Tag Archives: St. John's University

Catholic writer J.F. Powers remembered through his letters

November 22, 2013


“Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of a Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963,” edited by Katherine A. Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, 2013. 450 pp., $35.

powers cover

Spending the last few weeks peeking into the life of the late Catholic writer J. F. Powers through a collection of his letters made me wonder, does anyone write letters like these any more?

Powers, the long-time professor of English and writer-in-residence at St. John University in Collegeville, used his gift for the language in frequent missives to friends and colleagues, which makes this collection of his letters read much like a memoir, or better yet a novel.

Perhaps cyberspace holds all the emails and social media messages we peck out nowadays, and perhaps and a tech-minded historian will be able to pull them down and gather them into book form. But I’d be surprised if any achieve the literary quality of those that Power’s daughter Katherine A. Powers has adroitly edited and packaged.

Take this sample from a letter in which he describes the long-time leader of St. John’s Abbey, Benedictine Abbot Alcuin Deutsch:

“He is a good man, but his last name is Deutsch, and if he’s like a lot of other Germans, and I think he is, he expects to get to heaven for not having made any impractical moves during his stay on earth. I have often wondered why they didn’t try to prove, somewhere along the line, that Jesus Christ received a gold watch for 33 years of service.”

That Powers ended up living much of his life in Minnesota’s German-plentiful Stearns County and working for the German Benedictines at St. John’s is just one of the ironies of the man’s life.

An good writer, but a poor one

“Suitable Accommodations” makes for interesting reading because it takes us into the mind of this unique character, a man author Evelyn Waugh tabbed “one of our greatest storytellers,” an author who won the National Book Award for his first novel yet never achieved the success he felt was his destiny.

Perhaps because his specialty was priests his was a limited audience and not populist fare.

The award-winning “Morte D’Urban,” the novel about a charming Midwestern priest who is as much a man of the world as he is a man of God, sold only 25,000 copies or so, and failed to receive the kind of promotion one might expect from a publisher like Doubleday.

Many of even the earliest letters — the collection covers 1942 to 1963 — foreshadow the life James Farl Powers was to live.

He refers to a steady job as “prostitution . . . masking itself as ‘honest labor.’ ”

He decries people who take the “safe” way through life with “a good position” or “in business for himself” with “nice homes.”

The irony, and it’s in the title of this collection, is that Powers was consistently writing in his letters about trying to find “suitable accommodations” both for his then-growing family and for a place with the peace and quiet to allow him to write.

Every so often he leans for money on his good friend Father Harvey Egan, pleading to the priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for funds to keep the wolf from the door until the mail brings a much-anticipated check for a short story he has submitted to The New Yorker or to one of the small-circulation literary magazines that have purchased his work over the years.

The late Father Egan, a one-of-a-kind himself as the pastor in later years of ultra-progressive St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis, gets credit for preserving many of Powers’ letters.

None of which fits, however, when you read in a 1947 letter to Father Egan that Powers’ tastes in liturgy lean toward the conservative. Living in Avon, not far from where Powers is teaching at St. John’s University, he writes:

“We like to go to St. John’s [Abbey Church] because there is no lay participation, or I do. I am only slowly getting the idea that I am surrounded by people who are working night and day for things like the dialogue Mass. Imagine my dismay at the discrepancy between the party line and my own feelings in these matters.”

Later he’ll refer to himself as “anti-laical” but also “anticlerical.”

Along with letters Powers wrote, his daughter has included a handful of entries from his journal. Often they show a man in despair: “May 18, 1959: Out of gas — creatively . . . I feel absolutely powerless these days to prevent financial ruin. Ideas for stories don’t come.” And just eight days later: “Money, money, money — this is the answer to every question confronting me.”

Man of many interests

Scraps of Powers’ varied interest show up regularly. He’s fond of playing the horses, especially during the family’s several stints living in Ireland.

He follows the minor-league St. Paul Saints baseball team, keeps abreast of the gossip surrounding the design of the new Abbey Church at St. John’s, chimes in a number of idea for names of the new National Football League team being established in the Twin Cities in 1961, would have preferred the Democrats had nominated his friend Eugene McCarthy instead of John F. Kennedy to run in the 1960 presidential election.

“I did not, and do not, like Kennedy. That doesn’t mean he’s no better than Nixon. . . . Gene McCarthy nominated him . . . in the best speech of the convention. Too bad it isn’t Gene instead of Jack, if we have to have a Catholic. I understand Pope John’s already packing. I think we can use him, too.”

He refused military service during World War II, was imprisoned for it and released to do compulsory work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.

