Native son: holy week, easter 2017

by Charles D. Novak

For those people who believe, no explanation is necessary.
For those people who don’t believe, no explanation is possible.
I have a story about something that happened to me in 1960. I’ve never told this to anyone.
In February of 1960 I entered St Pascal’s Franciscan Monastery located in Westmont, Illinois a half hour drive from Chicago. I wanted to become a Franciscan Brother. I thought about being a priest but Father Mike, the parish priest in Ely, thought this would be a better fit for me. St. Pascal’s is located on property a millionaire gave to the Franciscan Order when he died. It was big enough for three man-made lakes.
In the middle of the property was the former owner’s mansion which the Franciscans turned into a retreat house. Next to it was a small farm. On the Western edge was a seminary large enough to hold 300 students.
On the Eastern edge was St Pascal’s Monastery for the brothers. This building had a chapel, dining room, lounge and forty five “cells” one for each brother. Our day began with mass, breakfast and seven hours of work. We could only speak for one hour each day between seven and eight p.m. We had chapel at noon and then again before we went to bed at nine o’clock.
My job was to go over to the seminary and wash and iron the clothes of the seminarians. My co-worker was Brother Rene who had been a Franciscan monk for ten years and was already under solemn vows. Weekends at St Pascal’s were more lenient. My favorite Sunday pleasure was walking on the paths around the three lakes.
Besides myself there were three other novices. We still wore our street clothes. It would take three month before we took our simple vows, had our name changed and wore the brown Franciscan habit. The ceremony for this transition was truly beautiful. My mother, father, sister, brother, aunt and uncle drove down from Ely for the occasion. My name was changed to Brother Chris. It was around this time that Brother Rene, my co-worker in the laundry was sent to Rome.
The night before my investiture I was so excited I couldn’t sleep so I left my cell around two in the morning and went upstairs to the Chapel. I have no idea how long I stayed but when I left, I looked down the hallway and saw a Franciscan monk. I didn’t recognize him. We often had visiting clergy staying with us. The monk signaled me to come over to him. In broken English he asked me if I could sincerely embrace the life of a Franciscan. I responded “I think so.” He smiled, made the Sign of the Cross over me and walked away.
A few days after my parents and relatives left I ran into the brother who was the receptionist for our visiting clergy. I asked him who the monk was staying at St Pascal’s. He replied that we haven’t had any visitors for almost a month. Did I fall asleep in the chapel and dream about this visitor?
Months went by and I started to have doubts about my vocation. My brain was falling asleep. I needed more intellectual challenges instead of just prayer and washing clothes. I went to see my spiritual advisor and asked if I could transfer to the seminary. He said that wouldn’t be possible because I hadn’t been with the Franciscan Order for at least a year.
When Brother Rene returned from our Mother House in Rome he approached me in the laundry and said he had a gift for me. It was a relic that contained a tiny piece of bone from St. Francis’ thigh along with documents from the Vatican that validated this sacred object.
He then handed me a holy card and my hand jerked back like I was holding something on fire. “Whose picture is this?” I asked as the card fell to the floor.
Brother Rene replied “St Francis!” There are hundreds of holy cards of St Francis each with a different likeness. Slowly I reached down and picked up the card. It was the monk I saw in the hallway the night of my investiture! I was speechless. I said nothing to Brother Rene.
Eventually I left St Pascal’s Monastery and went home to Ely. St. Anthony’s Church had a new assistant priest named Father Kaster. We bonded immediately. He asked why I left the monastery and when I told him I needed more mental stimulation he suggested I go to the Crosier Seminary in Onamia, Minnesota which was his alma mater. I had my first two years of college at Crosier and although I received an excellent education I still didn’t feel a “calling” to the religious life.
I graduated from Ely Junior College in 1963 and continued my studies at the University of Minnesota.
In 1995 I spent a dream trip of almost a month in Italy. Naturally I went to Assisi, home and birthplace of St Francis. By this time the “encounter” I had at St Pascal’s the night before my investiture had tuned into nothing but a pleasant dream.
I took the relic of St Francis’ bone to give back to the Franciscan monks so they could display it for public adoration. Surprisingly they refused to accept it. They said it was a gift and I should keep it. I made the short walk down to the crypt where the remains of St Francis are in a wooden coffin that hangs from the ceiling suspended by knotted ropes. I felt strange. With hundreds of people outside why was I the only person in the chapel except for a monk? There is always a Franciscan priest or brother praying at this shrine day and night. I looked up at the coffin and whispered “St Francis! Was that you at St Pascal’s?”
There was no answer. And then the praying monk turned around and looked at me.
My holy card came back to life. For those who believe……………