AN ORDINARY’S NOT SO ORDINARY LIFE, CHAPTER 8

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Photo of the interior of the Archabbey Church as it appeared in 1953.

With the completion of the novitiate year in the summer of 1953 it was time for my simple profession of vows.  Benedictines profess four vows, unlike most religious orders and congregations:  poverty, chastity, obedience and stability.  The fourth vow commits a monk to remain in the monastery where he professes his vows rather than moving from one monastery to another.  Still, in cases of necessity it is possible for a monk to transfer from one abbey to another.  What is required is the consent of the abbot of the monastery from which the monk is transferring, the consent of the abbot of the monastery to which he is transferring and the consent of the abbot president of the confederation of monasteries to which both monasteries belong.  Simple vows remain in force for three years and at the expiration of that period of time the monk is either free to leave the monastery or to profess solemn vows which remain in effect for one’s lifetime unless dispensed by the Holy See.

And so, on July 11, 1953, I and the other 11 members of my novitiate class stood before the Archabbot in front of the main altar (shown above) of the Abbey Church and made our profession of vows.  We were now called “clerics” and we moved into that area of the monastery called the Clericate.  We now had private rooms whereas in the Novitiate we occupied a dormitory divided into cubicles with curtains as in a hospital.

We now became students in Saint Vincent Seminary, a part of Saint Vincent Archabbey.  The majority of the students in the Seminary were diocesan seminarians from all of the dioceses of Pennsylvania plus four or five other dioceses in the United States plus a few from other abbeys and from other countries.  My days now were filled with study.  The first two years were devoted to the study of philosophy and the next five years would be devoted to theology.  Benedictines in the middle of the 20th Century were required by Pope Pius XII to study pastoral theology in a fifth year if their abbey was engaged in pastoral ministry in parishes.  As you read in the chapter on the founding of Saint Vincent, there was the specific identification of Saint Vincent Archabbey with Saint Vincent Parish from the very beginning.

Before I could make much progress in my liturgical research necessary for the remodeling of the interior of the Archabbey church the Archabbot directed me to design and construct a new monastery refectory in the space formerly occupied by the Archabbey Library which had been moved to its new free-standing building.  The old library occupied a beautiful space covered by a series of curved barrel vaults.  I paneled the walls with wood paneling above which I concealed flourescent lighting to illuminate the beautiful ceiling and provide indirect lighting for the refectory.  I installed twelve very quiet air-handling units along the walls of the refectory and in a basement I installed a large airconditioning compressor for a chilled water system that fed the air-handling units in the refectory.  The monastery now had its first airconditioned space.  In the winter a heat-exchanger took heat from the steam generated in the Archabbey’s steam plant and heated the water to the air-conditioning units in the refectory.  The refectory today is exactly as I left it upon completion of the project.

Now, in the time allowed by my studies and my participation in the prayer life of the monastery I began to work in earnest on the remodeling of the Archabbey church.  It you examine the photograph of the church shown above you will see that the altar was attached to a very large beautiful white marble reredos.  Beautiful, yes, but an architectural disaster since the reredos prevented the monks seated in their choir-stalls from being able to see the celebration of the Mass.  It seems incredible that for fifty years the monastic community had not been able to see the Mass being celebrated, they could hear it but not view it.

I determined to demolish the altar and its reredos and to replace it with a freestanding altar proportionally massive to be the focal point for everyone in the church.  The final design provided for a mensa 11′ x 4′ x 18″ of green marble resting on four white carrara marble bases on the faces of which would be carved in high relief four sacrifices described in the scriptures that were prototypes for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Over the altar would be a light-weight tester to focus attention to the altar and to provide light for the surface of the mensa.  I made a model of the proposed renovations and to my amazement there was only a little opposition and that came  from the very old members of the community out of nostalgia while the rest of the community welcomed the changes and so the Archabbot gave me permission to proceed.

I went to New York City, stayed at Saint Malachy Church whose pastor introduced me to Bernard Staffetta who had recently completed the marble work in the church.  Working with him I contracted for the altar mensa and its bases to be carved in Italy.   Because the altar and its bases would weigh about five tons I set to work reinforcing the vault under the floor of the sanctuary to support the great weight of the altar and its predella.  I completely replaced the floor of the sanctuary with new marble, repainted the interior of the church and installed recessed lighting in the attic that provided good illumination at the level of the choir stalls and pews.  Bernard Staffetta did all of the marble work and he did a wonderful job.   Here is a photograph of the interior of the church as it appears in 2014.

You will not the absence of the tester over the altar; for some reason unknown to me the tester was removed in the 1980’s and replaced by the crucifix shown in the photo.
The altar base on the right has a 10″ x 10″ x 10′ hole in its top.  During the Mass of the consecration of the new altar the Archabbot had to place the relics in that cavity while the mensa was supported on hydraulic jacks; needless to say we were all holding our breath as he reached under the mensa and placed the relics bronze box in the cavity.
In 1955 the Archabbey celebrated its Jubilees in a Mass celebrated by Cardinal O’Hara, Archbishop of Philadelphia.  On that occasion the Archabbey Church was elevated to the rank of a Minor Basilica.
If I may be allowed to boast a little, I am proud of the fact that with the exception of the removal of the tester above the altar, the interior of the Basilica is exactly the same as I left it is 1955.  The reason that this is a boast is because the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, through is Decree, Sacrosanctum Concilium, initiated sweeping changes in the Church’s Liturgy which necessitated the remodeling of the sanctuaries of some churches, some of which had been remodeled just before the council.  Nothing in the Archabbey Basilica which was remodeled eleven years before Sacrosanctum Concilium had to be changed and it remains today unchanged.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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