A curmudgeon if there ever was one, he  was against the Legion of Decency (which rated movies for decades according to Catholic morals), wasn’t thrilled that fasting regulations were eased, agreed with author Evelyn Waugh that he was more of a short story writer than a novelist and presciently had this to say about Calvin Griffith, the tight-fisted owner of the then new Minnesota Twins baseball team: “I do not think Cal will ever put our welfare before his own.”

It’s such good writing you’ll be disappointed that the letters end with 1963. You’ll want to know the rest of the J.F. Powers story, but daughter Katherine explains well at the volume’s end why that won’t happen.

That epitaph one should read on one’s own…bz

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Tribute to Adam

August 6, 2013


From left, Steve, Tyler, Lisa, Ryan and Rachel Gott hold the championship trophy for the lacrosse tournament in honor of Adam, the son of Steve and Lisa who died in a motorbike accident last summer. The tournament was held at Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood July 13 and 14. Photo by Lori Wietecki / Special to The Catholic Spirit

From left, Steve, Tyler, Lisa, Ryan and Rachel Gott hold the championship trophy for the lacrosse tournament in honor of Adam, the son of Steve and Lisa who died in a motorbike accident last summer. The tournament was held at Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood July 13 and 14. Photo by Lori Wietecki / Special to The Catholic Spirit


A replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà sits upon the mantle in the home of my friends, Steve and Lisa Gott. It has been there for years. The sculpture depicts Mary with her head tilted and eyes closed in prayerful mourning, cradling her beloved son after he was crucified.

The prophets foretold Jesus’ death, so Mary must have been prepared a little, but no matter the circumstances, losing a child must be the most terrible thing in the world. The Pietà on the Gotts’ mantle now holds significant meaning for them because they’ve experienced Mary’s pain firsthand.

Every parent’s fear

During the month of June last year, Steve and Lisa were happily spending their days with their son Adam and his three siblings: Tyler, Ryan and Rachel. Adam, a graduate of Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood, had moved out of Tommie Hall at St. John’s University and into his old bedroom at their home in Stillwater. He had just wrapped up his freshman year and was looking forward to playing lacrosse and working his summer job as a painter for their friends’ company, Fresh Paint.

On the last day of June, Steve took his sons Ryan, who was 22, and Adam, 19, golfing and then to a car show. “When we got home, Adam packed a bag and headed to a family friend’s cabin. It was the last time I talked to him,” said Steve.

After 5:30 Mass that evening at their parish, St. Michael in Stillwater, the Gotts received the type of phone call that every parent fears. It was one of Adam’s buddies. “Adam had an accident,” the young man cried. Steve and Lisa drove two hours to the hospital in Sandstone. The rosary was recited the whole way. They phoned a nurse there who told them, “Doctors are having difficulty finding a pulse.”

When they got to the emergency room’s parking lot, they saw their family friends outside. “Is he alive?” the hopeful parents asked.

Lisa told me through tears that when they heard the words “No,” she sank to her knees. Adam’s college friend, who also had played lacrosse with him at Hill-Murray, picked the mourning mother up and brought both parents into the hospital to see their son.

This young man had been with Adam a few hours earlier riding a motorbike. Adam hit a tree when it was his turn. Even though he was wearing a helmet, he had suffered a hard blow to the head. His buddy bravely administered CPR while waiting for help, but Adam died on impact.

Their Pieta

Now when I go to the Gott’s home and examine the Pietà, I also see a representation of Lisa and Steve holding Adam. I think of a story Lisa told me the day after his accident:

 “When I was getting ready to view Adam’s body at the funeral home, I prayed for the Blessed Mother’s intercession. I said, ‘Mary, help me get through this.’ As I cradled Adam and had my face in his hair, I begged Mary once again to help me. As I was kneeling beside him, my body began to tingle and I felt lifted or supported. . . and then I saw Adam with Mary and I knew he was OK.”

Adam’s faith

Adam’s parents, who were chairs for the Catholic Services Appeal in 2009 and 2010, are thankful he had a K-12 Catholic education, plus one year to learn more about his religion at St. John’s. They believe the values and character traits that are developed in a Catholic environment are priceless. Knowing that their child had a strong faith and that he died with the graces of a good relationship with God has given them comfort.

Something else that gives Steve great comfort is the memories he stows in his heart of the medical mission trip to Peru he took with Adam a few years ago. At this clinic in South America, Adam worked with his father, who is an anesthesiologist.The young man mostly assisted with the Peruvian children before and after their surgeries. He always had a gift with kids and a smile that captivated people. He used these talents in everything, from helping the needy to coaching during mini youth camps at Hill-Murray even after he graduated.

