It was on her 30th birthday when Celia Ashton first stepped inside the monastery of the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore.
A successful dentist who had long harbored thoughts of becoming a religious sister, Celia had been invited to attend Mass at the monastery by some of her patients who happened to be Religious Sisters of Mercy.
As Providence would have it, the day she picked to attend Mass at the monastery was Vocations Sunday.
“I remember thinking, ‘Okay, God, you’ve got my attention now – I’m really listening,’” Celia said with a hearty laugh as she sat inside the historic monastery, located on Dulaney Valley Road.
Carmelite Sister Celia Ashton participates in a May 15 liturgy at the Carmelite Monastery in Towson during which she made her profession of temporary vows. Also shown are Carmelite Sister Constance FitzGerald and Monsignor Joseph Luca, pastor of St. Louis in Clarksville and a longtime friend of Sister Celia. (Courtesy Diane Barr)
“There was something special here,” she remembered. “I just felt a deep peace and a sense that I was being called to this particular place – but I couldn’t understand it because I didn’t know anything about the Carmelites.”
Celia paid attention to that irresistible call.
Three years ago, the Baltimore native entered the Carmelites. The Seton Keough High School alumna professed her temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience May 15. She has taken the religious name of Sister Cecilia of the Cosmic Christ – though most people refer to her simply as “Sister Celia.”
It wasn’t easy to give up two flourishing dental practices and take a leap into the unknown, the 39-year-old nun said, but it has deepened her relationship with Christ and brought “great joy.”
Founded in 1790 in Port Tobacco, the “Baltimore Carmel” was the first community of nuns established in the original 13 states. The community moved to Baltimore in 1831, established first on Aisquith Street; then relocating to Biddle Street in 1873. The community moved to its present location in Towson in 1961.
Carmelite spirituality is focused on intimacy with God through contemplative prayer – both in solitude and in communion with the other sisters. As Sister Celia explained it, the sisters “give witness” to the primacy of Christ through a life of prayer.
“We live trusting and believing that our prayer makes a difference,” she said, “though we rarely see or know the impact of our life’s work.”
The seeds of Sister Celia’s call to religious life were planted early. When she was 11 or 12, the future nun pulled out the official directory for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and flipped to the pages listing all the women’s religious orders that served here.
Then a parishioner of St. Mark in Catonsville, where she attended the parish school and was active in the youth group, the young Celia wrote letters to every religious community she could find – asking for more information about becoming a nun.
Celia and her two younger sisters had plenty of good role models for what it means to give one’s life completely to God. Two of her aunts were Sisters of Mercy (Sister Susanne Ashton and Sister Frances Demarco). Another aunt was a Franciscan Sister of Philadelphia (Sister Mary Alice Ashton).
“I was immersed in religious life,” said Sister Celia, whose family had attended Immaculate Conception Parish in Towson before moving to the Catonsville area when Sister Celia was in the 5th grade at Immaculate Conception School.
“We would go and visit them and we got to experience a little of what their life in community was about,” she remembered. “It would always be a really great experience.”
As her career in dentistry took off, though, the idea of entering religious life receded. It was attending Mass at the Carmelite monastery that reawakened it.
“I began to appreciate that a life of prayer is incredibly transformative for the world,” she said. “It is a huge mystery how prayer works, but it’s a belief I have in faith that this life is worth living – that this life is transformative and prophetic. In order to live this life, I can’t practice dentistry.”
Sister Celia is the youngest of 16 nuns from four countries who live at the monastery. Following in the tradition of St. Teresa of Avila, the great 16th century Spanish mystic who reformed the order, the community is intentionally kept small so all members can be friends.
Carmelite Sister Judy Long accepts the temporary vows of Carmelite Sister Celia Ashton. Sister Celia is expected to make her final vows in approximately three years. (Courtesy Diane Barr)
After living by herself for so many years, Sister Celia said it was definitely an adjustment to live in community. Married people get time away from each other when one or both go off to work, she said. That’s not the case in contemplative religious life.
“Here, if you rub shoulders with somebody, you could be sitting next to them at your next meal,” she said with a smile. “There’s a lot of growth that happens and you recognize your own rough edges and that we’re called to love one another and to support one another.”
