Province Newsletter
by Toni Cashnelli, Communications Director
He wrote more than 100 books, was poet laureate of his homeland and blazed a trail for generations of writers. But most Americans have never heard of Rudolf Dilong, the literary legend who was first and foremost a friar.
One hundred years after his birth on Aug. 1, 1905, Rudy is best remembered by the people of Slovakia—the country he fled to avoid Communist persecution—and by the friars of the Vice Province of the Most Holy Savior, with whom he spent the last years of his life. (Holy Savior has been part of St. John the Baptist Province since 2000.)
“He was a priest with a poet’s mind,” says friar John Joseph Gonchar. “He was an artist. He played the organ. He did some nice drawings. He was eccentric in the best sense of the word.”
Born and raised in Trstena, Slovakia, Rudolf Alphonse Dilong took up writing as a creative outlet for grief after the deaths of his mother and his beloved older sister. He entered the Franciscan novitiate at 15, explaining that “I found a certain atmosphere of peace and prayer. I was inspired to be creative, to write, in this Franciscan atmosphere.” Friar Paul Wild was a teen-ager in Slovakia when he first heard of Dilong. “I got only rumors about his activities as ‘a weird young Franciscan,’” one who rode a motorcycle to poetry readings he did for students.
Rudy’s post-ordination assignment was as a teacher of religion; he was drafted as a military chaplain in World War II and sent to the Russian front. All the while, he did what he loved best: He wrote poetry—volumes of it—as well as plays and prose. “Poetry writing was his baby and addiction, not only a hobby,” Paul says. Religious in nature, the work was bold and inventive, the cutting edge of Catholic Modernism in Slovakia.
In the 1930s and ‘40s his poems were studied, quoted and frequently reprinted, according to friar Bill Reisteter. “He was a very strongly patriotic Slovak,” says John Joseph, and therefore at odds with an oppressive Communist regime. When the government removed his books from library shelves, “He was a marked man,” says friar Damian Cesanek.
In 1945, Rudy fled Slovakia, never to return. “I chose freedom,” he later said, “because in Communist countries a writer is not free:  He is limited only to themes proposed by the government, and he can write only with the government’s permission.” After two years as a refugee in Rome, he made his way to Buenos Aires. In 18 years of service as a missionary to immigrants in Argentina, Rudy published more than 20 books of poetry, stoking the fires of Slovak nationalism. “During the Cold War,” says Paul, “university students in Czechoslovakia allegedly loved to quote Dilong’s lines in their meetings.” In 1965 the Most Holy Savior Custody in Pittsburgh (later the Vice Province), founded by friars from Slovakia, welcomed him warmly.
He brought with him rough country manners and a brashness that could be off-putting. “He didn’t speak too much English, but he seemed to know what you were saying,” says Damian. “He was an interesting character to live with.”  Rudy’s English never improved—at some point he gave up on it—and his room at the friary in Pittsburgh could hardly be called “tidy.” Nevertheless, “He was a great poet,” says friar Jerome Pavlik. Rudy loved writing, and he loved the attention it brought him. “He was a very well known person who took pride in his work,” says John Joseph.
Much of his poetry survives, housed at the Sr. M. Martina Tybor Jankola Library in Danville, Pa., a repository of Slovak literature maintained by the Sisters of Sts. Cyril & Methodius. (One volume, With Christ in His Passion, was translated into English by Sr. Martina.) After decades of repression, Slovaks are again free to read and study his poetry, once considered too incendiary for public consumption. The friary in Trstena proudly bears a plaque honoring Rudy as one of the city’s outstanding citizens, a friar who paved the way for many modern writers.
As Bill Reisteter said at Rudy’s funeral in 1986, “We are much better off because he lived among us.”
Centennial celebrations
Eighteen cultural institutions and organizations in Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland and Argentina have declared 2005 as “The Year of Rudolf Dilong” to recognize the centennial of the poet’s birth. In announcing the honor, the Slovak American Cultural Center in New York cited his prodigious output—109 books of poetry—and his role as co-founder of the literary movement of Catholic Modernism. “Regretfully,” the center said in a story on its website, “there is no participation of any Slovak organization from the United States, in spite of the fact that Rudolf Dilong lived and wrote here since 1965 until his death on April 7th, 1986, in Pittsburgh, where he is buried.”
