FR. GUERRIC DEBONA: We could think of ourselves as a bundle of feathers that are being cast to the wind, and grace only knows, God only knows where the feathers will wind up. That is, in some sense, the Christian narrative. If we put ourselves in God’s hands, you never know, dot, dot, dot.
BR. JOEL BLAIZE: You are listening to Echoes from the Bell Tower.
BR. KOLBE WOLNIAKOWSKI: Stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live, work and pray in southern Indiana. I’m Br. Kolbe.
BR. JOEL: And I am Br. Joel. Saint Meinrad has a long history of monks who have made notable contributions to not only the Church, but to science. One of the gifts of being a monk is that we are able to devote our full attention to our prayer and to our monastic assignments. We don’t have a spouse or children to worry about. We don’t have to worry about where our next meal will come from because of the generous gifts we receive from people who believe in our work. We are extremely grateful. We sat down with Archabbot Kurt Stasiak to talk about some of the achievements monks have made over the years.
ARCHABBOT KURT STASIAK: Part of being a monk at Saint Meinrad is kind of adding your name to a long list of people who have just made some amazing contributions to the Church.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Columba Kelly is a recent monk, probably most known for his work with chant. He oversaw the introduction of English into the celebrations of the Divine Office and the Eucharist after Vatican II. He died in 2018.
BR. JOEL: Fr. Damian Schmelz had a doctorate in plant ecology and is especially known for his research on old-growth forests in Indiana. He did so much work in plant ecology that an addition to the Donaldson’s Woods Nature Preserve was dedicated in his honor. That’s a contribution to the surrounding area that you would not expect from a monk. Fr. Damian died back in 2016.
ARCHABBOT KURT: Back in the late 1940s, the 1950s, two of our monks, Fr. Conrad Louis, Fr. Eberhard Olinger, worked together on translating the Psalter from Hebrew into English. That became the English translation that is in the New American Bible, which is one of the main versions of the Bible that Catholics in the United States use. Without trying to be selfish, that’s very much a Saint Meinrad contribution to the work of the Church at large.
BR. KOLBE: You can see this again and again throughout Saint Meinrad’s history. Monks who have had the time to develop skills in a broad range of fields, have made major contributions. Archabbot Kurt has one more example…
ARCHABBOT KURT: One of the things I found out when I first came here in 1974, and this just stunned me, our Fr. Thomas Ostdick, for a number of years he was academic dean in our college, and he was president-rector of our college for a couple years. By training he was a chemist. He had a doctorate in chemistry. He was one of the chemists who was on the team developing the heat shield for Project Mercury back in the late 1950s, early 1960s, when we started sending satellites and rockets up.
BR. JOEL: We just heard about monks who could have made the newspapers with their achievements, but on a daily basis, we have the opportunity to impact the lives of individual people in ways that might change that person’s life, but would never make the news. As Fr. Guerric said in our episode opening, when we put ourselves in God’s hands, you never know the places you’ll go and the lives you will touch. Here is Fr. Eugene with a story.
FR. EUGENE HENSELL: I was recently at a parish in the East Coast where a woman came up to me and said, “You’re from Saint Meinrad.” I said, “Yes, I am.” She says, “Do you know Father So-and-So?” Well, he had died by now, but I said, “Yeah, I did. I knew him.” She said, “You know, when he was out here helping out one month, my daughter had gotten pregnant and was trying to figure out how she could have her baby and be in the Church and the pastor treated her like dirt, and she just happened to accidentally meet this Benedictine, and he treated her like gold,” she said. He said, “I'll help you. If he won’t, I’ll help you. I’ll figure out a way.” And he did.
And, of course, from that family, this monk could do no wrong. But you hear things. I never knew that. He never came back and never said anything about that, so nobody in the house would have known that ever happened. But I think there are varieties of ways that those kinds of things happen because our monks go out for a variety of things. Talks, helping out, social ministry.
BR. KOLBE: Perhaps the greatest impact Saint Meinrad has had on people is through our Seminary and School of Theology. We have educated and formed a whole lot of people for the Church, from priests, deacons, lay people and even alumni of our “One Bread, One Cup” youth conferences.
