February 26, 2015

Benedict Justice, OFMHe persevered

And became the first black priest in SJB Province


During the holidays I found myself leafing through a coffee table book titled Christmas in America, published in 1988.  The book is mostly a pictorial presentation of Christmas celebrations and traditions from around the country.

I came across a picture of a young African American girl and boy dressed as a shepherd and angel.  It was not so much the picture that caught my attention as the caption: “Vincent Fisher, 5, and his sister Toni, 7, share the stage at the Father Benedict Justice School in Kansas City, Missouri.”

The reason this gave me pause was that I knew Benedict. In fact as a young child, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know Benedict, or “Justice”, as we called him. He was the first African American to be ordained in the Province of St. John the Baptist.  In his obituary in a Kansas City newspaper it states that he was also the “first Oklahoma Negro to be ordained to the priesthood.”

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Justice was a classmate of my uncle, Fr. Bruce Hausfeld.  They were very close friends.  Justice always joined the Hausfeld family when we gathered for visiting Sundays at Duns Scotus, Oldenburg and St. Leonard.  He was there for celebrations of all kinds at my grandparents’ home on Scenic Avenue in St. Bernard.  I thought of him as a member of the family.  I remember that in letters he had sent to my grandparents, the salutation was always, “Dear Mom and Pap Hausfeld”.

My mom shared with me that Justice would stay at my grandparents’ when he and Bruce had a break from classes at the minor seminary (1949-1952) at times like Thanksgiving.  In those days it was too far and too expensive for him to travel frequently back to his home in Tulsa, Okla.   Mom also told me that a few eyebrows were raised and comments made by the neighbors, especially when Justice and Bruce would walk to Mass at St. Clement’s.

The journey begins

Bruce gave me the rest of the story. When he first asked Justice to stay at the family home, Grandpa Hausfeld was not too sure if it was all right for them to take in a “black boy”.  Bruce was told to ask the pastor of St. Clement, William Faber, if there was anything wrong with this.  Bill assured the entire family that it was perfectly OK.  This was, I’m sure, a big step for all of them.

Benedict’s journey toward being a friar and a priest was not an easy one.  It began in 1949 when Leonard Justice arrived at St. Francis Minor Seminary in Mt. Healthy.  Br. Francis Williams told me once that Benedict had not heard anything from the seminary after he applied.  He did not even know if he was accepted. The friar out in the Province working to prepare Benedict for the seminary was probably Fr. Alvin Deem. Despite the lack of communication, Alvin sent Benedict off to Cincinnati to start classes at St. Francis that fall. According to Bruce, much to everyone’s surprise, Benedict just showed up that first day.

He entered the seminary as a “special student”.  This term referred to men who had already completed high school but needed to learn Greek and Latin. The usual duration of this period was two years.

Benedict at the minor seminary with students from Kansas City in 1965.

Benedict left and above in the group portrait from a retreat in 1965.

Benedict had graduated from St. Monica School in Tulsa the previous spring.  He had turned 19 years old in July that year and had been working in a restaurant.

There are still friars around today who spent time as special students and they have shared how difficult and challenging this was.  These older men, some of whom came from the military or a job and had been responsible for themselves, were expected to live with high school-aged students as one of them. Their lives were extremely regimented and they had no say in how their days would be scheduled. They spent the majority of their time studying Latin and Greek.

A painful transition

This was the world Benedict in found himself in the fall of 1949, and yet his circumstance was very different.  He was the only black man in an all-white environment – years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. The civil rights movement had not even come into the general consciousness at this time.  In our country there were places where black people were not permitted.  Establishments would not serve them or they had separate entrances for “Coloreds Only”.  I can remember when African Americans were barred from Cincinnati’s Coney Island Amusement Park.  I cannot imagine how difficult and painful this must have been for Benedict.

Bruce shared with me how extremely discouraged Benedict was at the end of his second year when he was told he would have to spend another year at St. Francis before they would consider him for the novitiate.  He was ready to pack up and go home.  It is important to remember that he was 21 at the time. I assume that it was only through the grace of the Holy Spirit and encouragement from his classmates and others that Benedict was able to continue on his journey.

Benedict finally entered the Order Aug. 15, 1952.  The Very Reverend Father Provincial was Fr. Vincent Kroger. The novice master was Fr. Cornelius Grein. Benedict professed simple vows on August 16, 1953, at St. Anthony Novitiate.  He then went on to study philosophy at Duns Scotus in Southfield, Mich., and professed solemn vows on Aug. 16, 1956.  After graduation in 1957 he spent one year at Holy Family Friary in Oldenburg, Ind., studying theology.  The next year he was part of the big move to the newly constructed St. Leonard College in Centerville, Ohio.  During these last four years of formation, Benedict was tonsured, received into the Minor Orders (acolyte, exorcist, lector and porter), and ordained a subdeacon and deacon.  In 1961, he was ordained to the priesthood in the largest class to be ordained in the Province.

