By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published May 18, 2006
Father Francis Xavier Kavanagh, OCSO, a founder of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit and the senior monk of the nine Trappist monasteries for men in the United States, died late in the evening on May 9. He was nearly 94 years old and would have celebrated 75 years as a monk this August.
“He was the face—the icon—of the monastery for many years,” said Abbot Francis Michael Stiteler, OCSO, who was welcomed himself in 1974 when he entered the community by Father Francis Xavier.
In addition to being one of the 20 monks who made the foundation in 1944, Father Francis Xavier was known to hundreds, if not thousands, in the Atlanta area because he gave them tours of the monastery when they visited as schoolchildren. He also corresponded with many who wrote thank-you letters.
“Oftentimes when I’m out of the monastery as abbot on some official business, at a church or someplace else, people inevitably will come up to me and say, ‘Is that little priest out at the monastery still alive, the one who led the tours?’” the abbot said in his funeral homily. “He’s just known by so many people and that’s so different from what he thought when he came to the monastery. When he came and thought he would live this hidden, quiet life, God had other plans; God had other ideas.”
Father Francis Xavier was guestmaster at the retreat house from 1968 to 1981. Until very recently, he was the monk who closed up the abbey church following night prayer. His good cheer and smile were the last memory visitors would have when the doors closed for the night and they had to leave the monastery grounds. He had been the sacristan who kept the church clean.
He also celebrated Mass in Latin at 5:15 a.m. at a side chapel in the abbey church every morning, in addition to the community Mass, well into his 80s until he was no longer physically able.
“I worked with him much in the Retreat House in the 1970s and 1980s,” Father Tom Francis, OCSO, recalled. “We did not have as many visitors and retreatants as we now do, but neither did we have much help either. Francis had to do all the booking, and he and I did the cleaning and making of beds. He was always cheerful, never complained, and did just as St. Benedict wrote in his Rule, ‘Let the guestmaster receive all as Christ himself.’”
The highlight was clearly giving tours to children when the monk could show his own high spirits, Father Tom Francis continued.
“His big joy was taking children around the monastery, and he did this for over 40 years. He was really like a ‘Pied Piper,’ but his flute was his evident joy and love to be childlike among them. And they knew it, flocking around him as he greeted them, gave them candy and cool drinks. At the end of the tour, outside he told them that they were to have a race; when he counted three they would start. When he got to ‘two,’ Francis bolted, then shouted back, ‘Three.’ Of course, he won the race, but the kids were just a riot of joy and laughter, not feeling cheated at all! There is something Christ-like in that memory of Francis and the kids.”
The abbot noted that Father Francis Xavier always found candy to give to visiting children, which was not so easy to do in the restricted monastic environment. “We had it on big feast days and if there was any left over, you could be sure Father Francis, if Father Luke didn’t get there first, would have scooped it all up. He had it hidden all over the place. The last couple of days, when I went to look at his room and to clean his desk, sure enough—3 Musketeers.”
A diminutive, wiry figure, Father Francis Xavier, whose given name was Francis, came from a Philadelphia family of six children and had several brothers who were priests. Born June 18, 1912, he waited one year after his high school graduation to enter Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky and said in an oral history that he picked the Trappist order because he thought it would be the most severe and demanding. He entered Gethsemani on Aug. 31, 1931. Changes following the Second Vatican Council relaxed some of the most severe fasts and extended silence he would have known for three decades as a monk, the abbot reflected at the funeral Mass May 13.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that: a 19-year-old from Philadelphia who wanted to come to a place of prayer, a place of penance, a place of silence,” the abbot said in his homily. “I can’t imagine him silent—I know him as someone who was always affable, greeting people, happy to be with people, but those first 30 years (as a monk) he was silent, quietly about his business. Someday I’ll get to see those years more clearly, but for now I’m willing to accept it as mystery.”
Father Francis Xavier made his solemn vows as a brother on Nov. 15, 1936 and was ordained a priest on Sept. 24, 1938. On March 19, 1944, he was named one of the 20 who would leave on March 21 for Georgia to begin the new Trappist foundation.
In the oral history of Holy Spirit Monastery compiled by Drs. Dewey and Victor Kramer, he said he had not wanted to leave Gethsemani.
“Well, two days before we came down here, the names were called out, on the feast of St. Joseph, and I did not care to come, but through obedience I came,” he recalled. “… There was no volunteering at all. … The abbot said we were making a new foundation. So he said, ‘Here are the names of those who are going,’ and my name was called out.”
When the monks arrived in Rockdale County, they lived in the only structure on the property, which was a working barn. Father Francis Xavier said his job was to clean out the barn.
“When we first came there, we had to get all the manure out of the barn where we slept. That was my job, to get that manure out of there,” he recalled in the oral history. “… We got (the cows) out and put them in some other place, and the chickens were close by, and the place where we ate was right across from where we stayed, and it was a very cold place, too.”
He worked at the sawmill they established on the grounds where the monks made lumber out of the trees they felled in order to build their first wooden monastery.
“I don’t know how many feet of lumber I piled up,” he recalled. “I once asked the lumberman, ‘How many feet of lumber do you think we cut?’ He said, ‘About two million.’ I believed him.”
Father Methodius Telnack, OCSO, said Father Francis Xavier “put a human face on the Trappist image.”
When Father Methodius first visited the monastery as a Catholic University of America student on retreat, Father Francis Xavier immediately gave him encouragement, standing him in front of a mirror and pointing out that he’d look good in the tonsure-style haircut monks wore at the time.
“He just kind of accepted the fact from the time that I showed up that I was going to join,” Father Methodius said. “I had no idea. He treated it as a fait accompli, which it turned out it was.”
“You always got a straight answer from him,” he said. “I don’t think of him ever as being critical. I don’t believe I ever heard him say anything bad about anybody.”
Father Francis Michael said he would say Father Francis Xavier “was a saint,” but “he probably wouldn’t want me to say that.”
The abbot said Father Francis Xavier had a quotation posted in his room from a Presbyterian minister, Henry Van Dyke. It said, “Who seeks for Heaven alone to save his soul may keep the path, but will not reach the goal. While he who walks in love may wander far, yet God will bring him where the Blessed are.”
“I think it’s a good testimony of our Father Francis Xavier, who went about his business very simply, very quietly, very humbly doing his duty. He would want me to tell you that he did dishes all the time when he was called to do it for 75 years,” the abbot said. “… And so we get to celebrate this monk, this priest, this brother, this uncle who has gone before us and has given us an example: Unless you become like little children you cannot even enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. It’s certainly what his life proclaimed.”
Immediately following the funeral Mass, Father Francis Xavier was buried in the monks’ cemetery behind the abbey church. He is survived by one sister, Rita O’Connell, of Drexel Hill, Pa., three nieces, Rita Marie, Teresa and Patricia, and eight grandnieces.
Those wishing to honor the memory of Father Francis Xavier may send a donation to the monastery to help with the care of the infirm monks. The Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit is located at 2625 Highway 212, SW, Conyers, GA 30094. The full text of the abbot’s homily at the funeral Mass and audio of Father Francis Xavier leading a decade of the rosary and speaking to the community on his 50th anniversary as a monk can be found atwww.trappist.net.