For his myriad volunteer activities, Adam was awarded a Gold Level Service Award from Hill-Murray when he was a student.

After the accident, his employers at Fresh Paint established the Adam Gott Scholarship at Hill-Murray, which awards a junior or senior $1,000 for tuition. They wanted to honor Adam because he exemplified the ideals of a Hill-Murray student through his dedication to academics while maintaining high levels of athleticism and service to the community. Those who knew Adam are excited about this scholarship because, in his short 19 years, he was an ambitious leader who centered his life on his Christian faith.

Adam was an altar server through high school. In the funeral homily, Father Michael Miller said, “When I first became pastor at St. Michael’s, one of the Dominican sisters at St. Croix Catholic told me to keep an eye out for Adam Gott because he was a special kid who loved his Catholic faith.”

The night before he died, Adam’s friends were teasing him because of a decision he had to make. He told them, “God will decide what is supposed to happen because he decides everything in my life.” His mother said that her son trusted in the Lord and had a good-natured contentment because he knew life wasn’t centered on himself; life was about God’s will.

A day after Adam’s death, friends gathered in the chapel at Hill-Murray. It was overflowing with people who, in a time of shock and sadness, chose to be in a holy place that reminded them of their friend.

The tournament

That same chapel was filled once again on July 13. The first annual Gott to Lax tournament was held on the weekend of July 13 and 14 at Hill-Murray, with Mass celebrated during the event. This tournament was the brainchild of Adam’s high school coaches, Greg and Kristy Visich, who also served as tournament directors.

They were happy to do something in Adam’s memory because their family is better for having known him. “Our children grew up with Adam as a strong role model within the Catholic faith, in his service to the community, and simply in his daily demonstration of treating people with respect and kindness” they said.

They also said that Adam, who played the position of attack, was always a natural leader and earned the designation of captain at both the JV and varsity level. A trophy emblazoned with Adam’s silhouette was presented by the Gotts to the tournament champions from Prior Lake on July 14.

Nine high school boys’ teams participated, with more teams put on a waiting list. Hundreds of people attended, and it is estimated that the event raised $20,000. Proceeds benefit the newly established Adam Gott Collegiate Club Lacrosse Player Fee Scholarship Fund.

The vast majority of high school lacrosse players continue at the college club level and the cost to participate in these programs ranges from $500 to $3,000 per academic year. Many students simply can’t afford the added expense, and this scholarship will help. For more information visit http://www.penguinlacrosse.com.

Among the 100 volunteers at the event was Adam’s father, who served as the medical representative. “Adam was a very frugal accounting major,” Steve said. “After he passed away, we found a spreadsheet on his computer that organized his spending. He’d be happy to know that there’s funding now available to help college students.”

Lisa told me after it ended, “If there was a way that Adam saw this tournament, he’d have been so thrilled to see everyone having so much fun. It was an unbelievable weekend.”





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Monk’s poetry invites us to view biblical stories and characters from non-traditional perspectives

January 16, 2009


“God Drops and Loses Things,”

by Kilian McDonnell

Bible stories we’ve read before, biblical characters we’ve met before, but never this way. That’s what fills the pages of Benedictine Father Kilian McDonnell’s third book of poetry (St. John’s University Press).

Perhaps you — like myself — feel you are out of your area of expertise in reading, no less reviewing, poetry. But take a chance, challenge yourself and try to see with the eyes of this monk from St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.

I stuck a Post-It note on at least a dozen of the nearly 50 works because they said something to me.

For one thing, Killian gives a voice to the women of Holy Scripture — Miriam, for example, and Mary Magdalene — whose thoughts the Bible authors mainly ignored.

My favorite might be “Widow Rachel: Matchmaker,” as much a short essay as a poem, but cleverly imagined thoughts from the mind of a woman trying to find a wife for the carpenter, who doesn’t seem to be interested:

“Mary needs grandchildren. The man is thirty and still at home with his mother, so of course the women whisper as they gather at the market stalls.”

It’s a treasure.

See how quickly you find the “prodigal daughter” entry.

Moving from the Hebrew Testament to the New Testament, Father Kilian re-writes parables with a new, imagined tone that somehow makes the stories of Jesus mean more to today’s hearer.

I loved “The Catholic Thing,” an accusation in poetic form that correctly charges us Christians with being so unchristian at times.

Toward the end Kilian favors us with a few pieces that come from his person — family and Benedictine family — that are filled with rich images, take us to the places he chooses to share with all of us. We’re so blessed that he does. — bz
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