Rudolf Dilong’s contributions to Slovak literature are celebrated each July in his hometown of Trstena, Slovakia, during a poetry and prose reading competition called “Dilong’s Trstena.” In 1992 the Episcopal See in Spisska, Kapitula, dedicated Rudolf Dilong Primary School in Trstena.
Jim Van Vurst and Martin Humphreys were two of a dozen artists whose works were chosen for display at the May Tea Event sponsored by the Sharonville Fine Arts Council on May 15 at the Sharonville Convention Center. Guests got an up-close look at Jim’s abstract watercolors and Marty’s abstract acrylics and chatted with the artists before they sat down to a “high tea” of tables tiered with finger sandwiches and sweets of every description. The council, whose mission is to support and promote the visual and performing fine arts, is hoping to establish a Regional Creative and Performing Arts Center in Sharonville.
In April, Jamaicans in the Diocese of Montego Bay were introduced to Robert Seay’s healing ministry during a five-stop “crusade.” Robert says the crusade drew “a lot of young people” to some of the island’s smaller parishes. “It was impressive to see the effort people made to get there” for two to three hours of preaching and the laying on of hands. Bishop Charles Dufour was part of the congregation during the last stop in Revival. “There was actually some healing that went on,” says Robert, who is repeatedly asked how it works. “There’s a certain energy that comes over me,” he says, and leaves it at that.
As I look at my journey, God has always been calling and moving me beyond where I felt comfortable,” Henry Beck told the congregation crowded into Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Dayton on May 22 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his ordination. The opening song, All Are Welcome, reflected the readings and the spirit of Henry’s message, which focused on inclusiveness. That message was reinforced by the singing, in Spanish, of Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd (Tu Vas Conmigo). “At the heart of God, there is community, there is family,” as revealed by the Trinity. “We are made for relationships, to be bonded to one another. Our God is always creating family,” and, “wherever we are, we can create family,” Henry said, recalling the “joy, welcome and reception” extended to him by the people of Jamaica during his ministry there. Through the Eucharist, God is telling us, “There’s always room at this table.”
St. Anthony Messenger Press and Servant Publications were well-represented in the list of winners announced May 27 by the Catholic Press Association in its annual awards competition. An editorial by Pat McCloskey won first-place honors in the magazine category. The editorial, “Accepting Mary Magdalene’s Challenge,” appeared last July in St. Anthony Messenger magazine. Jack Wintz was recognized with a second-place award for Individual Excellence for his magazine work. An essay by Tom Richstatter (“The Mass: Our Greatest and Best Prayer,” from Vatican 2 Today) placed second in the Essay category for general-interest newsletters. A list of SAMP’s other honorees (there are a bunch of them) will appear in the August issue of the Messenger. Congratulations to all!
“Radio Maria continues to grow and reach out to new places,” writes Duane Stenzel. “On May 13, all the programs from here came into Canada via satellite. The first call on a call-in program from Canada was during the hour program entitled Brokenhearted. It is conducted by a Secular Franciscan and licensed marriage counselor, Dave Jurek. Live programs come from Detroit, New York, Louisville and Atlanta through our studios here” in Alexandria, La.
What goes around, comes around. John Turnbull celebrated his 50th jubilee June 9 in Oldenburg at “the very church where we were ordained,” he said. That weekday, the actual anniversary of John’s ordination, “We had a nice turnout at 8 a.m. Mass,” but the congregation officially celebrated on Sunday the 12th with a party/reception. The surprise visitor was a former refugee from the Sudan whose family spent their first few months in America with John at St. Francis of Assisi Friary in Centerville. The gift from the parish was a handmade stole with hand-embroidered squares representing each of John’s assignments. John says he may also be getting a new set of wheels for his anniversary. “There’s some talk about replacing our tractor.”
Rock Travnikar is “very grateful for all the support of the brothers and Clares, the messages and extraordinary care” extended to him following the death of his brother, Joe. A special thank-you to Mike Chowning, who drove overnight from Kentucky to Michigan (and slept in the car when he got there) to attend the funeral before he headed to the Chapter in Dayton. “The family was really moved by that,” says Rock. “God bless him.”
