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.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

On October 11th, our Father John Magdalene and our caretaker’s son Robert were involved in a terrible auto accident. They were returning from a shopping trip in Robert’s truck. They were hauling in our trailer a couch for the Marion House and two mattresses for the monastery, and were just a few miles from home when the truck failed to make a curve in the road and veered off their shoulder of Arch Street into a steep ditch and ran into a tree. A road repair crew working on the opposite side of the road witnessed the wreck and called 911 immediately.

When the emergency crew arrived on the scene, they were unable to extricate the two bodies, and had to cut off the roof of the truck to get them out. The “fifty year old passenger” (John is actually sixty) was the worst and was airlifted to Baptist hospital. When Fr. John Michael arrived at Baptist trauma unit, he found Father John a bloody mess. His face was covered in blood, he was bleeding from the mouth, and his hands were caked in blood. His left leg was broken, left shoulder dislocated, lungs damaged, and heart unstable. The nearest church, Christ the King, was called. Their newly ordained assistant, Fr Jason Sharbaugh came over to anoint him.

After all x-rays were taken and the shoulder placed back in its socket, Father was moved to Coronary Care where he stayed for ten days. He was put on a respirator to take care of his breathing. On the day after the accident he was in so much pain despite all the morphine and stronger stuff they were giving him, the doctors suggested putting him into a coma so his body could get some rest and begin the healing process. Pulmonary problems prevented the operation on his broken leg that was scheduled for the 15th. We took the scheduling of his badly needed operation as a sign from Saint Teresa as October 15th was her feast day, and were sorely disappointed when respiratory distress caused the operation to be postponed. The operation was performed on the 22nd, and Father was moved into Intensive Care where he remained for almost two weeks.

The doctors took him off the paralytics at the end of the month, but he failed to come out of the coma. An MRI showed no brain damage. On November 3rd he was moved from Intensive Care to a Long Care unit. When the nurses on that floor saw him still in the coma, they told us, “This is such a tragedy!” It appeared that even if he came out of the come he’d be paralyzed from the neck down. On November 12th, as John’s sister Paula was getting ready to return to Kansas, John grasped her hand, and moved his toes. His lung collapsed on the 20th, but on the 26th, Thanksgiving Day they were able to take him off the respirator and we heard him talk for the first time since the coma. He went into respiratory distress on the 29th when the tube that had been inserted into his collapsed lung came out. That afternoon he asked Fr. Raphael, “Am I dying?”

His tracheotomy was removed on December 8th, the Blessed Mother’s feast day. He was moved on that day from Baptist Hospital to Baptist Rehab. There he made such great progress, the local ABC television affiliate did a Christmas story on him. This was picked up nationally by CNN and can be found at:
CNN mis-spelled his last name, placing the phonetic spelling meant for the announcer on the caption: Sin rum for Suenram. Father was released from the Rehab unit on January 5th and is now back home at Marylake. We moved our upstairs chapel down to the refectory (still decorated for Christmas) so Father can attend our community prayers. This picture shows John with his four pronged walking cane concelebrating Mass with Frs. Marion and Raphael.