SOUTH END — With decided hope and optimism, the Brothers of St. Francis Xavier closed their year-long celebration of 150 years of service in the United States with a Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross followed by a reception on April 30.
Over 70 brothers and almost 600 others attended. Bishop Emeritus of Worcester Daniel P. Reilly was principal celebrant of the Mass. Concelebrants included Boston Auxillary Bishops Richard G. Lennon and John P. Boles as well as Portland Bishop Richard J. Malone and Worcester Bishop Robert J. Mcmanus.
While speakers at the Mass and dinner noted declining membership in the religious order, they said they placed their hope in God for the future, recalling that the order had humble beginnings and has overcome many trials throughout the last century-and-a-half.
Theodore James Ryken who took the name Brother Francis Xavier founded the Xaverian Brothers in Belgium in1839 after he “fell in love with the service of God,” said Bishop Daniel Reilly in his homily. Brother Francis wanted to educate youth, especially in America.
"He was the sole member of the community, and it didn't even have a name. Such a bold step, wrapped in prayer and spiritual experience, is a great testimony to his trust in God's providence," he said.
In 1843 the order gained its first two followers and the three members taught at a free school for young children in Belgium. The brothers were invited to Kentucky and opened their first American school in 1854.
"It was a hard journey and a difficult beginning, but it was a glorious beginning too," Bishop Reilly said.
Financial problems plagued the early years, causing all but two of the Xaverian brothers to retreat back to Europe, but after two years eight brothers were sent back to the U.S. and more schools were opened. The first school in New England was opened in 1881.
Five Xaverian-sponsored schools still serve in the area — St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, St. John Preparatory School in Danvers, Malden Catholic High School in Malden, Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood and Xavier High School in Middletown, Conn. Representatives from each school participated in the Mass as readers, gift bearers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and members of the choir.
Addressing those gathered for the reception following the Mass, Brother Arthur R. Caliman, CFX, general superior of the order, said that the order has faced many hard times in its history in this country. The financial difficulties that left only two Xaverian Brothers in the United States almost resulted in the end of the brothers’ presence here.
"The two men we honor as pioneers -- Brother Stephen Sommer and Brother Francis Xavier Dondorff -- knew the truth. They knew that they were left here quite simply because they were considered the most expendable, the least talented," he said.
Brother Francis had been invited by the founder to leave the order and Brother Stephen was a tailor who had been sent to help with the domestic needs of the community, he said.
But they kept on in faith because they had fallen in love with the service of God and had to respond to the needs of immigrant children. This faithful love of service has gotten the Xaverian Brothers through many tough times, he said.
"None of us really knows what the future holds for the Xaverian Brothers, or for Catholic education or even for the Church in the United States," Brother Arthur added, acknowledging that the "data doesn't look good" for the Xaverian Brothers.
"But the data hadn't looked good 150 years ago for Francis and for Stephen, and the data hadn't looked good a long time before that for Peter and those first frightened disciples of Jesus as they ran away and hid on that first Holy Thursday evening," he said. "It's not always just about the data."
"We may be fewer, we may be grayer, some of us may be paunchier, we may be frailer, we may be testier, we may be crankier, but whatever we are, we're here," he said. "As long as we're here -- whether there are 600 of us as there were in the U.S. when I joined the community in the 60s or 160 of us as there are approximately today in the U.S. or just two of us as there were here 150 years ago -- we're going to keep on."
Following Brother Arthur, James Donovan, vice chairman of the board at Malden Catholic High, spoke afterward about his family’s experience with the Brothers. Donovan, his father, brother and sons graduated from Xaverian schools. Donovan was visibly moved as he described the education he and his brother received.
"Money was tight and tuition would have been difficult," he said, but the principal at the school gave them a waiver.
"I have such deep admiration and affection for the Xaverians and their lay colleges for their unceasing, unwavering mission of giving every student, irrespective of his God-given talent, the opportunity to become the best student, the best Christian, the best person possible," he said.
Christopher Burns, who graduated from St. John Preparatory and now serves on the board of trustees, told The Pilot he appreciated his education as well.
"The brothers were a very important part of my life," he said.
Brother Daniel Skala, headmaster at Xaverian Brothers High, said the faces and the circumstances of the brothers in America have changed, but the vision has stayed the same for the past 150 years. The brothers continue to help students receive a good education that includes helping them to understand how God is calling each of them to a fuller life, he said.
"Despite the fact that there are fewer of us today, there's still a wonderful spirit. We still continue to do good work," he said.