Remember Brother Aubert Downey, C.F.X.

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This article was originally published in a series of reflections based on the lives of Xaverian Brothers who have played influential roles in the life and development of the Congregation in America. They are written in commemoration of the Xaverian Brothers 150th Anniversary of their arrival in America in 1854.

Written by Brother Thomas Ryan, C.F.X.

“He remained an incurable romantic, longing for the smell of burning turf, the heft of a hurling stick, or one glimpse of the moon that hangs so low.”

“Ordinarily the one well person on the staff of the Home; the rest, ten or twelve coughing their heads off, all of them vivid ads for undertaking services.”

“His eyesight failed until he would poke his face so close to a book that he seemed to be reading through a system of nasal Braille.”

“In all he spent thirteen years at the Juniorate and left his heart at Oak Hill among the Macintyre architecture, the greener grass, the fatter cows, and the milkier milk.”

“A year later he was on the sick list, but he was still the tall, handsome young man who exuded charm and fraternal charity.”

“He taught more than one middle-aged man with a Peter Pan complex that it was possible to grow old gracefully and usefully.”

“He went off to the wars promptly like everybody else in those primitive days. For forty-nine years he was just another G.I., slogging along in the mud and carrying out his infinitesimal part in the Great Effort.”

“This was the famed O.P.C.C. which would shine tonight and for many years in a kind of nostalgic glow. It was a Booth Tarkington world in the aftermath of WW I”

“In his final illness, however, as he wasted away, he was himself once again, afraid to be afraid.”

“He was breath-taking in teaching a class, running a summer camp, starring in athletics, or just roughing it. School boys in Bruges, Mayfield, and the States looked up to him in awe. To them he was Superman.”

“Just about five feet tall, with a smile always on his face, he was a fluttery, bird-like simple soul for whom everyone felt a personal responsibility. He was everybody’s friend.”

“A courteous gentleman in the true sense of the word, he was in many ways a character out of Dickens: his cadaverous look, his shuffling gait, and his corny jokes repeated ad infinitum.”

“A restless soul who served in sixteen assignments, he usually moved on to the next mission in the wake of a controversy which he had fathered in some crusading moment.”

“The most wraith-like of corporeal beings, he constituted himself the anonymous protagonist of the aspirants, novices and scholastics. Many a one of them saved from the ax never knew why.”

“Often enough, carried away by his teaching, his voice would rise to a volume that burst the narrow bounds of the classroom and re-echoed in the corridors. A casual passerby always knew in what part of Gaul Caesar’s legions were marching.”

“With his resonant voice, his portly dignity, and his Old World courtesy, this diminutive soul could have played the role of the ambassador from Lilliput.”

“Excitable and nervous in any position of authority, he may have wilted, but he never flinched.”

“In his twenty-two years with us, he found his cross in accepting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when he was shunted from pillar to post and back again.”

“A Falstaffian character, gruff and big of paunch and good company, he suddenly loomed a hero when cancer began to eat away his nose. His best work was done from his bedside at the Holy Ghost Hospital for Incurables.”

“He was a prodigious worker, mentally and physically, and he had no patience with ordinary mortals who have to flub-dub around. At the Generalate he caused a lifting of eyebrows when he pointed out what a grand job one bull-dozer could do in getting rid of all those ruins cluttering up the Eternal City.”

“His was the personal touch, the appeal to the individual. He had that magic something which inspired lasting affection. It could have been fraternal charity.”

The preceding selection of quotations is taken from the Xaverian Menology, the sketch book of our deceased members that was compiled by Br. Aubert beginning in the mid-1950’s. Formally published in 1958 with the blessing of then-provincial Br. Nilus, the Menology was withdrawn for a time after two Brothers who were asked to review it took umbrage with more than fifty of the entries and recommended they be re-written. A number of the selections just quoted fall into that four decade old “hit list” category. What a blot it would be on the congregational escutcheon to read that Brother A was “affectionately referred to as ‘Old Buzz’” or that Brother B, known as “Doc” took care of the alternatives when “embalming was a luxury for the poor.” It seems so ironic.

During the past fifteen years the menology entries have proudly saluted, and rightly so, the return to complete sobriety of various brothers after years of battling the disease of alcoholism. However, “a compulsive obsession for ice cream” was deemed an inappropriate description when the menology was first published. As Brother Aubert stated in a July 7, 1958, letter to Brother Nilus, “All I want is to have the young learn about the valiant who have gone on before them.” He had the wisdom to realize that individual flaws, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies were part and parcel of the great personal and professional history passed on to the younger members. And as Br. Nilus would write in the menology introduction, “These sketches are intended primarily for use in our houses of training to give some insight into the personalities of those who in the days of their years bore the ‘heat and burden’ as Xaverians. They are not prepared with the idea of canonizing the individual. There is no moral or forced lesson injected into each sketch. The fact that the Brother persevered until the end is lesson enough to encourage us all.”

