Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Home for Christmas

Minnesota always tends to be cold at Christmas... but two recent losses in the ranks there have made this season even more stinging than usual.

Benedictine Brother Dietrich Reinhart -- the "visionary" president of St John's University, Collegeville since 1991 -- died yesterday morning at 59 after a battle with cancer:
Enrollment rose 9 percent under his leadership. The endowment grew to more than $145 million. A capital campaign exceeded its $150 million goal.

But when people talk about Brother Dietrich Reinhart, longtime president of St. John's University, they mention few numbers.

Instead, they describe his incredible vision for the Catholic school in Collegeville, Minn. -- one that will last long after his death.

Reinhart, 59, became St. John's 11th president in 1991 and retired in October after announcing that cancer had spread to his lungs and brain. In a letter to the school's board of regents, he described the situation as "impossible, but not hopeless."

He died Monday morning in the retirement center at St. John's Abbey.

For his inaugural speech in September 1991, he chose a topic "that, surprisingly, is not easy to talk about" -- the identity of a Catholic college. It's a theme he'd delve into, in conversations and speeches, throughout his presidency.

"The task before us is to make explicit the values at the heart of our schools," he said in May. "Powerful values that were pervasive when monks and sisters predominated on our faculties, and have lived on as sources of inspiration as monastic colleagues have become fewer and fewer in number."

Scholars note that some Catholic colleges define themselves by what they're not, rather than by what they are, said Bill Cahoy, dean of St. John's school of theology. They are not Protestant, for example, not secular.

Others are intent on being "wide-open" and in the process lose their identity, he said.

Under Reinhart's leadership, St. John's strove to be certain of its Catholic identity, but hospitable to people of other faiths.

"Not open in spite of being Catholic, but open and inclusive because we're so rooted in Catholicism," Cahoy said. "There's something about that that's very monastic."...

In an interview taped this month, Reinhart expressed gratitude for being part of an institution with service at its core and excitement about the "great place" that St. John's would be in 2025. The completed video, including that interview, had been planned for a tribute in January commemorating his retirement, spokesman Michael Hemmesch said.

During that interview, Reinhart, with a soft voice and a smile, said that the school's "best days are yet to come."

"That's my mantra for St. John's," he said. "Our best days are yet to come."
A major project of Reinhart's tenure has been the decade-long making of the St John's Bible -- the first full-size, illuminated edition of the Scriptures in modern days.

The Benedictine was on hand in Rome last April as a copy was presented to Pope Benedict, who called it a "great work of art."

Meanwhile, in the Twin Cities, the loss of Emilie Lemmons -- a columnist for the archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis' Catholic Spirit who blogged about new motherhood and the 16-month journey with soft-tissue sarcoma that claimed her on Christmas Eve at 40 -- has been felt far and wide:
"Thank you for sharing your words of insight," a reader of her last column wrote on the Web site of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Dec. 27, three days after Lemmons died. "So, here, even after you are gone, you will continue to touch new lives."

Lemmons wrote in her monthly column for The Catholic Spirit and in her blog -- Lemmondrops -- about her struggles with terminal cancer, the guilt she felt about leaving her two young sons motherless, the resentment she felt about the prospect of dying at such a young age, and how she had endeavored to place the outcome of her life in the hands of God, so that she could live in the present and enjoy the time she had left with the people she loved.

"Emilie would tell you she was not courageous, but everyone who saw her go through this, or read her words, would definitely call her courageous," Pat Norby, Catholic Spirit news editor, told Catholic News Service Dec. 29, just hours before Lemmons' funeral Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. "When you read her column or blog, you can see what a spiritual person she was and how she continued to struggle and know who God was in her life. I trust that is who she is with today."

Born in Portland, Ore., to Vincent and Nancy Ast, she earned a degree in English literature from Columbia University in New York, taught English for the Mississippi Teacher Corps and was a writer for the Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Miss., before joining the staff of The Catholic Spirit Feb. 16, 1998, Norby said.

"She was a great reporter, who won wonderful awards from the Catholic Press Association," Norby said. "She was a wonderful professional writer, reporter, a wonderful mother and spouse. She was a great friend to so many people."

Shortly after Lemmons' son Daniel was born in August 2006, she decided to leave her full-time position at The Catholic Spirit, but continued to freelance for the newspaper and eventually began writing her monthly column, "Notes From a New Mom," and her blog, said Joe Towalski, editor of The Catholic Spirit.

"In many ways, her columns resembled her blog posts," Towalski wrote in an upcoming column in honor of Lemmons. "The writing was personal. Over time, it was apparent that parenthood and then her devastating illness were changing the way she viewed life and faith. It was a journey she was willing, thankfully, to share with Catholic Spirit readers."

Past blog posts and columns reveal that Lemmons was diagnosed with sarcoma -- an aggressive form of cancer of the connective tissues -- during her 2007 pregnancy with her second son, Benjamin. After his birth in March 2008 she learned from her doctors that, in her case, the illness was not curable through medication or surgery.

"More recently, Emilie wrote about her up-and-down struggles with cancer," Towalski said in his tribute column. "She submitted her last column to The Catholic Spirit just a few weeks before she died -- a reflection on searching for Advent joy from a 40-year-old woman facing stage 4 cancer that was getting worse."

Lemmons' final column talks about how releasing her fate to God allowed her to live in peace.

"What if I trust that even if I die tomorrow or next month or next year things will somehow work out?" she pondered in her column. "What if I allow myself to put the outcome in God's hands and just live intensely in the present, absorbing and embracing life as it happens? It's not indifference or admitting defeat; it's seeing the bigger picture."

Hours after Lemmons' death, her husband Stephen posted the news on the Lemmondrops blog. A short time later readers began posting messages of sympathy. Most of the messages stated that her writing inspired them to embrace the joys of everyday life.