Being able to live and interact with people in religious life she would not otherwise meet is also uplifting, she said.
“We make a radical choice,” said Sister Celia, who is expected to make her final vows in three years. “Every time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist, there’s incredible joy in that. We are witnessing to God’s love for all God’s people.”
For other women considering the religious life, Sister Celia has some advice from St. Katherine of Siena: Set aside fear. Trust in God.
“Be open,” she said. “Stay close to Christ, and never let an opportunity to practice charity pass you by.”
Read more vocations stories here.
July 21, 2016 03:45
By George Matysek
Oblate Sister of Providence Mary Anthony Garnier will turn 100 April 11. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)
It’s been two decades since a member of the Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence has turned 100.
That’s all about to change when Oblate Sister of Providence Mary Anthony Garnier celebrates the centennial of her birth during an April 11 bash at her religious community’s motherhouse in Arbutus, where she has lived since 2013.
Alert and quick to express her opinions, Sister Anthony told me during a recent visit she’s “grateful to God for letting me stay this long.” The spirited sister wanted me to know that although she is about to turn 100, she remains independent and stays up on current events.
“I’m not just existing,” she said passionately, resting in a large rolling chair. “I’m living! And that’s just what I want to be – I want to be living and knowing what’s going on.”
Born in New Orleans as the second oldest of 13 children, Velva Garnier entered the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1935. She had been inspired by the women religious who taught her at Corpus Christi School in New Orleans.
“I wanted to devote my life to God,” said Sister Anthony, seated in a community room beneath a large crucifix and an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Sister Anthony could not remember facing discrimination as an African American woman growing up in the South. She noted that New Orleans has a large black Catholic community that showed strong support for women religious.
Velva Garnier (standing), is shown in a family photo with her friend, Gabrielle Detiege, prior to entering the Oblate Sisters of Providence and becoming Sister Mary Anthony Garnier. (Courtesy Oblate Sisters of Providence)
In a 1994 interview with the Baltimore Sun when she served as the sacristan at the motherhouse, however, Sister Anthony remembered when black nuns could take Communion only after white communicants had received the sacrament.
"We have an extra blessing from God as a race," she told The Sun. "Being from the South, I can tell you some awful stuff. But my mother said that eventually God would take care of you. And that's also what our order believes: If we put things in God's hands, God will provide."
The Oblate Sisters of Providence were founded by Mother Mary Lange in 1829 to educate and evangelize African Americans. For 188 years, they have ministered at St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore, a historic school founded by Mother Lange that is proud to be the oldest continuously operating black Catholic school in the nation.
Throughout her many decades of ministry, Sister Anthony worked mostly in Catholic education. In addition to Baltimore, where she spent time at St. Frances Academy and the motherhouse, she served in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Missouri. She was in active ministry in Buffalo, N.Y., for nine years before returning to the motherhouse at age 97.
Oblate Sister of Providence Mary Anthony Garnier is shown in an undated photo. (Courtesy Oblate Sisters of Providence)
“Sister Anthony always loved to talk to little children,” said Oblate Sister of Providence Trinita Baeza, the nun who tipped me off about her friend’s upcoming birthday. “She would hug them and encourage them to be good. She would sit in the office and be the goodwill person – the kind of person who could be a third neutral party that could hear the child’s side and the teacher’s side.”
Sister Trinita said Sister Anthony will receive a new black veil prior to her birthday party and will be treated as the “queen for the day.” The entire community will celebrate with her, Sister Trinita said, including an Oblate sister who will turn 100 next year.
“Sister Anthony has always been so active and joy-filled,” Sister Trinita said. “She’s always able to see the good side of a situation.”
Happy birthday, Sister Anthony! Enjoy your special day!
April 06, 2016 10:32
By George Matysek
Thousands gather around a video screen at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard to watch the papal Mass in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (George P. Matysek Jr./CR Staff)
“Enter that line and you enter the path of destruction!”
That’s what a man holding a sign filled with Bible verses screamed to me as I came close to a security checkpoint for access to the much-anticipated papal Mass in Philadelphia Sept. 27.