Brother Aubert continued to share that wisdom with his brothers until two months before he passed away at age eighty-eight in April of 1980. In a letter written to me and dated February 25, 1980, he wrote, “I have to call it ‘quits’ on the Menology. Along with other woes, I am having trouble with me eyes. We need somebody new to cope. The complications get me (have gotten me) DOWN. Am enclosing two rough drafts on Conrad Toohey. I’m stuck. You go on.” This letter, along with more than 150 others he wrote to me between 1975 and 1980, are a cherished part of my own Xaverian heritage and of the man who represented to me all the finest in CFX.

I first met Brother Aubert in July of 1966 when I was a postulant at the St. Joseph Novitiate located on the former property of The Working Boys’ Home in Newton Highlands, MA. At that time he was seventy-four years old and living in semi-retirement in the “professed” quarters of the stately Winchester Street building which housed both the novitiate and the provincialate.

Brother Aubert had begun his association with the Xaverian Brothers in 1903 when he entered our juniorate at St. John’s Normal School in Danvers; the name “Prep” was still a few seasons down the road. That was forty-five years before I was even born. So, regrettably, I did not know Brother Aubert during his active ministry years when, besides enjoying the reputation as a superb teacher, he served as Headmaster of Keith Academy and his alma mater St. John’s Prep, Director of The Working Boys’ Home, Provincial Assistant and acting Provincial, and set the Congregation on the road to re-discovering itself with his formal research, study and interpretation of our history which resulted in his life of Theodore Ryken, several Cyrenians and the Xaverian Menology with which he was still actively involved when I joined the Order.

His weekday classes with the novices on the history of the founder and the Congregation were filled with humor and humanity. There would be at least one daily hour of our collective novitiate experience that would be a constant enjoyment. It didn’t take long to realize that this erudite man with the somewhat gruff exterior was really a very shy individual who would turn beet red in a few seconds if a spotlight was directed toward him. The cigarette holder that he wielded might convey a cosmopolitan aura. I had never seen anyone use a holder until my first assignment to collect the dishes and left-over food from the third floor. Brother Aubert was enjoying an after-lunch smoke in that inner sanctum known as the professed dining room but welcomed me in to clean up with questions about my background and family. But as exteriorly sophisticated as he might have seemed, he was a down-to-earth religious with a marvelous wry sense of humor who I firmly believe cloaked his shyness and devotion to his Xaverian confreres through his prolific writings. He truly loved his brothers in religion, his congregation and its heritage, and he expressed that in no better way than the labor of love, which became our Menology.

And if there was one Xaverian whom Br. Aubert loved and respected above all, it was Brother Peter Celestine Fahey. The Felix and Oscar of Xaverianism, these two men’s lives intertwined both in active ministry (The Working Boys’ Home) and in retirement (the Newton novitiate). John Carroll Fahey was born in 1905 which made him twelve years Br. Aubert’s junior. Known as Johnny Fahey to the townspeople of Stoughton where he was employed as a short-order cook at Gunboat Smith’s diner, he entered the Congregation in 1926. The diner’s proprietor and other members of the local citizenry, who had financed young Johnny’s trip to Old Point with the understanding he would pay them back when he realized he couldn’t endure the rigors of religious life, would form the nucleus for the legion of humorous stories with which Br. Peter would regale his brothers in religion during his fifty-nine years with us.

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Photo: Brother Peter and the boys.

In a play on “Get thee behind me, Satan,” Br. Aubert was usually the prompt to initiate the story telling. The active ministries of Br. Aubert and Br. Peter could not have been more divergent – the first as teacher, headmaster and administrator; the latter as surrogate father to grade school age boys in child care institutions for more than thirty years. In his “Profiles of Brotherhood,” published in 1995, the late Br. Thomas More Page, a resident of St. Mary’s Industrial School in the early 1930’s, wrote these words about his experience: “The Brother who had the greatest influence on me at St. Mary’s was Peter Celestine, known to all of us as simply Br. Pete. When he became prefect of 4 Dormitory, discipline and rigidity gave way to gentleness and concern. The dormitory at night was a lively place, with the radio on, card games, and good-natured rough housing. Pete’s great gift was that he could make you feel happy. For us kids that was a priceless gift. Without being a psychologist, Peter knew that you could tell a child anything, that you could open up for the child the wonder of life and the vagaries of the human psyche, and in opening up that world he could make the child sense the dignity of his own person.”

