On a sunny September day in 1988, my arms filled with a microwave and other worldly possessions, I trudged to the top floor of a St. John’s University dormitory to officially begin my freshman year. As I struggled to stay upright after climbing four flights of stairs, I nearly flattened a short African-American man wrapped in a black cassock. He was puffing on a pipe and was wearing a New York Yankees cap. A Yankees cap? This guy just didn’t look like a monk. Both of us startled, he growled at me to “watch out.” He then helped lighten my load and introduced himself as Father Aidan McCall, my dormitory faculty resident.
That auspicious first encounter thankfully was not my last. I spent the next two years as a residential assistant on Father Aidan’s floor. On weekend nights the floor would quiet as freshmen departed for a few hours to hone their social skills. I’d start a load of laundry, settle into a chair next to Father Aidan and take in his stories and experiences.
As an altar boy in segregated Washington, D.C., Aidan had wanted to be a priest since age 9. At 14, he told the Irish priest who served his all-black parish about his desire. The priest immediately dismissed Aidan, telling him that he must forget such a fantastic notion as there was no way someone of his “type” could master the complexities of Latin. Aidan tightened his focus on the priesthood.
Next, he applied to the Washington Archdiocese, whose archbishop routinely traveled to Ireland to recruit priests. Aidan felt he could save him time by providing his hometown services. When the archbishop learned of Aidan’s skin color, he rejected him. Aidan endured similar blows as he applied to various religious orders. He was ready to quit the Catholic Church because, in Aidan’s words, Jesus taught one thing and the church was practicing something else — discrimination.
Frustrated, Aidan dusted himself off and continued. Signs began pointing to Minnesota. His church missal had an introduction by St. John’s Abbot Alcuin Deutsch. The sacristy where Aidan served mass had a wall calendar featuring the abbot’s name on each page. Aidan also realized that Minnesota was the home of Wheaties — the same Wheaties that he heard advertised on the radio. This foreign place in the middle of the continent might be a land of opportunity.
He wrote to Abbot Alcuin, asking whether he could join St. John’s Abbey. Aidan also wrote that he was not white. The abbot responded that he didn’t care what color Aidan was and invited him to Collegeville, where they could learn more about each other. Aidan accepted the abbot’s invitation and never looked back.
Aidan accomplished a great deal in his 40-plus years at St. John’s, including heading the Classics Department and teaching Latin — the very language that he was told he could never master. He served as dean of students, faculty resident, confidant and, best of all, friend.
A sturdy wooden cross sits on a rise in the cemetery facing Lake Sagatagan, the beautiful body of water just beyond the monastery gates. It simply says AIDAN. It is joined by many other crosses marking the graves of Benedictine monks who gave their life to St. John’s and its students.
Like the crosses on the rise in the cemetery, the Benedictine monks’ presence and lessons at St. John’s have remained a steady guide for students as they graduate to a larger world.
Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice John Simonette, St. John’s Class of 1948, wrote, “Usually, first-rate faculties flourish in schools with generous endowments. At St. John’s it was our good fortune that the Abbey had generously endowed the school with its scholars . . . Living under the Rule of St. Benedict, we were told by these teachers, was to live as a family and, as Aquinas taught, self-fulfillment was to be gained through, not outside, the common good. Perhaps this is why so many of us . . . later became involved in community and public service.”
The crimes of a dozen wayward monks do not define St. John’s. A tradition of wonderful, dedicated, caring people, such Father Aidan and other monks, do. That is why St. John’s will endure.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Letter to the editor: Monks are reasons St. John’s will endure
Inver Grove Heights
Public relations professional
8 June, 2002