BR. JOEL: People come to Saint Meinrad to learn and then they take that knowledge out into the world. There’s an amazing responsibility our teachers have. By teaching one person, they could potentially impact thousands over a lifetime.
ARCHABBOT KURT: I had the privilege of teaching 29 years in our School of Theology. I remember somewhere during that period of time, one of my friends came up to me and said, “How many students do you have?” I said, “Well, I’m teaching two courses right now. I’ve got 25 students in one course. There’s an elective I’m teaching that’s got 15.” He goes, “Yeah, but you know, you realize how many thousands and thousands of students you have really? Not just in terms of the number of students you’ve had in the classroom over the years, but these guys go out and work as parish priests and they teach their parishioners through their homilies, through classes. Some of them go on and get degrees on their own, so they’re teaching in schools.”
So, that really kind of opened my mind to what it means to teach, and the great opportunity we have had here at Saint Meinrad to, again, reach literally thousands of Catholics and Christians throughout the United States.
BR. KOLBE: Most of the monks we have talked about so far in this episode have served as teachers and administrators in our school. There is one recent monk who was known for bringing history to life in the classroom. But that’s not all he will be remembered for. Here are three of his closest friends, Fr. Guerric, Fr. Harry and Fr. Eugene, with an introduction.
FR. GUERRIC: It’s my pleasure to introduce one of the most outstanding monks in my community, who passed away in 2015, Fr. Cyprian Davis. I experienced him as a humorous person with a deep, deep love of God and the Church.
FR. HARRY HAGAN: He was bookish, bright fellow. I think probably retiring, which is not uncommon for monks.
FR. EUGENE: Well, he was our first African American monk and priest. He was a scholar. He was a very bright man, very methodical.
FR. GUERRIC: He was not only known locally here as a great teacher. A mentor for many, but he really had an international reputation as both a medievalist and as an American historian of black Catholicism. By that reputation, I believe that he will be remembered. But we will always remember him, and I will always remember him, as a beloved confrere, a dear spiritual guide, and a confessor and teacher.
BR. JOEL: Fr. Cyprian grew up in Washington, D.C., in a family of teachers.
FR. HARRY: His father taught physical education at Washington University and his mother was a schoolteacher. There was also a relative whose name was Benjamin Davis and he became the first black general in the United States.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Cyprian was a big reader and was interested in history. He didn’t grow up Catholic, but was impressed by the Catholic Church because it was the oldest. He became Catholic at 15 and was interested in monasticism from reading about monks. A friend encouraged him to ask some monasteries for information.
FR. HARRY: He wrote to a monastery and this would have been in the ’40s and they encouraged him to join the Josephites, which was a religious group for African Americans doing lots of pastoral work, but Fr. Cyprian was set on becoming a monk.
BR. JOEL: Many monasteries at that time did not accept African Americans, just as many dioceses did not accept black priests.
FR. HARRY: When he died, one of the things I took from his office for myself was a book of Thomas Merton’s poems, which was given to him by mother and daddy, Christmas 1949. He was very much focused and his parents, though they were not Catholic, were certainly trying to be supportive and helpful.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Cyprian had a friend who was a professor at Catholic University of America and one of her students was a monk.
FR. HARRY: Fr. Gerard Ellspermann, a monk of Saint Meinrad, was at Catholic University studying Greek petrology at that time and he evidently would go on and on about how wonderful Saint Meinrad was. And so, one of the people who knew him said, “Well, if Saint Meinrad is really so wonderful, what can you do for this young black Catholic who wants to become a monk? Is Saint Meinrad really willing to accept somebody who is not white?”
BR. JOEL: Fr. Gerard invited Cyprian to visit Saint Meinrad. Cyprian’s first impressions were that the place weighed him down and he didn’t like it here, but by the end of his visit he had fallen in love with the place.
BR. KOLBE: There were already two other black brothers in the community at that time, but neither stayed. Abbot Ignatius invited Cyprian back to campus and that showed him that African Americans were welcome at Saint Meinrad.