An accordion-style photo display at the rear of St. Aloysius Church shows friar Mel Brady in a variety of unposed pictures. There’s Mel, mouth full of food, mugging for the camera. One shot shows him hugging a tiny, dark-haired niece. Another catches him in mid-laugh alongside older brother Ignatius. As the display was intended to convey, here was a guy who loved life and who lived life as a great adventure, an adventure he thoroughly enjoyed until infirmity got in the way of his enormous spirit.
At Mel’s funeral, April 19 in Detroit, Pastor Mark Soehner is smiling as he points from one picture to the next. “That’s Mel’s Mom. Mel’s first day in the Order. Mel in his tonsured days. This is the board of Oasis Detroit,” a product of Mel’s persistence in finding ways to house the homeless. “This one is the block party. Mel wanted to have a Ferris wheel that would go as high as the Cardinal’s office. He told people, ‘The pastor wouldn’t let me do it.’ ”
Those gathered at St. Al’s, well aware of Mel’s accomplishments in the Order of Friars Minor, are remembering the affection he inspired. Endowed with Irish charm (and a bit of blarney), Mel had the uncanny ability of making everyone he met feel comfortable and significant, a member of the family. “He was like a dad to me,” says Dan Nolan. According to Jeff Scheeler, “You couldn’t help but love Mel Brady.” The day before, during visitation, Mark had described Mel as a “homemaker,” and he wasn’t referring to his trademark pot roast or tuna casserole, but to “how God made a home for Mel and Mel made a home for God.”
Evelyn Dilger, sitting in the pews with a well-soaked Kleenex, is both laughing and crying as she remembers working with Mel in formation at Mt. Airy. The two remained close after he moved to Detroit, with Mel occasionally calling to ask, “how much water to put in the Crock Pot” as he was fixing dinner. When he left for Detroit, Evelyn says, “I felt so abandoned,” a sentiment that many are sharing today. As the choir performs Go, Silent Friend, sung to the tune of Danny Boy, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Jeff Scheeler has the privilege and daunting task of delivering the homily. “I first met Mel Brady in 1984 in Rome,” when he was General Secretary of Missions for the Order, Jeff says. When Jeff was introduced to Mel as part of the formation team, “I could tell he was aghast” at the thought of this whippersnapper in that important position. “Mel could not hide his emotions. They were written all over his face.” Ironically, the two became great friends, working together on the formation team in later years.
Mel was a man of many roles, with many relationships:  “Franciscan friar, parish priest, seminary director, canon lawyer, recovering alcoholic, uncle, cousin, friend, wisdom figure, father figure, Franciscan brother to us all. Someone said, ‘He was a titan in our midst,’ and that was true.” Nevertheless, “There was something truly humble about Mel Brady. One of the other friars described him as ‘lovable.’ He endeared himself to others,” partly because of “a youthful spirit he never lost. I think one of the gifts Mel had in our Franciscan fraternity was he had a way of connecting with some of the younger friars. I think he had a way of making us feel as if we mattered. He believed in us. He kind of mentored us into manhood. This older, gifted, highly traveled man was our brother and he loved us and lived with us and was our friend.”
The readings from Ezekiel, Peter and Matthew seemed tailor-made for Mel, with his penchant for travel, his love of missionary work, the great faith that led to the creation of the correspondence course, Build with Living Stones. Having spent major portions of his life in the Philippines and Rome, “Mel was indeed a gift to the nations, truly an instrument of God’s holiness,” Jeff says. Check his personal file and you’ll see that “half of it is permissions to travel.”
Despite his success at every level of the Order, Mel had his demons. He wrote candidly about his struggles with sobriety in a 1995 newsletter from Guest House, a facility dedicated to the care of priests and religious suffering from alcoholism and chemical dependency. “It was 10 years ago this year that I left Guest House, Lake Orion, the recipient of a new gift of life,” he wrote. “Thanks be to God!”
At the age of 74, inspired by the writings of Joan Chittister, “He decided to come here (to Detroit) and put that vast experience and that great heart to the service of God’s people,” Jeff says. “In the end, when he knew that death was approaching, he said, ‘I want to come home.’ ” He told Mark that his fate would be “whatever God wants.”
“He was a tremendous example for us of how to live and in the end, how to die,” Jeff says. “Mel, we love you. We miss you. We are very grateful for your life among us.”