It was nearly four hours before the start of the liturgy, and there were already thousands of people in the barely-moving queue. One of the organizers announced that the wait to get through security could last as long as two to three more hours – giving our friend the captive audience he undoubtedly craved.
“You are all going to hell unless you repent!” he shouted.
There was more.
“The pope is an antichrist!”
“Priests are child molesters!”
I had seen his type almost every day of my nearly week-long stay covering the World Meeting of Families, the Festival of Families and the papal Mass. They were few and far between, but somehow still managed to pop up every couple hours.
Let’s just say that dialogue doesn’t come easy to these folks.
When a woman responded to an epithet against the Holy Father, she tried to explain why she loved Pope Francis. She was quickly cut off.
“I rebuke you!” the man bellowed. “Turn from your sin and follow Christ!”
Not wanting to miss Mass and knowing that I wasn’t likely to get a good view by the time I made it past security, I walked several blocks back toward City Hall where large video screens were set up so people who couldn’t get into the Mass could watch.
Pope Francis is seen on a large video screen near City Hall in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (George P. Matysek Jr./CR Staff)
More of my new-found “friends” were there at the corner of 15th Street and JFK Boulevard, carrying black-and-white signs emblazoned with anti-Catholic slogans. They taunted a crowd that eventually swelled to about 2,000 or more surrounding just one video screen.
What impressed me was the way the Mass-goers responded to the invective.
When two “evangelists” pushed close to where people hoped to watch the liturgy, a group made up mostly of teens wearing bright yellow ribbons around their heads surrounded them. They didn’t get angry or hurl insults. Instead, as the protesters decried Catholicism, the young people chanted one phrase back at them over and over, sometimes jumping up and down as they did so: “Jesus loves you!”
Young Catholics shout "Jesus loves you!" to anti-Catholic protesters at the papal Mass in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (George P. Matysek Jr. /CR Staff)
Audrey Konopka, a 14-year-old from Cleveland, told me she was part of the impromptu response because she wanted to show that “we love everyone, and no matter what people do to us, they can’t shake what we believe.”
The sign bearers left, only to return 15 minutes later. This time, a young bearded priest hopped atop a curb and led the crowd in cheers for Pope Francis – drowning out the negativity and eliciting smiles and cheers from the congregation.
The protesters left and never came back during the celebration.
While anti-Catholics taunt the crowd Sept. 27 in Philadelphia, a young priest leads cheers for the pope. (George P. Matysek Jr./CR Staff)
How ironic that during his homily at a Mass attended by hundreds of thousands, the pope challenged all those listening to think about how they treat each other in their home.
"Do we shout or do we speak to each other with love and tenderness?” the pope asked. “That's a good way of measuring our love."
Love was what ruled the day from my vantage point sitting on the street with prayerful believers from around the globe.
When the pope kissed and blessed baby after baby before reaching the sanctuary, I saw many people beside me wipe away tears as collective “awwws!” echoed in the streets.
It was even more inspiring to see some kneeling on the concrete during the consecration. Others waved arms in praise of Jesus while young people sang in many different languages.
A woman raises her hands in prayer while watching the Sept. 27 papal Mass on a large video screen. (George P. Matysek Jr./CR Staff)
"To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not 'part of our group,' who are not 'like us,' is a dangerous temptation," the pope said. "Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith. Faith opens a window to the presence and working of the Spirit. It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures."
Let’s try to treat each other with love and kindness, no matter what our beliefs may be.
September 27, 2015 10:30
By George Matysek
Monsignor Valenzano (right) was a concelebrant at George and Treasa Matysek's 2012 wedding.
Monsignor Valenzano died Sept. 5.
When a doctor told Treasa and me two years ago that our unborn baby likely wouldn’t live for more than a day or two after his birth, one of the first people I called was Monsignor Arthur Valenzano.
I had written a cover story for the Catholic Review in 2007 about how the much-loved pastor, then stationed at St. John in Westminster, had successfully undergone a bone-marrow transplant in his fight with acute myeloid leukemia.
