother Teresa pleaded with pregnant women who were considering abortion to let the Missionaries of Charity take care of their children. As promised, four Missionaries of Charity arrived in Little Rock to take over the ministry of Abba House in July 1983.

Joseph’s I.Q. was genius level. I never realized how encyclopedic his knowledge was until I examined the library of which he was in charge at Marylake. One would suspect a few areas of expertise would excel in the books he gathered for theology, history, scripture or spirituality. But poetry, art, music, and even the novels he collected for those sections of the library were superb. You could ask Joseph a question about anything from Elvis to Stephen Hawking, and though he might not have an immediate answer, he knew exactly where it could be found. Not by a goggle search, for Joseph never took to the computer. But he knew where the answer was in a library book.

The old stereotype of the absent minded professor comes to mind when you notice how a brilliant mind like Joseph’s was quite incompetent when it came to practical matters. Growing up in Manhattan, Joe never saw the need to learn how to drive. But the day finally came when he asked one of the brothers to teach him. Noticing how one of the most difficult things to master was backing up, Father Joseph would drive the car around the large oval drive at Marylake –backwards. He reasoned that if he hit anything, it would not be anything serious, only a chicken house or milk barn. But he was a terrible driver. One of his great feats was ending up perched on top of a three foot tall concrete barrier in the middle of a Houston freeway, facing backwards. None could imagine how in the world he ended up there, but he did.

On 29-Nov-86, when Father was stationed at Mt Carmel Center in Dallas he was in a terrible automobile accident that damaged his brain stem. This severely affected his movement and his speech. From November to August he was in a Dallas Rehab Institute, and then sent to Tangram in San Marcos where he remained until he was able to move back to Mt. Carmel Center.

In 2002 he was sent from Dallas back to Marylake where he carried on a prodigious career in spiritual direction. Speaking of moves, we Carmelite friars are always being moved about from one house of the province to another. Joseph was sent to be superior in Oklahoma City by Fr. Raymond in 1981. Joseph was so devoted to the vow of poverty, that he was able to make all his moves carrying everything he possessed in two suitcases and one handbag. I know of no Carmelite in modern times able to accomplish such a feat.

After a number of falls at Marylake, he needed to be moved to a nursing home in San Antonio in February of 2009. He accepted this unpleasant “assignment” with great resignation. In 2012 he was moved to Morningside Manor on Babcock Rd where he died at 4:20 am on Saturday March 17th. Leave it to the Irish to die on St. Patrick’s Day.

A scriptural rosary was held at Marylake on the Tuesday night after his death. The Requiem Mass Wednesday morning was concelebrated by Fr. Luis Belmonte, pastor of our Basilica in San Antonio; Msgr. John O’Donnell & Tom Keller from the diocese of Little Rock, Fr. Jesús Sancho from Oklahoma City, Fr. John Michael from Dallas, Fr. Sam Anthony Morello & Fr. John Magdalene from Marylake, and Raphael Kitz. Fr. Provincial, Luis J. Castañeda was the principal celebrant, Fr. John Magdalene (Joseph’s only surviving novice) preached, and Joseph’s classmate in Rome, Fr. Sam Anthony led the graveside service at the provincial cemetery. Also attending was our province’s senior student from San Antonio, Br. Juan Guillermo. Pallbearers were Kevin & Dennis Lee, Robert & Bob Pilkington and Davíd Lira. May his soul, so beloved by so many, now rest in peace.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Blogger leaves Marylake. Well that's all folks. I pray God brings me back to Marylake before I die, but for the present He, the Provincial Council, (and presumably the Holy Spirit) has led me to Dallas where I will be Parochial vicar of Santa Maria del Carmen church for the next three years. Date of departure/arrival was set for the feast of the prophet Elijah July 20th. It was the anniversary date of my 47th year as a professed Carmelite friar. In Dallas we celebrated the occasion with a dinner at my favorite seafood place: La Calle Doce, which appropriately enough is located on 12th Street in Oak Cliff.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On the feast of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, we celebrated the profession of our two novices, Brad Wagner and Jorge Morales. They received the Carmelite habit on the vigil of Our Lady’s feast last year. The year of a Carmelite’s novitiate is a year of testing and discernment. It has been compared to the military boot camp. It is not physically intense, because the purpose is not to build up the body, but it can be stressful in other aspects since the purpose is to build up the soul. Jesus said whoever wanted to follow him had to give up many things that are very dear to us: mother, father, brother, sister, riches, and in the end even life itself. Saint John of the Cross writes a lot about attachments. Each novice arrives at Marylake with baggage: some with more than others. Stuff we carry around with us. Some we don’t really need but are afraid to get rid of. Some we carry by force of habit whether we need it or not, whether it’s helpful to us or not. So during the year of novitiate the novice discerns with his master what to keep and develop, and what to discard. The discarding process is rarely peaceful since so many of us are attached to doing what we want, when we want and doing it how we want it done.

