Try a little brotherhood

Author: Emily Howald '05 and Kristen Klein '06

Every year a dozen or more male students choose to live in Old College and explore the possibility of becoming a priest.

Now there’s a place where students can go to begin thinking seriously about becoming a religious brother.

The Bessette House of Discernment opened in January 2005 inside Columba Hall, the Holy Cross Brothers’ residence hall on the west bank of Saint Joseph’s Lake. The program began with six students but currently has only one.

Bessette House—named for the CSCs’ Blessed Brother Andre Bessette—differs from Old College (the house-like structure near the Grotto) in that Old College residents have already demonstrated a serious proclivity to become a priest or brother (almost always a priest), they’ve entered a candidacy program and they now want to immerse themselves in Holy Cross community life.

Those who choose to live in Bessette House are at an earlier stage of discernment, according to Brother Philip Smith, CSC, director of the program and vocation director for the Midwest province of Holy Cross Brothers.

“There are four different choices [of lifestyle for a Catholic]: life in a married state, priesthood, a single lay person or the consecrated sacred life (brotherhood),” the vocation director says. “The purpose of the house is to enable a clear understanding to which of the four lifestyles they are called.”

The difference between being a priest and a brother is priests can say Mass and exercise sacramental ministry while brotherhood is a company of clerical and lay religious men devoted to a mission of service. Both priests and brothers take vows of poverty and celibacy.

The residents of Bessette House are offered the option of taking celibacy and poverty vows, but none in the initial group of six chose to do so; in fact, three even had girlfriends. Participants pay $300 a month to live in Columba, meals included. They have their own bedrooms, and they share a communal kitchen, dining area and a small chapel.

Residents are expected to participate in community service, ideally at least once a week, and make every effort to attend daily Mass. They gather for evening supper and on Wednesday nights read from Scripture and discuss their beliefs.

The decline in priestly vocations in the United States in recent decades has been well-documented, but the situation is even more dire among religious brothers. Currently there are 180 Holy Cross Brothers in the order’s Midwest province. That total includes 20 in Ghana in western Africa. In the past year about 10 brothers have died. The average age of remaining members is nearing 70, according to Brother Robert Fillmore, CSC. In the past 15 years, some U.S. men have shown interest in joining, but only two have taken vows.

Bessette House is about as close as the brotherhood has to a recruitment center. It’s too soon to tell if the initiative will succeed, but the early returns aren’t promising. Of the original six, all have dropped out, and only one new member joined this past fall.

Neumann Jones, who lived at the house while a sophomore at Holy Cross College, the Brothers-run institution adjacent to Saint Mary’s College, said living at Bessette House filled him with a new energy, and he was more disciplined and consistent with his meditation. “It . . . even improved my social life. I have a greater awareness of myself,” he said. Yet he opted out at the end of the 2005 spring semester.

“I just felt like the brotherhood wasn’t a fit for me,” he said. “I didn’t feel this yearning inside to continue it.” He said he is considering becoming a monk instead.

Although only one student, also from Holy Cross, was living at Bessette House fall semester, at least one former resident comes by once a week for spiritual direction, Brother Smith said.