Throughout his ordeal, which included punishing rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the priest had maintained a remarkably positive outlook – always diverting attention from himself as he encouraged others.
My wife suggested that we look to Monsignor Valenzano for inspiration. If Treasa and I could emulate just a small portion of our friend’s boundless courage, humility and faith, we knew our cross would be more bearable.
I’ll never forget how Monsignor Valenzano graciously ushered us into his small office at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, where he was rector.
Greeting us with a warm smile, his eyes seemed filled with the compassion of someone who instinctively knew how to carry the anguish of others.
At that time, Monsignor Valenzano was still feeling well, but his cancer was back and within a few months he would have to go through more grueling treatments and yet another bone-marrow transplant.
During our meeting, the priest read a passage from Jeremiah, reminding us that God knew us before he created us in our mother’s womb. He told us that out of all the people in the world who could have been the parents of our child, God picked us.
Monsignor Valenzano then closed his eyes and prayed with us.
I don’t remember what words he uttered, but I do remember feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit as the cleric’s soft, gentle voice washed over us.
Treasa and I left our meeting feeling more ready to face whatever would come our way.
The very next day, Monsignor Valenzano called me on my cell phone. It was a quick five-minute call. The Frostburg native just wanted to check and see how Treasa and I were holding up. He would do whatever he could to support us, he promised.
True to his word, Monsignor Valenzano was with us throughout our difficult pregnancy.
He blessed our baby – George Paul Matysek III – in Treasa’s womb using a new rite prepared by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He encouraged us when doctors held out hope they could save Georgie’s life by performing heart surgery after his birth. And, when we didn’t make it that far, the priest arrived at Johns Hopkins to pray with us on the day our son's heart stopped beating six weeks before his due date. When Georgie was born two days later, Monsignor Valenzano returned to the hospital to be with us yet again.
As I held my son’s motionless body in my arms and family members gathered on the Feast of All Souls, Monsignor Valenzano prayed with us and offered a blessing. Although it was a sad moment, there was also a sense of joy in being united in faith.
The man who had been a concelebrant at our wedding later buried our little one and offered a memorial Mass at the basilica. He repeatedly assured us that Georgie was our advocate in heaven.
Not long after we lost Georgie, God blessed us with another baby.
Monsignor Valenzano baptizes George and Treasa Matysek's daughter in 2014 at the Baltimore Basilica.
(Courtesy Kathryn Beyer)
Monsignor Valenzano was with us yet again – sharing in our excitement and blessing our daughter in the womb. Even though his health was rapidly declining and he was no longer doing baptisms, Monsignor Valenzano made an exception for us and baptized our little girl at the basilica in November 2014. His voice was weak and sometimes trailed off that day, but his holiness was as radiant as ever.
When Monsignor Valenzano touched our daughter’s lips as part of the baptism rite, the infant instinctively tried to nibble his finger.
“God love you,” the priest said with a laugh as he smiled at the baby.
Monsignor Valenzano’s presence at the baptism was a tremendously generous and selfless gift – one that our family will forever cherish.
The last time I spoke with Monsignor Valenzano was at the special May celebration marking the 40th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. At the end of the day, I shook his hand and congratulated him on his milestone.
“Oh,” he said. “Give that sweet little girl a hug for me, will you?”
I was more than happy to accommodate Monsignor Valenzano’s request.
Now, as the good and faithful servant has been welcomed into his Father’s house Sept. 5, I know that Georgie is embracing him – as are the countless others whose lives had been touched on Earth by the actions of this humble priest.
Thank you, Father Art, for showing the world what it means to be a true follower of Christ. Throughout your priesthood, you often exclaimed “Praise Jesus!” Today, all of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and beyond praises Jesus for the gift of your priesthood. May we learn from your example and make this world better for others.
My sister-in-law shares her memories of Monsignor Valenzano here.
Monsignor Valenzano poses with the Matysek Family. (Courtesy Kathryn Beyer)
September 06, 2015 11:43
By George Matysek
The gleaming gold-leafed statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that soars over Emmitsburg finally has her May crown.
