Sunday, December 12, 2010
Time for my Brother
Time for my Brother
I never had a brother, but I had hundreds of Brothers. An only child for seven years, I yearned for company to play or even fight with. My sister Kate arrived when I was seven and my sister Margaret when I was ten, and that was that.
At the age of 18 years and three days I joined the Novitiate of the Legion of Christ in Leopardstown, County Dublin. The Seminary was a green building built on land that had been sourced by Archbishop John McQuaid – now a controversial figure in political and ecclesial history, known to my father who was a big fan of the Archbishop who could be quite charming in private. The Legionary Novitiate may be the only green building to my knowledge in all of Ireland. The green tiled building, conceived to ‘blend in’, sticks out like a sore thumb as you drive along the M50 motorway at the Sandyford junction.
In 1969 I joined twenty other young men with a view to serving God in the Mexican Missions. Within an hour of joining we were advised that we should address each other as ‘Brother’. It became natural over the following two years of the Spiritual Formation Course (the Novitiate) to call each other ‘Brother’. So much so that when two of us were sent under cover in mufti on a ‘delicate’ mission to Madrid in 1971 to pretend that we were lay students attending UCD, we found it almost impossible not to call each other ‘Brother’ and once or twice we lapsed.
We lived a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty meant having no possessions of one’s own – literally. We were all assigned jobs, Sacristan, Cook, Medical Officer, Farmer, among others. My favorite job was Receptionist because it entailed spending much of my time in a little office at the front of the building where I could see all the comings and goings. I got to sleep in a little room beside the reception so as to be able to take phone calls that might sound in the night. This was in the days before phone extensions and mobile phones.
In the years after I left in 1976 I used to claim that my only possession was my watch – which was not strictly true. Stricly I had no watch. The watch I brought to the Seminary was given to young man called Thomas Price – ‘Brother’ Thomas Price – to give him his full religious name. Thomas had the toughest job of all. He was in charge of ‘time’. With the help of my watch he sounded the bell every time a new task was due. He rang the first bell rang at 5.50 am for Morning Prayer, followed at 6.00 for meditation, followed at 7.00 for Mass, followed at 7.30 for breakfast – in silence – and so on.
The Brother in charge of the Bell needed to be punctual and diligent. Thomas Price had those qualities and more. Over the following 41 years nearly all my companions left the Legion of Christ – but because we were never allowed discuss personal matters in the Seminary – our decisions to leave were made alone, without access to colleagues or family. Often when we left, our remaining colleagues were told we had moved 'to Mexico' or to another mission. That is what happened in my case. It was reported that I had left on a top secret mission to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico when in fact I was back in Dublin walking Dollymount Strand.
As a result, having been deprived of communication while we were within the Legion, the information blackout nearly always continued afterwards – often for years. Many were so traumatized by the Legionary experience they chose not to contact others, no matter how well meaning. Purely by chance, some years ago I learned that Thomas had unsurprisingly left but surprisingly and sadly had died at a very young age. I was shocked and saddened. Thomas had been a gifted footballer. He hailed from the Liberties and I can still see his parents in my mind. Our parents were allowed to visit the seminary twice a year for an afternoon. I have pleasant if black and white memories of their reunions with Thomas from my vantage point in Reception.
Yesterday as I drove around Glenageary roundabout, thirty nine years later I took a call on my (hands-free!)mobile phone from a friend in Amnesty International – where I had served as honorary treasurer for three years. In moving premises they had discovered a Bible donated to a Brother Thomas Price, LC (Legion of Christ) on the occasion of his Profession (Vows) in 1971.
Memories flooded back of the red headed Brother Thomas as he made his way along the polished Seminary floor in the early morning and how he glanced at his watch – my watch; memories of him playing football in the field which now houses Bewley's Hotel in Leopardstown, of working with him to harvest potatoes in the autumn of 1970 in the land that is now occupied by Central Park.
Coming up to our first Christmas in the Seminary, in December 1969 Brother Thomas dropped the watch on the marble floor and it smashed into many pieces. So that was the end to the only thing I had in the world. Those two years in Leopardstown and the five following years taught me a very privileged lesson – possessions don’t really matter as long as you have three decent meals a day and a roof over your head. Many in Dublin and in Mexico will not have those luxuries this Christmas.
I have undertaken to try to track down members of the Price family and return the ‘Amnesty’ Bible to the family of my 'Brother' – Thomas Price. So if anyone out there knows of someone related to a wonderful red headed young man (as he was in 1969), hailing from Cork Street in the Liberties, who played a mean game of football and who was never late in his life, just give me a call and we will try and offer the family a small memento and remember a life that, if short, was nevertheless heroic.
PS Best of luck to all in Amnesty who will be moving into new offices over the Christmas Period!