The vows Brother Brad and Brother Jorge took last Saturday were vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. Most young men think the vow of chastity is the hardest to keep. They soon find out obedience is even harder, for it involves the surrender of our will to another. Poverty is expected. Just because it is expected, doesn’t mean it is any easier to embrace. The story is told of one Brother who, when given a new assignment by his superior, loaded up a U-Haul van with books, furniture, and even the kitchen sink. Well it was really a darkroom sink, but a sink nonetheless. Another priest involved in the same transfer from one Carmelite house to another, went to his new assignment with only one suitcase. We all immediately praised the priest and condemned the Brother until we found out the priest cost the house to which he was sent a small fortune by expecting them to buy him replacements of all the things he had left behind… including a new sink for the bathroom.

Brother Bradley of Christ of King was the first to offer his vows to our Father Provincial, Luis Joaquin Castañeda. Brother was known as “Alberto” during his novitiate, but decided to keep his baptismal name Bradley as a professed religious. He was born in Cuidad Juarez, Chihuahua in 1975, but moved across the border when he was very young and grew up in this country. His mother lives in Los Angeles and he has two sisters in Dallas. His parents nor siblings could not come to Marylake for his profession because of a illness in the family.

Brother Jorge Maria del Cordero de Dios then offered his vows to the Provincial. Jorge was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1981. He has served military duty in the United States navy, and found the Carmelite order in San Antonio where he helped our Fathers there run the basilica of the Little Flower. His mother flew in from Puerto Rico to be with her son as he took his vows. Jorge’s sister is a Hawthorne Domincan who came down from upstate New York to be part of the ceremony. She took one of the readings of the Mass and led the Intercessions. Jorge’s Mom brought up the gifts along with Robert Pilkington, our caretaker’s son who lives at Marylake and has spent all week getting the grounds cleaned and mowed for the occasion. This was the first multiple profession we have celebrated since 1998 when Brother Joseph Le and his companions were professed. Brother Joseph can be seen sitting in the first pew on the left next to Brother Bernard. Both have now joined the Marylake community, as our two newly professed will transfer to San Antonio to begin their studies for the priesthood.

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Carmelite order operates on a triennial time table. What this means is that every three years, we gather at a Provincial Chapter to elect our new superiors and assign our personnel. Last month we held our chapter in San Antonio and made personnel changes at Marylake. The new superior will be Fr. Sam Anthony Morello. Fr. John Magdalene will be his right hand man. Fr. Raphael, due to his age, is allowed to stay. Once you turn 70 you have the privilege of letting the new superiors know at what house in our province you’d like to be stationed. The superiors don’t have to give you that, but you can ask, they will listen, and in Raphael’s case, they granted his wish. Fr. John Michael will be going to Santa Maria parish in Dallas TX, Fr. Marion will be going to our basilica in San Antonio, and the two novices who will make their vows on July 16 will be entering our house of studies in San Antonio. Before leaving for the “four corners of the world” I gathered our “ideal community” together for a photo. This is the “old” community: Fr. Marion, Br. Jorge, Fr. John Magdalene, John Michael, Fr. Raphael and Br. Bradley (the novice Alberto).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Father John was released from Baptist Rehab yesterday, and came up to chapel for Mass this morning for the first time since his accident on October 11th. Here to welcome him home from the hospital were Luis Joaquin Castaneda from Oklahoma & Luis Gerardo Belmonte from San Antonio (los dos Luisitos) and Our Father Provincial, Gregory Ross from New Orleans. Father Marion Joseph Bui presided at the concelebrated Mass and congratulated John for "making it up the mountain" of the 21 steps to our chapel.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

We kept our Christmas decorations up this year until the Baptism of the Lord, the 2nd Sunday of January. Our final Christmas holy hour was celebrated three days before the baptism on that last week of the Christmas season. We still find it hard to understand how so many take down their decorations just as the Christmas season begins. It must be because the Christmas decorations go up so early which preempts the entire Advent season which is one of the most beautiful liturgical seasons of the year, as we wait with Israel for Emmanuel to come.

The liturgical clothing of baptism is the pure white robes the catechumens receive as they emerge from the baptismal waters. Jesus blessed his Baptismal feast this year with one of the largest snow storms we’ve seen in these parts in years. All our priests managed to drive home from our weekend parishes and get back to the monastery that Sunday before the storm hit.