For the first time since the statue was erected a half century ago, the much-loved figure was adorned with a gigantic wreath of silk flowers hoisted 120 feet by a crane during a May 3 ceremony at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
More than 2,500 people watched as Tim Mergen, a first-year seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, had the honor of being lifted in a large bucket to adorn the bronze figure’s bowed head.
“I was praying for all the people there that they would honor our Lady and that she would bring them all closer to Jesus,” said Mergen, calling the view from the top of the statue “wonderful” and a reminder of Mary’s protective gaze.
Will Stone, owner of Flower Fashions in Frederick, designed and constructed the wreath that was 12-feet in diameter and made up of silk red roses, yellow mums and other brightly colored flowers.
“We constructed it on cable ties,” he said. “Once we got it up there, it was zipped tight.”
Stone said the wreath was the largest he’s ever made. The 25-foot Mary statue stands on a 95-foot campanile on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University.
Lori Stewart, director of the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, said the May crowning was made possible through the donation of crane services by Steve and Cecilia Gregory, owners of Big Hook and Rigging Company.
“It was so beautiful and so exciting,” said Stewart, noting that the grotto did a “practice crowning” prior to the big event to make sure the enormous flowered ring would fit. “People applauded and some of them were crying.”
May crownings are a popular tradition in the Catholic Church.
“It’s a wonderful reminder to us all that Mary is the queen of heaven and earth,” said Mergen, who is preparing to become a priest for the Diocese of Madison, Wis. and the Archdiocese for U.S. Military Services.
“We don’t worship Mary in any way, shape or form,” he said. “We honor and venerate her and recognize her help and her strength for us all.”
The 27-year-old seminarian said the royal image of Mary has its roots in the Old Testament. Queen mothers traditionally had “pull” with all the Old Testament kings, he said.
“Mary is our queen mother,” he said. “On the cross, Jesus gave us his mother when he gave her to John and told him to take her into his home. That’s what we’re all called to do now – take her into our home and into our hearts as our queen mother. She always brings us closer to Jesus.”
The crown will remain on top of the statue throughout May, and will be on display after it is removed, Stewart said.
Photos courtesy Mount St. Mary's University
May 05, 2015 10:44
By George Matysek
When Father Milton A. Hipsley Jr. was pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas in Hampden in the 1980s, a visiting priest took note of stacks of unopened correspondence from the Catholic Center that seemed to be accumulating in the rectory. He asked Father Hipsley if he was worried about the unread letters.
“I don’t worry about mail,” the pastor replied. “I only worry that maybe someone will show up at the rectory and a priest won’t be available (to help him).”
The anecdote, told by Father Joseph Breighner during Father Hipsley’s Dec. 22 funeral Mass at St. Agnes in Catonsville, captured the essence of Father Hipsley.
The former pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Mary in Cumberland, who died Dec. 17 after a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, was a man whose entire life was focused on the nitty-gritty aspects of pastoral ministry: visiting the imprisoned, comforting the sick, consoling the lonely, feeding the hungry and giving hope to the hopeless.
“Milt just didn’t give a few dollars to a homeless person,” said Father Breighner, a Catholic Review columnist. “He would befriend them and say, ‘I am your friend.’ He didn’t give as a superior to an inferior.”
Father Breighner remembered Father Hipsley as a man who was “very innocent.”
“There was no guile,” Father Breighner said. “There was no persona. There was no front. There was just the person of Christ. The person of Christ showed through Milton so very well.”
Ann Pugh, Father Hipsley’s sister, told me that her brother possessed a sense of simplicity from the time he was a boy. It wasn’t naïveté, she said, but genuine goodness. It was holiness.
Once, when Father Hipsley was 6 or 7, he and Ann were playing on an abandoned farm near their home in Baltimore. After their mother called them in for dinner, Pugh said, young Milton stayed outside to observe the falling snow.
“Everything was covered in white and silence,” Pugh remembered. “It was very spiritual to him. He felt God’s presence.”
As a prison minister, she said, Father Hipsley felt the desolation of those forgotten by society. When he first started celebrating Mass at a Cumberland prison in the early 1990s, she said, only 3 people attended. Within a brief time period, however, that number grew to 30 or 40.
