View of Saint Vincent Archabbey and College as it appeared when I arrived there in 1951.
I arrived by train at Latrobe and was met by a monk from the Abbey. Since I was technically a postulant, one seeking admission to the community, I was taken to the Scholasticate which is the division of the Abbey where postulants live. There were about 25 postulants or “Scholastics”in the Scholaticate when I joined it. Not surprisingly I found myself, at 28 years of age, the oldest of the group. Most of the Scholastics were recent high school graduates and were 18 or 19 years of age. I had no difficulty fitting in with the group, although I felt my age when we played baseball during recreation.
I had had two years of Latin in high school, but since that would have been more than ten years ago it was decided that I should spend my one year as a postulant learning Greek and also be given intensive tutoring in Latin. Greek would be helpful when I would take classes in Sacred Scripture but it was imperative that I be proficient in Latin since all my classes in philosophy and theology would be taught in Latin and the exams would be in Latin. The requirement that classes be taught in Latin was dropped after the Second Vatican Council as was Latin generally abandoned in the Church, much to the dismay of those of us who considered Latin to be important for more than a facile knowledge of the English Language. Pope Benedict XVI later would make real efforts to restore Latin to something of its former importance in the Church, not only in the Liturgy, but also general.
Greek was a real trial for me. The English philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, was the first person to make a big issue out of teaching foreign languages in the primary years rather than later years. I learned of his campaign when I began to study Greek at age 28. I have never been good at learning foreign languages really well but I have learned them well enough to have a working knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, German and Italian. I studied German in the Monastery because even though all of the original monks who came from Bavaria had died off, German was still spoken a little in the Monastery and table reading in the Refectory was partly in German.
The Scholasticate year went by rapidly and in the summer of 1952 I was admitted to the Novitiate along with 11 other Scholastics. I was now 29 years of age, all the rest of the novice class were 19 or 20 except for one other, Paul Gavaler from Pittsburgh, who was 27. Paul had graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in chemistry and had worked in Pittsburgh as a chemist before entering the Scholasticate. Even though we were a somewhat disparate group in many ways, we soon developed a unity and a fraternal bond.
As novices we were given the Benedictine habit to wear. Here is a description of the habit:
With slight modifications of shape in some congregations, the traditional monastic habit of the Benedictines consists of a tunic, confined at the waist by a belt of leather or of cloth; a scapular, originally a work apron, the width of the shoulders, that reaches somewhere between the knees and the hem of the tunic; and a hood (men) or wimple and veil (women) to cover the head. In choir, at chapter, and at certain other ceremonial times, a full, often pleated, gown with long, wide sleeves, called a “cowl” or “cuculla,” may be worn by the finally professed over the ordinary habit. The word cuculla comes from the Greek word, koukoulion, for the great habit allowed to be worn after final profession of monastic vows. – Wikipedia
A Benedictine monk has a black hood, instead of a wimple and veil.The modern Benedictine monk’s hood is streamlined, but in past centuries it was much larger.
Upon beginning the Novitiate it was necessary for the novices to be give a new name as a religious man. Our seniority in the novice class was determined by the date of our application for admission to the monastery. It turned out that I was not only the oldest, but last in seniority since I was the last one in the class to have applied for admission. That had an immediate effect on my choosing my religious name. Not only did I not have a choice of the names of all the more than 300 monks living but I was outranked by my classmates in the choosing of a name. I figured that since all the common names were already taken or would be taken by my classmates I would be left with Paffnutius, or Alaric or Baldric. The procedure was for each novice to submit three names, not already taken, in the order of choice, to the Archabbot and he would approve one of the names submitted. Naturally the Novice Master made certain that we did not submit secular names, like the names of movie stars, but would rather limit ourselves to saints names. I submitted RENE Goupil, one of the North American Martyrs, HILDEBRAND, who later became Pope Gregory VII and excommunicated Emperor Henry, the Holy Roman Emperor., and POLYCARP, a disciple of St. John the Evangelist and later became the Bishop of Smyrna. I was delighted when the Archabblot approved the name Rene. I was the first monk at St. Vincent ever to have he name Rene and consequently my new name was the source of a lot of kidding. Father Ralph, the Music Director, was fond of telling me, “Don’t worry, Rene, you can always ask to change your name!” Since I left the monastery there have been two more “Rene’s” so I guess I broke new ground. I formed so many new friendships as Rene Henry Gracida that after I left the monastery I kept the name. Years later I went to court and had my name changed officially to Rene Henry Gracida.
The purpose of a novitiate is to educate and train the novice in preparation for the novice’s insertion into the fullness of the community’s life, but to my joy, immediately after our novitiate began we began to pray the Divine Office in the Choir Chapel with the rest of the community. That was heaven to me. The chanting and/or singing of the Divine Office is central to the life of a monk. Gregorian chant has experienced something of a revival of public interest since the middle of the 20th Century and so I was very familiar with it. My novitiate would last one year. In some religious orders and congregations the novitiate can last two years or even longer. The education part of the novitiate is accomplished through classes. We had classes in the Divine Office, chant, the psalms, the Holy Rule and conferences with the Novice Master. The training took place, aside from our practices in Gregorian chant, mostly in the physical work the novices were required to do consisted mostly in washing the walls of the rooms of the monastery (they were all hard plaster) and farm work.
The wall washing was tedious and boring and I did not particularly care for it. The farm work was much more to my liking, probably because of my love of out door life. The farm work consisted, for example, in the annual potato harvest which was quite large considering that the potato harvest had to feel not only the monks but also the college and seminary students. Harvesting potatoes was accomplished by each novice walking with a five-gallon bucket down the rows in the potato field and picking up the potatoes that had been exposed by the tractor pulling a harrow-like device. It can be back-breaking work. Being the engineer that I am I persuaded my fellow novices to adapt my system for potato harvesting. Instead of each novice carrying his own five-gallon bucket, one novice would walk between the rows carrying two five-gallon buckets and two novices without buckets would pick up the potatoes and put them in the buckets. It was a faster and much more efficient system for harvesting the potatoes. There was only one problem with it: it did not meet with the approval of the Novice Master. What I had overlooked was that the purpose of harvesting potatoes was not only the gathering of the potatoes, but from the standpoint of the status of the harvesters, novices, it was an exercise in humility, patience and perseverance. So, we each got back our individual buckets and resumed picking up potatoes in the traditional manner. I had learned something I was supposed the learn as a novice, be a novice not an engineer.
Late in the novitiate year the Archabbot summoned me to his office. There he informed me that I was to use my architectural engineering experience to design a complete remodeling of the sanctuary of the Abbey Church. I was somewhat surprised by this since the novitiate year is supposed to be devoted to the purposes an practices I outlined above. But, as I was to learn again fifteen years later, one does not question the legislator in the Church. So they prepared an office for me and equipped it with everything I would need to start the project after the novitiate ended, in the meantime I began to sketch various solutions to the problems existing in the Abbey Church.
In 1955 Saint Vincent Archabbey would be celebrating the centennial of the founding of the Abbey and the golden jubilee of the completion of the construction of the abbey church and the community wanted to have a big celebration. My work was cut out for me and it was formidable considering that I would be altering the sanctuary in which all the members of the community had been professed and ordained. The implications for controversy were enormous. I wondered how this would square with the interior peace and spiritual growth that I was seeking in my monastic life?