BR. JOEL: After his first visit, Fr. Cyprian went back to Washington, D.C., and completed a year of study at Catholic University. In 1949, he returned to Saint Meinrad and entered the minor seminary. He became the first African American to profess monastic vows and become a priest of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.
FR. EUGENE: He was also followed somewhat closely by another African American, Fr. Boniface Hardin, and they were pretty much contrasts. Fr. Cyprian was very quiet, very methodical, very academically oriented. Fr. Boniface was totally charismatic, was not educated much beyond what you would need to be for priesthood in those days.
Both of those monks had difficulty in this area in terms of pastoral work. They both had stories about being turned away at parishes and that sort of thing, so there was that kind of issue that they had to deal with, but not in the monastery. We weren’t very ideological, so they fit in like anybody else would fit in.
BR. JOEL: Fr. Cyprian believed Benedictines were scholars and he filled that role well. He received his licentiate of sacred theology from the Catholic University of America. In the fall of 1958, he began studies for his licentiate and doctorate in historical sciences from Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium.
FR. GUERRIC: He was writing a very, very extensive and long dissertation associated with medieval monasticism.
FR. HARRY: He told me that he wrote the dissertation, then he was sure that it wasn’t good enough and so he kind of started over completely. And the dissertation was on the great monastery of Cluny and it was about the people who belonged to the monastery who were not monks, the family. People who lived around and in various ways worked for, worked with, in order to make the monastery work. Since the monks of Cluny spent lots of time in church, they needed lots of people to help them with everything else.
BR. KOLBE: This was a turning point in Fr. Cyprian’s life. This is when he learned how to be a historian.
BR. JOEL: Between receiving his licentiate and doctorate, Fr. Cyprian returned to Saint Meinrad to teach. It was 1963 and the country was in the full throes of the Civil Rights Movement.
FR. GUERRIC: When the radical injustices that were becoming very well known during the 1950s and ’60s began to surface, he felt himself drawn more and more to the Civil Rights Movement.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Cyprian attended the March on Washington in 1963 and was one of the crowd to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech calling for an end to racism. In 1965, he reached another turning point in his life when he attended the Selma-to-Montgomery march for black voting rights. Martin Luther King Jr. put a call out to all clergy to come to Selma, and Abbot Bonaventure gave permission to any of the monks who wished to go.
FR. HARRY: The March to Selma, certainly that event made it clear that you could not be a black man, a black priest, a black monk in the United States and not somehow be touched by that. And it was kind of a call to do something, and so his vocation as the historian of black Catholics kind of grows out of that and becomes kind of his response, “What can I do? I’m a historian, I’m a medieval historian.”
BR. JOEL: As a black Catholic professor of Church history, Fr. Cyprian began getting requests to speak, and people would ask him about the history of black Catholics.
BR. KOLBE: He had been to the American Catholic Historical Association and, while he was there, he was told that it was tragic that there was no documentation on the history of black Catholics. He began to realize the need for and the importance of the research that would become his life’s work.
BR. JOEL: In 1975, Fr. Cyprian returned to Leuven to work on his doctorate. To get the doctorate, he had to defend his thesis on the history of the lay brother. He also had to have a supplementary thesis on an unrelated topic. He threw himself into researching the history of black Catholics.
FR. EUGENE: He picked that topic and started working on it, and then discovered that the black Catholics in the United States had made a terrific impact in a variety of ways that had not been recorded, that had not been researched, and that had gone literally unnoticed. All of a sudden that moved from his secondary concern to his principal concern.
FR. HARRY: His understanding, he had come to Saint Meinrad to be a monk, to kind of do this wonderful search for God and yet at the time he was living, all the sudden he finds himself, because of his own race, drawn into this kind of larger movement and then, as a historian, finds himself called upon in small ways but making it clear to him that he is somebody who can tell these people about their history and to show them that black Catholics have a very specific and ancient identity in the American Church.