“They would greet him in procession,” Pugh said, noting that seeing prisoners come to him for spiritual support almost made her brother cry.
Father Hipsley once told me that inmates are “lonely” and “frustrated.”
“If you go in and show kindness to them,” he said in his simple way, “it’s like showing attention to the barking dog. If you pet the dog, it starts to lick your hand and become like a friend.”
At the conclusion of Father Hipsley’s funeral Mass, attended by Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, Bishop Denis J. Madden, Bishop William C. Newman, nearly 50 priests and many family members, friends and former parishioners, Archbishop William E. Lori offered a prayer that God will send more men to step forward to enter the priestly vocation who have the same spirituality and love for the poor as Father Hipsley.
“He loved those who did not give back,” Archbishop William E. Lori said. “He loved those who were unable to return his love measure for measure. He loved those who could not give financial recompense. He loved those who could not give social recompense.”
What a blessing it would be if we could all live our lives that way.
December 22, 2014 03:59
By George Matysek
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline, and their children, Caroline and John Jr., are seen on Easter Sunday in 1963, months before the president's Nov. 22 assasination. (CNS photo/Reuters)
When Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today in Dallas, Baltimore’s Cardinal Lawrence Shehan was far from home attending meetings of the Second Vatican Council in Rome. That didn't stop him from feeling the impact of one of the most shocking moments of the 20th century.
A Nov. 22, 1963, statement released on behalf of Cardinal Shehan asked
for prayers for the eternal repose of President Kennedy, whom the cardinal said died “like the bravest of soldiers in the pursuit of his duties.” The cardinal also asked for prayers at every Mass, and
“to solemnize the day of his burial with a Requiem Mass for the repose of
his great soul.”
the bitterness that poisoned our nation a century ago after the death
of President Lincoln, let us pray for the strength to resist the
inevitable temptation to hurl reckless charges of culpability against
any segment of our people,” the statement said. “At his inauguration,
President Kennedy summoned each of us to ask what we might do for our
country. Our best tribute to him now is to determine, more resolutely
than ever, that our nation will remain wise and united in the difficult
In the cardinal’s absence in Baltimore, Auxiliary Bishop T. Austin Murphy sent a Western Union Telegram to the White House expressing “sincere sympathy” to Mrs. John F. Kennedy Nov. 22, 1963.
“Masses and prayers are being offered in all the churches of the Archdiocese of Baltimore for the repose of the soul of President Kennedy(,) for you, your children and all the members of your family,” the 3:21 p.m. telegram said in capital letters.
The first lady acknowledged the acts of kindness of Baltimore Catholics with a card sent to the cardinal that said simply, “Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness.”
The first lady’s card and Bishop Murphy’s telegram are held in the archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
(The card immediately above is courtesy Associated Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The photo of Cardinal Shehan is a CR file photo)
November 22, 2013 10:08
By George Matysek
Christopher Gaul died Oct. 18, 2012. (CR file photo)
Kneeling in the small parking garage at
Catholic Review headquarters about a decade ago, Christopher Gaul and I went to
work changing a flat tire on his small sports utility vehicle. Gaul, my former
managing editor, confidently wielded an iron wrench to unloosen lug nuts while
I waited to help him remove the damaged tire.
After a few minutes, my keen journalistic
powers of observation kicked in.
“Ummm, Chris,” I said, unable to contain a laugh.
“You’re changing the tire that’s not flat.”
The metallic clank of a dropped tool echoed
in the garage before Chris looked at me with a bemused smile. He was soon
laughing with me at our automotive incompetence.
“Shut up,” Chris said in an urbane British
accent. “You are not to tell anyone of this.”
Christopher Gaul was one of the great
characters in the history of the Baltimore press.
Suave, intelligent, driven, funny and
ambitious, Chris was a fixture at the Catholic
Review from 1995 to 2005. He served in a variety of award-winning roles
including senior correspondent, managing editor, associate editor and host of
television and radio programs.
It will be a year Oct. 18 since Chris lost
a nearly yearlong battle with lung cancer. His distinguished journalism career
included stints as a reporter for The Sun and The Evening Sun, an investigative
reporter and documentary film producer for WJZ-TV,
and a medical reporter for WBAL-TV.
