FRANCISCAN FRIARS Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist

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February 13, 2020

A time of war, a time of grace

A Poor Clare friend remembers Blessed James Miller

BY TONI CASHNELLI

In 1982, a civil war raged in Guatemala.

The military sought to conscript indigenous youth, only to be thwarted by a religious community determined to educate the young men. One of those leading the way was Br. James Miller, a teacher and vice-principal at a Christian Brothers school in the western highlands.

On the morning of Feb. 13, Jim was helping some newly arrived Sisters design the guest quarters for their monastery in Huehuetenango. “The building has tile,” he told the Poor Clares, “and it’s either dusty or wet and musty.” They would need special mops for cleaning that he promised to procure. Anxious to return home, he left around noon.

A few hours later, Jim was dead, murdered by three masked men in hoods who were never identified. He was 37 years old.

An iconographer drew upon the Wisconsin farm roots of Blessed James Miller, FSC, for this image.On Dec. 7, 2019, Br. James Miller, known to his students as Hermano Santiago, became the first De La Salle Christian Brother from the United States to be beatified as a martyr for education. As the world marked the 38th anniversary of his death on Feb. 13, the memory that haunts Poor Clare Sr. Doris Gerke is the last conversation she had with Jim – a simple exchange about mops. One of his friends and colleagues, she was part of the Sisters’ prayer community in Huehuetenango and saw him on the day he died. “He was a wonderful, wonderful man,” she says of a Brother known for his intelligence, his simplicity, and his devotion to the suffering poor.

Warning signs

Sr. Doris Gerke, OSCToday, Doris is part of the community at the Monastery of St. Clare in Cincinnati, closely affiliated with the friars of St. John the Baptist Province. In 1980, shortly after her solemn profession, she was one of five Poor Clare Sisters in Memphis, Tenn., who responded to a call for volunteers from Guatemalan Bishop Hugo Martinez. “There was a civil war in progress, and he was losing a lot of his people, not just religious,” Doris says. “He asked if there was a community that could send some people down to pray.”

Warned by the Bishop of Memphis of the powder-keg conditions in Central America, “I remember thinking, ‘This is serious, a big decision,’ ” Doris says. In January of 1980, the Guatemalan Army torched the Spanish Embassy, killing 36 people who had occupied the building to protest the kidnapping and murder of peasants. In El Salvador, “Archbishop Oscar Romero had been killed” in March for speaking out for the oppressed.

Top, Br. Jim with a student at the Colegio De La Salle; above, Jim Miller giving the Poor Clares a ride in Guatemala.Doris and her Sister Clares would be based in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, near a large military base. The army was running the country, and, “We would be in the middle of it.” Promised their own living quarters, they found no monastery when they arrived in Guatemala in December of 1981. While it was being built, “The Bishop opened part of his catechetical center to us” about a mile from the construction site.

“That’s how we got to know Jim Miller,” a staff member at Casa Indigena De La Salle, a residence for Mayan students affiliated with nearby Colegio De La Salle. With scholarships from the De La Salle Brothers and a safe place to live, boys from local villages could obtain a high school degree and be qualified to enter a university – a remarkable achievement for rural Guatemalans.

Unwilling soldiers

This did not sit well with the military, according to Doris. “The army would come into the city on Sunday and seal it off and grab all these men and conscript them involuntarily for the army. The army base was close, and the kids [from the school] would be at the park.” The students would also be abducted.

On Feb. 8 Br. Paul Joslin, a “sub-director” of the Colegio, went to the military base to plead for the release of students who had been “recruited”. Days later, in response, “The army threw a dead body in front of the Casa Indigena and shot up the building,” Doris says. Concern mounted for the safety of the boys and their teachers.

A mile away, work on the monastery proceeded. On most days, “Jim was helping us design the building as different things were going on,” Doris says. The morning of Feb. 13, while working on the guest quarters, he was preoccupied with other matters. “I’ve got to get back to the Casa Indigena,” he told the Sisters. The Brothers had planned a Valentine’s Day picnic for the youngsters. After that, he said, “I’ve got to get out and plaster the marks [on the building] from the bullets, because if I don’t we’re showing everyone there’s a problem, and the kids will be afraid.”

As he left, Jim said, “Pray for Br. Paul. I think the army is after him.”

Retribution

Above, The beatification took place Dec. 7, 2019, on the soccer field of the school where Br. Jim Miller once ministered.Around 4 p.m. that day, the Sisters were back in their rooms at the catechetical center. Responding to a knock, they found a distraught Bishop Martinez. “He opened each of our doors and said, ‘Stay in your rooms,’ Doris says. “Hermano Santiago’s been shot.’”