According to The Provincial Chronicle:

“The Ordination to the priesthood of our twenty new priests took place Tuesday, June 13, at 10:00 a.m. in the chapel of St. Leonard College, Dayton, Ohio.  Again this year, through the generous permission of Archbishop Alter, His Excellency, Bishop Rembert Kowalski, conferred the sacrament.”

In his short time as a priest, a little less than five-and-a-half years, Benedict served as assistant pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Kansas City, Mo.  In 1965 he was appointed Regional Director of the Third Order and was very active in promoting their ministry.  Benedict shared with Bruce that even during this time he was faced with negative racial attitudes from his own confreres and others. In 1966 Benedict was appointed Pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Kansas City, Kansas.

Bishop Rembert Kowalski, OFM

William Faber, OFM

 Roger Huser, OFM

Alvin Deem, OFM

Terrible news

In an early morning phone call on Dec. 5, 1966, Provincial Minister Roger Huser learned of the tragic death of Benedict Justice. He had been killed in a one-car accident on the Kansas City Turnpike, just 11 miles out of Kansas City, as he was returning alone from Emporia to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Friary.  Apparently he fell asleep and, on a curve in the turnpike, cut into the median strip and ran head-on into a concrete support for an overpass.  He was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, at 3:40 a.m.   Benedict had been in Emporia on Saturday, the 4th, to conduct the annual visitation of the Third Order Fraternity at Sacred Heart Parish.

The description of the wake and funeral Mass appeared in The Provincial Chronicle:

“At 2:00 p.m. on December 6, the body of Fr. Benedict was brought from the Jones Funeral Home to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church – his parish – where it lay in state overnight.  A huge crowd of people came to pay their last respects.  About three hundred people would be permitted into the church at one time.  They would view the body, say the rosary in common and then leave.  After they had gone, another three hundred would be admitted.  This went on till far into the night.

“The next morning, the body was brought to St. Anthony Church (this was to accommodate the large crowd) in Kansas City, where the Office of the Dead was recited and the funeral Mass was offered.  It was a Concelebrated Mass with the Very Rev. Fr. Provincial, Roger Huser as the main celebrant.  The other celebrants were Frs. Joachim Lux, Casimir Kolesar, Simeon Cleves, and Ephrem Beltramea.  Fr. Francis Keehn acted as master of ceremonies.”

It was sadly ironic that someone who worked so hard for so long to become a Franciscan priest had such a short time to live out his dream.

(Thanks to Sr. Daria Mitchell and to Ron Cooper for their help with research for this article.)

A legacy of education

After arriving in Kansas City, Fr. Benedict Justice quickly became involved in the interracial apostolate and was frequently invited to speak at interracial meetings and gatherings.  He worked closely with the Diocesan Interracial Council and directed the Youth Interracial Council.

The diocese named a school in Benedict’s memory to honor him for the work he had done in bettering race relationships. This happened in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.

In his online blog, a former student describes the school:

“Father Benedict Justice School was a small school split

into two campuses.  There was the FBJ Upper Campus

for the middle schoolers and the FBJ Lower Campus

for the lower grades.  Travel between the campuses

was done on an old yellow school bus that would break

down half the time.  Fortunately, the campuses were only a

mile apart.  So if we had to walk, we made a game of it, walk

a block, run a block.”

The school closed in the early 1990s.

Joe Ricchini and Adam Farkas at Elgar’s funeral.His heart was in the Philippines


Most of them never served with Fr. Elgar Nadon.

But by the time the 30 friars attending his funeral left St. Clement Church on Feb. 20, they understood Elgar’s impact on his family and his friends in the Philippines.

Years after Elgar moved on from an interfaith ministry in Balo-i, the Philippines, the community still asked about him, according to Filipino friar Rolando Abas. “Some Muslims would say, ‘Where is that American who was very handsome and joyful? We miss him so much.’”

It was Rolando – called “Rollie” – who accompanied Elgar from the Philippines to the States last November when health concerns forced his relocation to St. Margaret Hall in Cincinnati after 49 years as a missionary.  “I’m very grateful I delayed my return to substitute for a priest in New Jersey for almost two months,” Rollie said at the Reception of the Body preceding the funeral. “I’m very much grateful that before I leave the U.S. I have seen him.” At St. Clement he represented thousands of Filipinos shaped by Elgar’s work with parishes, retreat centers and communities of sisters. “Thank you very much for giving us Fr. Elgar. We are really grateful to the Cincinnati friars for letting Fr. Elgar stay in our place so long.”


From display boards at the funeral, Elgar with fellow missionary Harold Geers.

Left, Elgar’s “official” portrait; above, with fellow missionaries at a provincial gathering.

Memorable visit

Elgar’s relatives had just welcomed him home during a visit to Cincinnati in January. “The whole time we visited he smiled,” said his sister, Mary Claire Guinan.  “We were so happy we came when we did and saw him a month and a half before God took him.”