Raised in the Church of England, Chris
became a Catholic as a teen a few years after his mother joined the church in
the late 1940s. Gaul’s godfather
was William E. Barrett, a Catholic writer whose novels include “The Left Hand
Chris long ago told me he was attracted to
the romance of the Catholic Church – stories of fantastic saints and martyrs, a
theology that ran deep, and liturgy that inspired awe. I always had the sense
that he was on a spiritual journey – sometimes stumbling, but always staying
Chris was one of
my greatest mentors. I learned more from reading his eloquent prose and sitting
next to him at the Catholic Review than I did in any writing course. More than
that, he became a friend.
Several times a
year, I visited Chris and his wife, Pam, at their Essex home not too far from
where I grew up. Sometimes we enjoyed a cookout or took in a football game. On his
last Christmas Eve, I joined Chris’ family for a dinner that featured his
famous Yorkshire pudding. Another time, ushering in a new year, I watched the
husband-and-wife team dance with their beloved Weimaraner show dogs at the stroke of midnight.
As Chris neared
the end of his life, he began giving things away. He had already given me a
copy of the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible (which he steadfastly
described as the most eloquent Catholic translation), an icon of St. Paul and a
St. George medal from France that I wore until it broke free of its chain and
In those last
months, Chris also gave me spiritual books and a bag of “holy dirt” he
collected while on pilgrimage to one of his favorite shrines in Santa Fe.
longtime dream, Chris received special permission to make his definitive
promises as a lay member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites just
months before he died – even though he had not completed formation.
The day before Chris lost his battle with
cancer, I visited him one final time. As a wet cloth perched on his forehead, Chris
rested in bed while his beloved canines lingered nearby. On the wall hung a framed
copy of Jean-Francois Millet's familiar painting of peasants pausing in a field
for the Angelus – a retirement gift from The Catholic Review editorial
department in honor of the tradition Chris started at the newspaper of praying
the Angelus every day at noon.
Soft classical music hung in the air as I
thanked Chris for being such a good friend and mentor. Within hours, he was
Christopher Gaul enjoys his retirement party with some of the people he mentored:
George P. Matysek Jr., Rachel Richmond and Jennifer Williams.
I often wonder what Chris would make of the
changes that have taken place in the church since his death – the stunning and
humble retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of the Argentine Pope
I suspect he would be intrigued by our new
pope’s emphasis on mercy, since one of Chris’ favorite prayers was a
soul-searching one he borrowed from the Orthodox: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of
God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
He would be pleased, I think, to know that some
of the people he mentored at The Catholic Review are using the skills he honed
in them to cover these exciting times with a sense of fairness, balance
and perhaps even some of his style.
Yes, Chris is gone. His legacy is not.
Rest in peace, friend.
October 17, 2013 04:39
By George Matysek
It certainly makes for a good story: a scrappy kid from Baltimore flunks out of an English class at what is now Loyola University Maryland only to become an international bestselling author.
The problem is that the oft-told tale concerning Tom Clancy is just as fictitious as Jack Ryan.
“It was an urban legend that just wouldn’t die,” said Carol Abromaitis, the English professor accused of giving Clancy an F in her class.
For decades, Abromaitis urged English majors to let others know the truth. Her efforts bore little fruit.
“One major said to me, ‘Of course not. It makes us look smart,’” Abromaitis remembered with a laugh.
Clancy, who died Oct. 1
at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore following a brief illness, was, in fact, a friend of Abromaitis and her husband, Mike. The master of the techno-thriller sometimes played war board games with Mike Abromaitis. The couple also served as the godparents of Clancy’s eldest child, baptized at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Baynesville.
Author Tom Clancy is pictured in an undated photo at his home in Huntingtown, Md. Clancy, best known for works including "The Hunt for Red October" and "Clear and Present Danger," died Oct. 1 at age 66 after a brief illness at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. (CNS photo/courtesy David Burnett via Reuters)
At Loyola, Clancy enrolled in Abromaitis’ 18th-century literature course and an independent study focused on science fiction. The professor remembered her friend as a man with a “gifted imagination” who thoroughly researched his topic before taking on a project. When he showed up for his independent study, she said, he had a briefcase filled with books that he expected Abromaitis to read.