At 7 p.m., he called them together to break the news. “Jim’s been killed. He was up on a ladder trying to fill in the holes from the bullets.” Sisters on the street who had witnessed the shooting said, “They reached up and shot him in the neck. It was very quick; he probably didn’t see it coming.” Later, the Casa Indigena received a phone call with this message: “We shot the wrong one.” They had apparently been gunning for Paul.

“I don’t know if we were in shock,” Doris says, looking back on that day. “We were trying to hold things together. We cared for Jim and he was good to us; he was a close friend. We were close to the Christian Brothers and were concerned about them.”

As Jim’s body was returned to the U.S. for burial in his hometown in Wisconsin, religious men and women found themselves under increased scrutiny from the military in Guatemala, their license plates recorded, their movements traced. “It was a scary time. We also knew an Ursuline Sister who was tortured in Guatemala City, Diana Ortiz. Everybody knew someone in their family who had been tortured or killed. You kind of lived with the possibility. The military ran the country; this was the government of Guatemala. They grabbed people and drugged them and brainwashed them to kill people they knew.”

A month after Jim’s death, two Sisters were plucked from the outdoor market by Dinner with the Clares and Br. Paul in Huehuetenango shortly before Jim’s death.drunken soldiers and delivered to the Bishop’s house. “Don’t leave your rooms,” the community was warned by Bishop Martinez. “Don’t go out without your [citizenship] papers.’ We couldn’t move other than go to the chapel,” Doris says.

After their Abbess, Sr. Peter, started having nightmares, she returned to Memphis. The other Clares stayed. “We didn’t know what would happen.”

‘A fitting legacy’

When Doris left Guatemala in 1989, conditions had improved, leading to Peace Accords that were signed on Dec. 29, 1996, bringing an end to the 36-year-long civil war.  Jim Miller was one of more than 150,000 civilians who died in the conflict.

The Diocese of Huehuetenango took up the cause for his beatification in 2009. One of its most Paying homage to Jim at the beatificationvocal champions was Christian Br. Paul Joslin, the man whom many believe was the intended target the day Jim was killed. On Nov. 8, 2018, Pope Francis approved a degree recognizing that Br. James Miller died as a martyr. He was designated a Servant of God in 2010, and beatified Dec. 7, 2019, on the soccer field of the school in Guatemala where he once served. The continuation of the school and its mission is a fitting legacy.

Thirty-eight years later, Doris still ponders the impact of Jim’s death. “I keep thinking, ‘How can I honor him?’ I can honor him by telling the story.”

His life and his sacrifice exemplify “the wonderful religious who were there and what wonderful models of Christian living they were,” she says. “It was a privilege, a great grace to work with them. They were heroic – people taking their lives into their hands in the villages every day.

“They were just saints.”

A man you could count on

BY TONI CASHNELLI

Valentine Young’s Latin class at Roger BaconFriar Valentine Young was as constant as the Northern Star.

“He knew exactly who he was and where he was going,” according to Larry Dunham, the homilist at Valentine’s Jan. 22 funeral at St. Clement Church. It was that resolute faith and steadfast love for Latin at Mass and in the classroom that endeared him to generations of friars, relatives and worshippers. For many of them, losing Valentine was like losing their spiritual compass.

Some knew him only as an elderly friar who gamely persisted in ministry through serious heart issues. At 80, a retired Valentine started teaching Latin part-time at Roger Bacon High School. He had not lost his touch – or his sense of humor. In recent years, “He still carried around a ring of keys to five different churches” where he celebrated Mass, said William Hesch, a former altar server for Top, Chris and Tracey Cusick with their children at Valentine’s funeral; above left, Homilist Larry Dunham called Valentine “a towering personality”; above, Sisters stayed to pray following Valentine’s funeral at St. Clement.Valentine. “He was like the patriarch of Latin Masses.”

Friar Matthias Crehan was greatly impacted by Valentine. “I wouldn’t have missed this,” said Matthias, who came to the funeral from Tucson, Ariz. “I was a student at St. Francis Seminary,” where Valentine taught Latin for nine years. “He inspired me” in many ways. “What a good man. What a good friend. What a good priest. What a good friar.”

And a good uncle as well, according to nieces and nephews who shared stories during the Reception of the Body. They remembered Val’s hospitality and his mastery of Navajo during their visits to missions in the Southwest, his support for a relative’s children when their father died far too young, and how much Valentine loved flowers, saving the seeds from blossoms and planting them at his next assignment.

