Today, May 1, is the inaugural Religious Brothers Day. Held deliberately on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the purpose of the day is to celebrate the unique vocation of the religious brother.
In Glenmary, the history of the religious brother starts right at the beginning. In founder Father William Howard Bishop’s earliest writings about a home mission society, he expressed a desire to have priests and brothers, as well as sisters. To this day, Glenmary brothers work alongside Glenmary priests to serve throughout Mission Land, USA. The Glenmary Sisters, though a separate entity, remain active as well.
Religious brotherhood is an oft-forgotten vocation in the church. While the calling and work varies by religious community, religious brothers make vows, oaths or promises of chastity, obedience and poverty. They do not receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders and are therefore non-ordained ministers. Brothers throughout the world serve in roles from kitchen cooks to community leadership positions and everything in between.
The history of religious brothers, often called lay brothers in the past to distinguish between ordained and not ordained members of an order, is hard to trace. Some point to St. Anthony the Great of Egypt. He went into the wilderness around 305 AD to live what we now call a monastic lifestyle. Word spread to Italy of that way of life, and from there to the world. Monasteries followed and most early monks that came to follow the Rule of St. Benedict and other monastic style did not take Holy Orders. Over time, a distinction developed between members of communities focused on contemplation, often priests and seminarians, and those who did manual work. The history of the brother as we know it now seems to follow from the latter.
Such was the case in Glenmary from the earliest days. Brothers worked as farmers, plumbers, cooks, typists, carpenters etc. In the early 1960s, there was a recognition that not all brothers were called to manual work. Many continued in that vein, but others took secular jobs.
Glenmary’s brotherhood story starts with Brother Vince Wilmes. When he joined Glenmary as the society’s first brother, the only other members were founder Father William Howard Bishop, Father Raphael Sourd and three transitional deacons. It was 1940, and Glenmary was not quite a year old. One of the more iconic Glenmary photos, and the photo that adorns the header of this blog, is Brother Vince teaching catechism to children in front of a log church building. Brother Vince befriended prisoners, coached little league, cooked and gave endlessly to the poor in need.
Since him 59 more men have taken final oaths as Glenmary brothers. In a comparatively short history of 78 years, there’s little doubt many saintly men have lived the vocation of Glenmary Home Missioner. That said, none are yet in the process of canonization. The faith of Glenmary brothers—sometimes simple, sometimes profound—dots their stories.
Brother Paul Wilhelm, known for his work on the building crews, was so dedicated he once nailed his foot to the floor with a nail gun. He went and got a tetanus shot, and came right back to finish the job.
Brother George Sauer didn’t feel the call to religious life until age 48, professing his first oath at age 50. He still managed 43 years of missionary service.
At the other end of the spectrum was Brother Peregrine. Born Gene Heisler, he was just 18 when he professed his final Glenmary oath. He died one month later of cancer, but not before touching many lives for his faith. He chose the name Peregrine in honor of St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer victims. Brother Peregrine holds two distinctions of note. He was the youngest Glenmarian to profess a final oath, and he was the first Glenmary brother to pass to eternal life when he died in September of 1963.
Over time Glenmary brothers have seen their role evolve from that of laborer and helper to that of equal co-missioner with their priest counterparts. The Holy Spirit continues to call men throughout the world to the unique ministry of brother be it as a Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit or Glenmarian.
Presently, there are 13 Glenmary brothers who have responded to that call. Brother Larry Johnson serves on the executive council as Glenmary’s second vice president. Brother David Henley leads the vocations office. He has the critical job of finding new men to take on the mantle of Glenmary missionary as priest or brother.
An attempt list the work of each Glenmary brother in this space would fail. Glenmary’s brothers are tireless in their ministry, but also humble. Often the good works they do come to light long after they’re gone. While I can’t list all their accomplishments, I can tell you their names.
Brothers Larry, David, Dennis Craig, Craig Digmann, Jack Henn, Curt Kedley, Levis Kuwa, Jason Muhlenkamp, Tom Sheehy, Virgil Siefker, Mike Springer, Joe Steen and Ken Woods have all made a significant impact on the lives of those Glenmary serves, and on the society itself.
On the first Religious Brothers Day, we encourage you to pray for Glenmary’s brothers of the present, past and future. Pray that God continue to raise up good and holy men to this crucial vocation in Glenmary, as well as in the world at large.
The prayer below is from the official Religious Brothers Day website.
To learn more about religious brothers from the Religious Brothers Conference, click here.
To begin discerning if God may be calling you or someone you know to religious brotherhood with Glenmary, click here.