Clancy’s prodigious talent was evident very early on. He wrote a short story at what is now Loyola Blakefield in Towson, bringing it to Abromaitis for a critique when he began studying in college.
“It was just fabulous,” Abromaitis said. “It was about a man-eating tiger in India who had a mutation that made him have a human brain. It was totally fantasy, but it was a really good story.”
When Clancy began “The Hunt for Red October,” his first book, he sent galleys to Abromaitis. She was impressed with the work and soon hooked her husband, Mike.
“I think it was his best book,” she said.
Abromaitis noted that Clancy’s Catholic upbringing was reflected in his characters.
“He had a sense of right and wrong, good and evil,” she said. “He had a sense of the obligation to protect the weak.”
Others who knew Clancy remembered him as a man who always had a keen interest in military matters.
“I recall planning military strategies with him, playing with little toy figures of soldiers,” said Father Gregory Rapisarda, associate pastor of several Dundalk-area parishes and Clancy’s classmate at St. Matthew School in Northwood and Loyola Blakefield.
Don Lavin, a senior lecturer in economics and business at McDaniel College in Westminster, was Clancy’s classmate at Loyola Blakefield. Clancy was a member of the “brain class,” Lavin said.
“Those were the 22 or 23 people in our class who were the smartest guys,” Lavin said.
Monsignor James Farmer, pastor of St. John in Westminster and one of Clancy’s college classmates, said his friend will be missed.
“He was a very hardworking and interesting guy,” Monsignor Farmer said, noting that Clancy made contributions to assist children with cancer. “He held strong convictions and had a concern for people’s needs.”
October 07, 2013 11:03
By George Matysek
A photo of Art Modell accompanied a 2003 story in the Catholic Review.
(George P. Matysek Jr. | CR Staff)
I only had a chance to interview Art Modell once in my journalism career.
A few days before the then-owner of the Baltimore Ravens was to be honored by the National Catholic Educational Association in 2003, I was assigned to find out why this Jewish businessman from Brooklyn, N.Y., was spending part of his fortune boosting Catholic schools in inner-city Baltimore.
Shortly after moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996, Modell made a major five-year gift to support the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Partners in Excellence program. Co-sponsored by the archdiocese and more than 400 philanthropies, businesses and private benefactors, the program has provided more than $22 million in tuition assistance to thousands of Baltimore families since Cardinal William H. Keeler launched it in the same year Modell arrived in Charm City.
Seated in a white golf cart on the sidelines of the Ravens’ practice facility in Owings Mills, Modell told me he was happy to spend his money on a worthy cause like Catholic education. Catholic schools are well-known for inculcating values and discipline in their students, he said, and the Catholic school system was “the best anywhere.” He was impressed with Partners in Excellence, he said, because it is “a good program that can benefit anyone no matter their religion."
Modell noted that his more than three decades as an owner of a professional football team gave him unique insights into the far-reaching value of education.
“Thousands of football players have gone through my system,” Modell explained, whose Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV.
“Invariably, when you research their background, there’s a connection between the schools they’ve come from and what they’re like,” he said. “The ones who had a good education invariably turn out to be the better guys in terms of character and commitment.”
Together with his wife, Patricia – whose funeral was offered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore nearly a year ago – Modell also made contributions to the basilica’s restoration, Catholic Charities, the House of Ruth, the Hospice of Baltimore and other charitable causes.
As much as I remember Modell’s matter-of-fact answers to my questions, I will also always remember his legendary wit.
As his players raced up and down the field preparing for a big game with the Kansas City Chiefs nearly a decade ago, the white-haired businessman reiterated how he took delight in supporting a good cause such as Catholic education. Then, he paused.
"It’s better than taking my wife to Neiman Marcus," he quipped.
Art Modell died Sept. 6 at age 87. Funeral arrangements are pending.
September 06, 2012 11:49
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By George Matysek