Connections

His umbrella was wide and inclusive. “He was deeply loved by many people throughout the United States,” said Frank Jasper, Val’s guardian at St. Clement Friary. “He had a huge number of people he connected with,” including 300 on his Christmas card list. “It’s amazing, inspiring and touching” that after his death, greeting cards were still coming in.

Pat McCloskey met a long-time pen pal through Valentine. “He corresponded with at least one man in a federal prison” who was interested in getting a stamp from the Vatican. Pat provided one, and they ended up writing to each other for 10 years. When the letters stopped, Pat heard that, sadly, the man had died in prison.

“Fr. Valentine was a blessing and inspiration, a great mentor for our children,” said Tracey Cusick, here from northern Kentucky with her husband Chris and their seven children, three of whom were altar servers for Valentine’s Latin Masses at All Saints Church in Walton, Ky.

Top, Valentine with Matthias Crehan Valentine Young attending worship at a provincial gathering with Cyprian Berens; above, Valentine Young attending worship at a provincial gathering with Cyprian Berens.Maria and David Buckles came from Lexington, Ky., where Valentine celebrated Mass in Latin at St. Peter Church from 2009-2010. His connection to parishioners went far beyond sacraments, they said. “He really enjoyed the social time after the Mass.”

Sense of certainty

Presider Mark Soehner described this as a time of celebration and sadness that deeply affected  “the many nieces and nephews who were close to Valentine.”  They lent their voices to the readings for the day: the poetic and hopeful message from Lamentations (“The favors of the Lord are not exhausted,   his mercies are not spent; They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness”); and the certainty of Romans 8:31-39 that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Homilist Larry, here from the Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., said he was struck by a photo hanging on the door of Valentine’s room at St. Clement. It showed a priest in traditional vestments celebrating the Tridentine Mass. A caption Valentine tacked on the bottom read, “THE DEVIL HATES LATIN.” Of that Val was sure, just as he believed the promise Jesus made to his disciples in the 14th verse of John, the Gospel reading for the day.

Valentine’s unexpected death drew his brothers, friends and relatives out of their daily routine “and forced them to think about life and its purpose,” Larry said. It had been “a quick death of someone of seemingly endless energy, revered by myself and members of our seminary class. The things we took for granted now look different than before his death. We wonder where we are going, if anywhere.”

In experiencing the death of “a towering personality like Fr. Val…we may feel we’re going in circles and not going anywhere. It makes us question our own direction.”

‘We’re not lost’

Top, “He was always upbeat, always joking,” a former student said of Valentine; above, the sign on the door of Valentine’s room said it all.In the Bible when Jesus leaves his disciples, “What Jesus does not do is leave them a theology handbook,” Larry said. “We might wish that he did. This was clearly not his way. There are no maps to the future with specific routes. Jesus simply points to himself: ‘I am the way, the truth and the light.’ Jesus is the way by which we travel to the fullness of God. Only when we are united on the journey with him can we reach God.”

Valentine, “an unwaveringly faithful religious priest, knew Jesus is the face of God. Jesus is the heart of God. Jesus is the way of God. Jesus is the truth….He not only speaks the truth but the fullness of truth is found in him. The truth is not a theory; it is a person. Jesus is the only true icon of God.” According to the Gospel and to Valentine, “No one is a mistake. All are unique and loved. The Gospel clothed him and us with a unique dignity.”

Larry wondered, “Does all this help to give us direction? We’re not lost on the road, abandoned to make our own way. Fr. Val believed this to his core. Fr. Valentine never had a doubt in good times and in bad times that all would be well. And so it is.

“Welcome to the end of your journey, Val. Welcome to your eternal language. Pray for us in the language the Devil so hates. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Among those lingering after Mass was Steve Merkel, a student at St. Francis Seminary in the 1960s. Steve said that despite Valentine’s best efforts, “I could not learn Latin.”

As a teacher, “He had lots of energy. He was always upbeat, always joking. He made Latin as good as you could make it.”

Asked if he retained any of the language skills, Steve admitted, “No.” What’s more, “It would not surprise Fr. Valentine at all.” The important thing is, “He tried.”

And he kept on trying, right up to the end.

