THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON
The Ezekiel W. Cullen Building
During my months at Amarillo AFB I had given a lot of thought as to what I would do after I was discharged from the Army Air Corps. I knew that I did not want to return to Rice University even though I loved and respected that excellent University. The fact that they had given me a full tuition-free four-year scholarship because I was the Valedictorian of my graduating class of Central High School in Texas City in 1941 meant a lot to me along with the fact that I was one of the only 400 freshman admitted to Rice each year . But, as I have written, Rice in the 40’s used the French Beaux Arts system of educating architects which relied heavily on the study of Greek and Roman classic architectural monuments with the emphasis on the ability to reproduce the elements of design for which those monuments were justly famous. I wanted to study and work in a contemporary medium.
While I was away at war my subscriptions to various architectural journals continued without interruption. When I returned home I spent a lot of time reading all of those back issues. I discovered that while I was away the University of Houston had started a new School of Architecture. I also discovered that a Houston Architect, Donald Barthelme had won an international award for his design of Saint Rose of Lima Church in Houston. The church he had designed and that was built was intended to be a temporary church for the parish until it could afford to build its permanent church. But, Barthelme’s church looked like a permanent church, so good was his choice of building materials and careful consideration of the fact that the people of Saint Rose of Lima Parish needed a sacred space in which to worship for many years until they could get their permanent church. What caught my attention the me most was that Donald Barthelme had been appointed the head of the Design Department in the new School of Architecture at the University of Houston. Intrigued by what I had discovered I contacted the School of Architecture at the University of Houston and after several visits I applied for admission and was accepted.
I was one of hundreds of thousands of GI’s across the Nation who were resuming their education after the War. Unlike those who had just finished their high school education, we who were older and more mature took our studies very seriously. I did exceptionally well in the classes in the history of architecture. History, all history, had always been a favorite area of recreational reading for me. So it came as no great surprise when, upon graduating with my Bachelor Degree in 1950 I was offered a teaching fellowship in the field of architectural history in the School of Architecture. I had just been asked by Donald Barthelme to join his architectural firm, Donald Barthelme and Associates, and I had accepted the invitation and so I asked Donald Barthelme if he had any objections to also accepting the teaching fellowship and he had none so I accepted that position also. Recalling that I had been denied a commission in the U.S.Army Air Corps because I lacked a college degree, I applied to the new United States Air Force for a commission and I was immediately commissioned a Second Lieutenant based upon my brand new degree and my Air Corps experience.
During the months between the time I returned the Houston and when I started my studies at the University of Houston, I attended several liturgical conferences held in Houston and became very interested in learning more about the Church’s Liturgy. I joined the Liturgical Arts Society and Liturgical Conference, a national organization devoted to liturgical reform. I began to participate in the liturgies of Holy Rosary Church in Houston, my mother’s parish, where I found the style of celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by the Dominican Fathers who staffed Holy Rosary Parish to be very edifying. In a sense, I guess I was trying to make up for those years of neglect of my faith during the War.
In the school year 1950-51 a Benedictine Monk, Dom Henri Pouillon, O.S.B., a monk of Saint Andrew Abbey in Louvain, Belgium, delivered a series of lectures at Saint Thomas University in Houston. The title of the series was: “Benedictine Contributions to Western Civilization.” Being a history buff I already knew a lot about those contributions, but I was curious and so I decided to attend Don Henri’s lectures delivered in the evenings. I found what Dom Henri had to say about Benedictinism fascinating and I began to realize that my studies at the Rice and the University of Houston had been so concentrated in the field of architecture and engineering that I was lacking in my knowledge of philosophy and theology. So I made plans to take a leave and to go to the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and study these and other subjects in the humanities which I had so neglected during my studies at Rice and the University of Houston. Prior to going to the University of Fribourg I made a week-long retreat at Saint Gregory Abbey in Shawnee, Oklahoma under the direction of the Abbot, Dom Mark Braun, O.S.B.