Some of her favorite memories, and those of her sister, Therese Rospierski, were of a young, athletic friar in formation. Elgar loved hiking and swimming and routinely whipped the relatives at tennis. When he went overseas his Aerogram letters – faithfully signed, “Peace, love and all good” – were read with excitement. “Oh my God! A letter from Fr. Elgar!” Home visits were timed to coincide with family celebrations. “He baptized me,” said one niece at the funeral. “He married me,” said another. “Me, too!” said a third.

Former mission director Scott Obrecht, himself a veteran of the Philippines, never lived with Elgar. But he shared “one thing that honestly stuck out with me. Whenever he came home every three years and Dolores [Schmitz] and I took care of things, he was always very grateful for what we did.”

“I knew his parents [Clara and Leo] far better than I knew Elgar,” said celebrant Frank Jasper, who was in the novitiate when Elgar left for the Philippines. Frank’s memories of Elgar were from recent visits to St. Margaret Hall. “He never had a complaint. He was always smiling, always in a good mood.”

In many ways Elgar and the Philippines were a perfect match. “There’s really that magic in our place,” said Rollie. “We are loving. Our people are warm, hospitable, friendly.” Elgar shared their belief that “Life is good,” according to brother-in-law Larry Rospierski. “It’s what he preached and wanted everyone else to know.”

Answering the call

Homilist Jeremy Harrington was Elgar’s classmate through 14 years of formation. “I remember when we arrived [at St. Francis Seminary], 14 years old, sharing the same set of lockers, unpacking baseball gloves, ice skates and hockey sticks. It was a wonderful 14 years with him.”

Jeremy was struck by Elgar’s “clearness of purpose and determination. He knew what he wanted, where he was going. We were at the novitiate together and Duns Scotus. We were at Oldenburg for three years, then St. Leonard’s, where we were ordained. Elgar’s parents came often to Duns Scotus. We all got to know your family, sisters, nieces, nephews,” he said, addressing the relatives in the pews. “Elgar had great family support” from aunts and uncles in religious life. “He had all this prayer power behind him. No wonder he could be so holy and good.”

When missionaries were needed in the Philippines, “He heard the call and was determined to answer the call. ‘Here I am, send me. I’ll go.’ That was Elgar.” He met the challenges head-on. “He went to Biliran Island and rode a motorcycle. Biliran is a mountainous island; the roads were not great,” said Jeremy, recalling visitations as Provincial Minister. “In a big rainstorm water came down and washed away the road. Elgar was fearless riding those roads. There were all those challenges of environment. But Elgar was “stubborn, independent, determined.

“Then he went to Maripipi, an island off Biliran. The only way to get there was a boat with outriggers. Often it [the crossing] was not calm. It was lonely on the island; they had limited communication. Then the friars decided to go to live with the Muslims [in Balo-i] as a reconciling presence.” Elgar was  part of an immersion experiment.

Crosses to bear

“He was so whole-hearted and determined,” Jeremy said, “that he sometimes came across pretty strong. I was one who told him he was so loud the friars got offended.” The Custos in the Philippines wrote to then-provincial Jeremy, “Elgar is a man who speaks from his heart.”
With its history of violence against non-Filipinos, Balo-i tested Elgar and his fellow missionaries. For 11 years, “Elgar was a very successful presence.” Part of his success – let’s be honest – was due to his good looks and that famous smile.   
Throughout his ministry, “Elgar had many crosses, but the last ones were his health,” Jeremy said. “He couldn’t do what he wanted but he kept going. He put up with the hardships.” At his last retreat in the Philippines Elgar was quoted as saying, “It is really the heart that matters. When we serve the Lord with passion, it doesn’t matter if you fail or succeed.”

That was Elgar, Jeremy said. “Serve the Lord with passion. Give your heart.” For 49 years in the Philippines, he did just that.

  • The Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., has launched a new monthly digital newsletter (first edition has Fr. Larry Dunham on the cover). Look for it at: http://www.myfranciscan.org/wp-content/Digital-Editions/2-February2015/
  • ESC Executive Secretary Tom Washburn shared this link to a story from Vatican Radio about the burial of a homeless man in the Teutonic College cemetery within Vatican City State: http://www.news.va/en/news/willy-the-homeless-man-buried-in-the-heart-of-the
  • It was a big day for Mable Matthews-Labbe of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Lafayette, La. When friends gathered Monday at St. Paul’s to celebrate her 100th birthday, Pastor Robert Seay was on hand to wish her  well and Br. Juniper Crouch recorded the festivities with his camera. In the photo of Mable with the President’s stand-in, the lady on the left is a spry 101.
  • The welcoming cover says a lot about Fr. Murray Bodo’s newly released book, Enter Assisi: An Invitation to Franciscan Spirituality (Servant Books/Franciscan Media).  It includes a nice endorsement from Holy Name friar Dan Horan, who says, “This spiritual-guidebook-meets-memoir is a work of art painted with the words of a gifted poet.” According to an overview, “Enter Assisi takes you on a journey through the gates of the city, where you will discover in your own life the way to follow Jesus as St. Francis did.” The book is available at a special price from:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/enter-assisi-murray-bodo-ofm/1120173340?ean=9781616367091.