Our man in Malta

 (In three weeks of visitation in Malta, Jeff Scheeler has experienced the beauty of this Mediterranean archipelago and the warm hospitality of its friars, Bishops, Poor Clares, Secular Franciscans, youth groups and parishioners. Jeff returns home to Southfield, Mich., Saturday and will resume his Visitator General duties for Malta’s Province of St. Paul the Apostle at its Chapter and Congressus in May.)

BY JEFF SCHEELER, OFM

At the beginning of Chapter 28 of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul finds himself on the island of Malta after being shipwrecked. Luke writes that the Maltese welcomed him with “extraordinary hospitality.” The same has been true for me.

Top, visiting the Poor Clares; above, with Ramon Farrugia in RabatAt every place I have visited, I have been received very graciously. I have been fed way too well. A favorite here are pastizzis, a pastry filled with either ricotta cheese or mashed peas. I have received small gifts of cookies, marmalade, olive oil, and a plaque of St. Anthony. I have been given tours of every friary and church. Friars have offered to do my laundry, but I did it myself! I have met members of the faith community, who show up in large numbers to share prepared talks about aspects of their community life.  In one place the young people sang a special song for me after communion. In some places, the people kiss your hand.

Ramon Farrugia, the Secretary of the Province, has served as my secretary, host, and driver. He has made all the arrangements and driven me to every place, for which I am immensely grateful.  He prepares all the books that need to be reviewed (financial records, Mass book, chronicle, Chapter minutes, etc.) and tells me what I am looking at – since it is often in the Maltese language! It has been a tremendous experience in ongoing formation

for me!

Send comments or questions to: sjbfco@franciscan.org

ARCHIVES

FRANCISCAN FRIARS Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist

In 1982, a civil war raged in Guatemala.

An iconographer drew upon the Wisconsin farm roots of Blessed James Miller, FSC, for this image.On Dec. 7, 2019, Br. James Miller, known to his students as Hermano Santiago, became the first De La Salle Christian Brother from the United States to be beatified as a martyr for education. As the world marked the 38th anniversary of his death on Feb. 13, the memory that haunts Poor Clare Sr. Doris Gerke is the last conversation she had with Jim – a simple exchange about mops. One of his friends and colleagues, she was part of the Sisters’ prayer community in Huehuetenango and saw him on the day he died. “He was a wonderful, wonderful man,” she says of a Brother known for his intelligence, his simplicity, and his devotion to the suffering poor.

Above, The beatification took place Dec. 7, 2019, on the soccer field of the school where Br. Jim Miller once ministered.Around 4 p.m. that day, the Sisters were back in their rooms at the catechetical center. Responding to a knock, they found a distraught Bishop Martinez. “He opened each of our doors and said, ‘Stay in your rooms,’ Doris says. “Hermano Santiago’s been shot.’”

A month after Jim’s death, two Sisters were plucked from the outdoor market by Dinner with the Clares and Br. Paul in Huehuetenango shortly before Jim’s death.drunken soldiers and delivered to the Bishop’s house. “Don’t leave your rooms,” the community was warned by Bishop Martinez. “Don’t go out without your [citizenship] papers.’ We couldn’t move other than go to the chapel,” Doris says.

Some knew him only as an elderly friar who gamely persisted in ministry through serious heart issues. At 80, a retired Valentine started teaching Latin part-time at Roger Bacon High School. He had not lost his touch – or his sense of humor. In recent years, “He still carried around a ring of keys to five different churches” where he celebrated Mass, said William Hesch, a former altar server for Top, Chris and Tracey Cusick with their children at Valentine’s funeral; above left, Homilist Larry Dunham called Valentine “a towering personality”; above, Sisters stayed to pray following Valentine’s funeral at St. Clement.Valentine. “He was like the patriarch of Latin Masses.”

Top, Valentine with Matthias Crehan Valentine Young attending worship at a provincial gathering with Cyprian Berens; above, Valentine Young attending worship at a provincial gathering with Cyprian Berens.Maria and David Buckles came from Lexington, Ky., where Valentine celebrated Mass in Latin at St. Peter Church from 2009-2010. His connection to parishioners went far beyond sacraments, they said. “He really enjoyed the social time after the Mass.”

FRANCISCAN FRIARS Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist
FRANCISCAN FRIARS
Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist

A month after Jim’s death, two Sisters were plucked from the outdoor market by Dinner with the Clares and Br. Paul in Huehuetenango shortly before Jim’s death.drunken soldiers and delivered to the Bishop’s house. “Don’t leave your rooms,” the community was warned by Bishop Martinez. “Don’t go out without your [citizenship] papers.’ We couldn’t move other than go to the chapel,” Doris says.