Brother Peter and Brother Aubert spent many years working together at The Working Boys Home and then both lived there as members of the professed community from 1961 to 1975 when the home was converted to St. Joseph’s Novitiate. Any novice of that time period has to agree that the relationship between Br. Aubert and Br. Peter was the quintessential reflection of fraternal love and respect. I can still visualize the three of them (Pete’s dog Cindy completed the trio) taking their evening stroll on the roadway surrounding the gymnasium with “Sam,” the name Aubert always used when referring to Peter, and Cindy both limping along from the effects of arthritis and diabetes beside him. When Cindy could muster enough energy to howl at an errant squirrel who crossed their path, Br. Aubert would stop and reprimand her with, “Say it in English, Cindy.”

When it was decided that the novitiate property was to be sold, I requested permission to attend Boston College summer school and reside at Newton Highlands. I wasn’t interested if the course I planned to take at BC would count toward my MA credits at Assumption College in Worcester; I just wanted to experience a final two months at Newton, knowing that the long-running team of Aubert and Sam would soon be coming to an end. Without a houseful of novices for whom he could supervise the kitchen and food preparation and do some cooking himself, Br. Peter had taken more and more to his bed. Br. Aubert confided to me about his dear friend’s depression, and we connived together that students (the late Ken Roeltgen would spend that summer at Newton also) taking courses at BC would need a driver. Needing to be needed again, Pete was on call every morning to shuttle us to Chestnut Hill. In the evenings Ken and I would take to the back seat of the station wagon as Aubert and Sam took rides throughout the Newton neighborhoods on routes they had been following for years or delivered surplus Dorothy Muriel baked goods to the many convents in the area.

Br. Aubert’s generosity to the grammar school Sisters who in past years worked side-by-side with the brothers was legendary. I never spent a more enjoyable summer. In the fall Br. Aubert would be moving to the Malden Catholic community to be close to his brother in Somerville. Br. Peter was lost; it was the first time in his life he had to choose where he wanted to live. Again, Br. Aubert came to the rescue. He coaxed Ken and me to convince Br. Peter to move to Shrewsbury which he did, and for the next ten years his gentleness, simplicity, sense of humor and wealth of stories provided the stuff of memories that do not fade.

Shortly after Br. Peter arrived in Shrewsbury, Brother Aubert asked me to keep him up-to-date on “Sam’s” progress. That request began an almost weekly exchange of letters between the two of us that lasted from late 1975 until February of 1980. Much of the letters’ contents had to do with Br. Aubert’s answers to my questions about menology entries, but there was always some reference to his beloved “Sam.” Describing an Easter Sunday visit Br. Peter made to Malden, he wrote: “The Honorable Plenipotentiary from Shrewsbury was in great form. Said diplomatic envoy attacked with vigor the “Tab,” praising its qualities as an excellent soft drink – no protest on cutting saccharine. Same gent had ice cream and cake with, ‘It’s permitted on Sunday, and Easter is a Sunday.’ ‘I never knew that’!’”

Brother Aubert passed away in April of 1980; seventy-three years after he entered the Juniorate on Spring Street in Danvers. Brother Peter lived on for five more years in Shrewsbury, the final six months spent at the Shrewsbury Nursing Home where the complications of diabetes, heart disease and pancreatic cancer ravaged his body but not his ability to smile and laugh. He died on May 19, 1985, the feast of Pope Peter Celestine. One can only imagine the menology entry Br. Aubert would have written. When Br. Peter was procurator at The Home in Newton, his main supplier of meat was the Newton Center Market. When Joe Berg, one of the owners, came to pay his respects at Br. Peter’s wake, he said the following prayer at the coffin: “May the death of my brother whom I now mourn cause me to reflect. My brother has been an inspiration, example, and guide during his life on earth. I know no purer spirit, exponent of love, and man among men.” To me Brother Aubert and Brother Peter Celestine personify that prayer, and their fraternal love for one another will always be a cherished memory.

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3 Comments

  1. Peter C. Corbett says:

    I lived in the Working Boys’ Home between 1949-1953.

    It was there where this abused & battered boy found someone to love & care for him. I believe that being there that my life was saved. I was between 10-14 years old.
    Brother Aubert & Brother Peter Celestine was a big part of my life, as were those Brothers stationed there in those years. It is where I considered that my life had begun. The best four years in this young boys life. May all those Xaverian Brothers whom had given me a part of their lives caring for & loving this boy. May they Rest in Peace.

  2. Dennis Deveckx says:

    I lived at the WBH from 1955-1959. My question is.. what year was the photo (Brother Peter and the boys) taken? The boy in the upper right, standing with dark jersey, looks exactly like me. Was this taken on WBH property?.. the building doesn’t look familiar, but it has been a long time.

    Thank you for doing this, lots of memories.
    Dennis

  3. Hey there! I’ve been reading your website for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you
    a shout out from Humble Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic job!

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