By Rev. James Flint, OSB
This article first appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of the Clerestory
In 1942, on the feast day of St. Procopius [July 4], our patriarchal Abbot Procopius Neuzil recorded in the chronicle he kept for the community:
St. Procopius’ Feast Day, the patron of our monastery, was a festive day of Church unification of all Slavs in the Catholic Church. A Mass was celebrated in the Greek Rite in the Old Slavonic language, concelebrated by our members Fr. Chrysostom Tarasevicz and Athanasius Reszecz, O.S.B., which was served by our clerics of the Slavic Rite: Ven. Frater Methodius Royko, O.S.B., and Demetrius Kovalchik, O.S.B. The participating singers of the Latin Rite, under the direction of Rev. Fr. Vladimir Vanchik, S.Th.D., of Eastern Rite, performed the Chants in the Old Slavonic language during the Mass and in honor of Sts. Cyril and Methodius during the blessing of the statues of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.
The Church Unity work, which in practice meant the effort to heal the rift between Catholics and Orthodox, was very near to the heart of Abbot Prokop, and I have little doubt that he was the prime mover in the installation of these statues of the brothers Cyril and Methodius. These were placed in the grove overlooking the sunken garden between College Road and Benedictine Hall, and there the saints presided over the life of St. Procopius College for close to sixty years.
Around the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, a series of decisions brought about a massive transformation of the campus. Two new halls were placed between Benedictine Hall and the road, and the sunken garden and all that it included disappeared. For the statues of Cyril and Methodius, there began a twenty-year period during which they lacked a secure home.
I’m not sure I can recall all their temporary dwellings, but the following come to mind:
an outdoor storage area, where they shared space with other objects that had lost their original campus location;
the outer office of the Literature and Communications department, one of whose faculty had taken an interest in the statues;
outside Lownik Hall, which gave them a prominent location, but never seemed quite right, without them being on a pedestal or some such.
In the spring of 2021, on Good Friday, I walked to the Abbey cemetery, and I was a bit distressed to see Cyril and Methodius lying outside the gates, looking abandoned and most forlorn. This sight was a reminder, certainly, of the vanity of all earthly renown!
Happily, all unbeknownst to myself, other plans for the future of the statues were maturing. For some years now, the Czech Mission in Brookfield, Illinois, perhaps fourteen miles from the Abbey, has sought to preserve a close relationship with my community, whose heritage, of course, is also Czech. Before the death of Fr. Odilo Crkva in 2015, both the director of the mission, Monsignor Dusan Hladik, and many of the congregation would come to the Abbey for our monthly Czech Mass.
Though more rarely after the death of Fr. Odilo (he was the last here in Lisle to have a real speaking ability with Czech), the Mission several times a year would come to pray at the Abbey and its cemetery. Perhaps on one of these visits the plight of the Cyril and Methodius statues was noted. In any case, the administration of the University was approached as to its willingness to donate them to the Czech Mission. Agreement was reached, and not long after my walk to the cemetery, the statues were moved to Brookfield.
A few months later, on Sunday, July 11, 2021, Abbot Austin and I drove to Brookfield to attend and concelebrate at the Mass (offered in Czech—but we did our best!), after which the Abbot formally conducted the blessing of the two statues in their new location.
Monsignor Dusan Hladik’s sermon at Mass was in Czech, and so I could only follow it in very general terms. However, it clearly included an historical survey of the importance of these saints, both in their own time and for the Slavic peoples in the eleven centuries since. One comment struck me forcibly: in the same summer of 1942 that these statues were first installed at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Hitler’s armies were driving eastward towards Stalingrad.
That got me to thinking about all that the world was going through at that time. 1942 might seem very far away to me, but then I remind myself that this was the year in which my parents were married! Abbot Dismas Kalcic was present as a thirteen-year-old at another of Abbot Procopius Neuzil’s activities that summer, the blessing of the Lidice memorial in Crest Hill, Illinois, near Joliet. Lidice, of course, was the village destroyed—all men shot, the women and children deported— by the National Socialist regime in retribution for the assassination in Prague earlier that year of Reinhard Heydrich.
It is not my intent to claim that Americans of my own and succeeding generations have had an easy time of life. I am not sure that any generation since the Garden of Eden has had an “easy time.” Ease, in the sense of the fullness of peace, is not part of the postlapsarian human condition! Individually and collectively, each generation has its sorrows.
That said, I still feel gratitude and relief to have been spared in my experience the horror that extended over so much of the globe during the Second World War and the years immediately following, when countries such as Czechoslovakia were obliged to endure one tyranny in place of another. One of those I spoke with in Brookfield after the blessing was a gentleman who remembered gratefully my monastery giving him a job, and indeed a home, after he was obliged to leave his Czech homeland in the years after the war. Many people during that era had far less happy endings to their stories.
All of which should lead Americans to be thankful to God for his blessings on their land. Germany’s Otto von Bismarck grumbled words to the effect that God in a special way looks out for infants, drunks, and the United States of America. The Iron Chancellor did not mean that altogether in an admiring sense! And yet, what greater compliment could be spoken of any nation? All of which should occasionally move Americans to an examination of conscience, as to how well we have cooperated with God’s goodness in our regard.
Personally, I was thrilled by what seems a most happy ending to the tale of the statues! Circumstances change, and it cannot be expected that every shrine important to one generation shall remain significant indefinitely. But it is very good that, when such occurs, creative thinking allows a way to preserve the best of the past.