FR. EUGENE: The interesting thing about Fr. Cyprian was he had exactly what was needed at that time for that movement, which was somebody that could articulate its history, somebody who could look at it and bring it all together and show it as a work and what it really was. And hardly anybody else would have been in a position to do that as he was because not only did he have the experience of his own life, but he also had the academic background and all the skills that went into that. His life was totally changed by that work that he was doing in the history of black Catholics.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Cyprian received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to publish a book on his research. His book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, was published in 1990.
FR. EUGENE: From that moment on, everything he did in his life was basically some kind of a reflection of, outgrowth, focus on the history of black Catholics in America, and of course, all of those many black Catholics sang his praises because finally their story was being told, and not only being told, but being told well.
FR. HARRY: Fr. Cyprian is really remembered for opening up the history of black Catholics, which most everybody was completely clueless about. Showing that black Catholics’ place in American Catholicism was ancient and that there had been important and significant people who had made a contribution not only to their race, but to the Church in general. That this put them into this kind of large Catholic universal Church and that they belonged there.
BR. JOEL: Nationwide, Fr. Cyprian will be remembered for his research on the history of black Catholics, but in and around Saint Meinrad, he will also be known as a good teacher. Fr. Guerric, Fr. Harry and Fr. Eugene were all students of Fr. Cyprian’s long before they became colleagues and friends. They said he was introverted, but as a teacher he became animated and dramatic. He drew his students into the narrative of history through portraits of people.
FR. EUGENE: He had developed a method of teaching where he taught history around personalities, not around events. He had the ability and the showmanship to make that all come alive. You’d ask a lot of priests, they would probably indicate that he was famous “because he kept me interested in history when nobody else could,” and he could do that. He was a masterful teacher from that angle.
BR. KOLBE: During his life, Fr. Cyprian authored six books and dozens of articles, book chapters and encyclopedia entries. He received numerous awards and several honorary doctorates, but he was not interested in titles and awards.
FR. GUERRIC: What he was interested in was the impact he was making in the lives of students, because I think he thought his students would then go on to be able to pass their information and their knowledge on to other students, and that that would help change the culture we live in for the better.
BR. JOEL: Thank you for taking time to listen to this episode about Fr. Cyprian. Our next episode that will release in two weeks will be about students ministering out in our local communities. I hope you tune in.
BR. KOLBE: Today’s episode was edited and produced by Krista Hall, with the help of Br. Joel Blaize, Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski, Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Jim Paquette, Tammy Schuetter and Christian Mocek. The music for this podcast was written and produced by Br. Joel.
BR. JOEL: Thanks to Archabbot Kurt Stasiak, Fr. Guerric DeBona, Fr. Eugene Hensell, and Fr. Harry Hagan. Thanks also to Ruth Engs, who interviewed Fr. Cyprian in 2005 for her book Conversations in the Abbey. That interview was a valuable resource while working on this episode.
BR. KOLBE: If you are enjoying “Echoes from the Bell Tower,” tell your friends and subscribe to it on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite listening platform. You can also help us out by leaving a rating or review in iTunes.
BR. JOEL: You can find all of our past podcast episodes as well as some pictures of Fr. Cyprian at saintmeinrad.edu/echoes. Go check them out!
FR. EUGENE: The funniest story that I love to tell when he was present, and he hated it, was he taught us monastic history. In those days, we didn't have very many monastic classrooms, so we were stuck in the basement in this God-awful room. It wasn’t clean or anything. It was almost like a coal bin, but that was the way you did it in those days.
We were doing our history and he was there, and he was lecturing away. And he liked to pride himself on being courageous and strong and brave, and a mouse walked in that room, maybe three inches at best, and I pointed it out. “Fr. Cyprian, look at this.”
Well, he panicked. I mean, he jumped up on a chair which, if you knew Fr. Cyprian, he was not what you’d call the most athletic person. All of a sudden, he started moving and jumped up on a chair, yelled and screamed. This poor mouse didn’t know what to do, but it wouldn’t run away.
It just ran around the chair, and we were howling and about falling on the floor at the time, and eventually the mouse ran out and then Fr. Cyprian came back and said, “Well, I guess I fixed that.” He didn’t fix anything. He hates that story, or he hated it. He sees himself as really tough and strong. Yeah, as long as you don’t have to run up against a mouse.