I found in the University of Fribourg everything that I had been missing. I had an excellent professor of philosophy, Father I.M. Bochenski, O.P., and an excellent professor in homiletics, Frank Sheed, the famous street preacher in London and founder of the Sheed & Ward publishing house. I also studied Italian and French culture. Most surprising of all, across from my room in the Salesianum where I was staying while at the University, there was a Benedictine Monk from Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Father Alphonse Meier, OSB who, on learning of my interest in the Benedictine Order offered to drive me around Switzerland to visit some of the famous Benedictine Abbeys in that country. Naturally I jumped at the chance and among the abbeys we visited was Einsiedeln, a truly inspiring Abbey. With Father Alphonse as my guide I got to see not only the physical plant of a monastery but I gained an insight into the daily life, especially the daily prayer life of the monks.
The year 1950 was a Holy Year and so it would not have been proper for me to be in Switzerland and not visit Rome. So I did make a pilgrimage to Rome where I prayed at the tombs of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, and asked them to intercede with the Lord to enable me to discern if I had a genuine call to priesthood and the monastic life that was beginning to assert itself so strongly. I returned to Fribourg and then the United States with the determination to take what I now perceived as a vocation to life as a choir monk in a Benedictine Abbey.
That conviction was brought home to me with a great deal of spiritual pain one day as I sat at my drafting board in the offices of Donald Barthelme and Associates. As I looked out the window across a wooded landscaped large lot I could see a very old, frail, black woman struggling to push a grocery cart along the neighboring street. I did not know her. I had never seen her before. The sight of that poor old woman struggling to push along that grocery cart froze my attention, I could not resume my work. I felt an irresistible urge to get up, go to the old woman and help her push her cart to wherever she was going. But how could I do that without creating a sensation in the firm. Human respect and cowardice took over and I did nothing as I watched that old woman disappear from sight. To this day I am filled with shame at my failure to act, a good example of a sin of omission.
In the summer of 1951 I broke the news to Donald Barthelme, my associates at the University of Houston, my family and my friends: I had been accepted as a postulant at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe and I would be leaving Houston in the first week of September. You would have thought that I had announced that I was going to commit suicide. Everyone was shocked, puzzled, angered, opposed, you name it!
In July I developed a severe rash on my right buttock. It looked like raw hamburger. It was extremely painful. I went to my doctor and took one look and asked, “What are you worried about?” I responded, “I am worried about what is wrong with my right buttock, do I have leprosy?” He laughed and said, “No, you have a classic case of shingles, brought about by the attack of the same virus that causes chicken pox when one becomes very anxious about something.” I explained about my decision to enter a monastery and about the fierce opposition I was receiving from all sides. He told me, “Your shingles will disappear one weak after you enter the monastery.” And that is exactly what happened.
In the first week of September, 1951, I boarded a train in Houston and got off in Latrobe, Pennsylvania to begin this new chapter in my life.
During that period of time, 1945-1950, all across the United States many men who had fought in World War II joined religious orders and congregations. Among the most famous was Thomas Merton who became a Trappist Monk. His book, The Seven Story Mountain, had a great influence on many of these men who were discovering their vocation to the religious life. Certainly, his book played a part in my own discernment of my vocation. I do not believe that it possible for a man to experience participation in a world-wide war such as was World War II without being spiritually traumatized. The fundamental questions everyone has to ask themselves at some point in their lives. Who am I? Why was I born.? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is the purpose of my life? What happens to me after I die?
It would seem that many, if not most, people do not try to find the answers to those questions, presuming that they ask the questions in the first place. Especially in our sensate society sex, alcohol and drugs kill the need to ask such questions much less to aggressively pursue the answers. Truly, as Jesus Christ said, they do not see because they have made themselves blind.
My entry into the way of life laid out for his monks by Saint Benedict in the Fifth Century was not a flight from reality it was the embracing of a state of life that would hopefully help provide me some of the answers to the important questions of life.