One of my St. Joe’s classmates I remember with pleasure is the late Dick Fleshren. He joined my class in fifth year, the college freshman year, in the fall of 1966, and we were roommates that year. Dick was older than the rest of us by at least eight years; he had been recruited in Atlanta by the friars at Immaculate Conception Church, a downtown parish near the gateway to the ‘Atlanta Underground,” staffed by my Franciscan province for some years. I quickly learned—as did the whole Callicoon student body--that Dick was an excellent organist, but he had also been a driver for Greyhound, covering the route between Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, before entering the formation program at St. Joe’s, making him also a “senior transportation engineer” through our future years in formation together.
I look back with better wisdom about how difficult it must have been for those “belated vocation” candidates who had to endure one or two years of boarding school with younger and less mature characters like me. But Dick took it in stride, even the nickname we gave him, “The Dude.” [I cannot remember the etymology of that name tag.] Dick had a pleasant southern drawl and mannerisms; I think the best way to curry up an image today is to think of the Leslie Howard/Ashley Wilkes character in “Gone with the Wind.” He could even tell a rare dirty joke with class. At Sunday cocktail hours later in our Washington formation, I would be finished guzzling my second Manhattan in the time it took Dick to surgically prepare his cocktail du jour. I cannot swear that he concocted mint julips, but it would not surprise me if he had. When I confided this week to Johnny Burke that I was writing about the Dude, John correctly observed that “he showed us how to be gentlemen.”
Despite our age differences, he was a good friend to me and took me very seriously. We were quite different in temperament, but he and I had many conversations on a variety of things. Frequently we talked about liturgy and music, given our interests in that area which was changing dramatically in the immediate years after Vatican II. One Sunday evening in the spring of 1967 when we were conversing on a walk, Father Florian Walczyk, the music director, approached us and asked if we would lead the Latin singing of the outdoor Litany of the Saints Procession over the next three mornings, the “Rogation Days” observance leading up to Ascension Thursday. It was quite an honor to do it, and to do it with Dick, and it is one of my fondest memories of Callicoon. [Truth be told, the Dude did most of the heavy lifting in that duo and he covered for my lapses.]
We continued together through the formation program, to novitiate and the major seminary program in Washington, D.C. We remained friends and worked on musical ministry together. However, with the considerable number of older students in formation at the major seminary level, I think he found more social support in the classes ahead of us and I gravitated toward my own peers. My memory is a little fuzzy: it is possible he was ordained a year ahead of me, in 1973, [I was ordained in 1974] because of his age. The final years of priestly formation inevitably create new pressures on old friendships as our apostolic field assignments took us in different directions; in my case, I was heavily involved in our teenagers’ weekend retreat programs and planning for my post-ordination future, my goal to become a retreat master. It was my understanding that Dick was heading to parish ministry.
My province was quite large in numbers and geographic expanse half a century ago, and it was hard to keep track of what and how old friends were doing once we broke camp from formation. Dick did pursue parish ministry in New Jersey. I was shanghaied by the New York superiors into a college chaplaincy, a parish of two thousand college kids! It turned out to be a terrific experience, and it afforded me the opportunity to give retreats to sisters’ communities throughout New England when the students were away. I became wrapped up in my world, particularly when I moved to Florida four years later to become a young pastor outside of Orlando in the shadow of Disneyworld. At some point in my parish work I heard second or third hand that Dick had left the friars and the priesthood. I had no idea why, and truthfully it was not my business. I hoped he was happy, for I could not imagine him as anything else than a priest. He was one of those friars who must have brought great consolation and compassion in the confessional. But my young life was full and successful in the Orlando suburbs, and I did not think much about my confreres who were laboring or leaving through the 1980’s. As for Dick, I just assumed our paths would never cross again. So I thought...
Some years later, like Dick, the priesthood and the fraternal life were too much a burden to bear for me, too. I too formally left the friars [exclaustration in 1989] and the active priestly ministry [through laicization in 1998] and received Vatican permission to marry. My future wife Margaret and I were sitting in the parish office with our pastor, the legendary Monsignor Patrick J. Caverly, to do our marriage paperwork and plan our October wedding. When we finished the legalities, our pastor said: “Look, you are both fifty years old. You have both been in religious life. [My fiancé was a Dominican sister for seven years during my formation years.] I am not going to make you attend the diocesan pre-Cana classes. But I might suggest that you both make a retreat with the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey.” The abbey is located on the Cooper River about thirty miles outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Monsignor was in the custom of making retreat there for many years.
We agreed and spent four days there that July. I was wondering how the monks were going to house an unmarried couple. As it turned out, we were assigned adjacent rooms in a cottage-like outbuilding for retreatants. We still laugh about that. The land for Mepkin Abbey had been donated to the Trappists by Henry Luce and Clare Booth Luce, one of America’s “power couples” who are buried in one of the Abbey’s several cemeteries. The abbey itself was established in 1949. In his diary, when the Trappist Thomas Merton in Kentucky learned of the foundation of the new abbey in South Carolina, he wrote that he did not want to be reassigned there, fearing he would run afoul of snakes and alligators. There are a few gators in the ponds on the grounds of Mepkin, but they seem pretty domesticated. I have never seen a snake in 23 years.
I fell in love with Mepkin Abbey and Trappist spirituality for too many reasons to enumerate here, and Margaret and I made regular retreats over the years till the Covid pandemic curtailed the retreat program. I feel truly fortunate that during Margaret and my early years of making annual retreats there, the community’s abbot was an extraordinary churchman, Father Francis Kline, OCSO. Father Francis was a Julliard graduate who, after entering the Trappists, studied theology in Rome. I was lucky enough to have several conversations with him during our early stays, despite the tremendous pressures on his time. It was during one such conversation we discovered we both knew Dick Fleshren! I never expected that. I wish I could remember the whole contexts of the conversations, but it seems that Father Francis recorded CDs of organ music for purchase at the Abbey’s gift store. The recordings were made at the Atlanta cathedral, which contains the finest pipe organ in the region. The work had to be completed in the dead of night to avoid interference from traffic noise. Father Francis explained that Dick turned the pages of his music during recording sessions. Unfortunately, I did not think to inquire much about Dick’s life at that time; I was always hesitant to eat up the abbot’s precious time, and as often happens, I figured I would have more time down the road to connect with the Dude.
But a reunion was not to be. On June 29, 2001, Dick died after a prolonged illness. I did not take notice of his death because three months earlier, on March 30, Margaret’s son/my stepson Danny was killed by a drunk driver on his way to work outside of Orlando, just down the road from a Catholic school where my wife had been principal. Danny was twenty-six; Margaret and I had a difficult year. During that time, I wrote to Holy Name Province after a 12-year silence to ask for prayers, and my old Order graciously posted my email address in the weekly newsletter. As a result, several old Callicoon classmates reached out and reconnected with me, all of whom had been classmates with Dick at St. Joe’s.
The next spring, 2002, I was establishing a private mental practice and my wife was principal of the academy of our parish here in Central Florida—our new church was dedicated. Monsignor Caverly, a major donor to Mepkin Abbey, invited the abbot, Father Francis, to come down to Florida for the celebration. At the banquet in the evening, I had a chance to have a longer talk with Father Francis about Dick. As Dick’s illness had progressed and he needed care and assistance, Father Francis discovered that Dick had never canonically left the Order by exclaustration. Technically, according to the abbot, Dick was still a member of Holy Name Province. It seems that Father Francis functioned as an emissary between Dick and the friars in his last days to establish reunion of some kind.
Sadly, the abbot Father Francis himself died five years later in 2006 in the prime of his life, struck down by a form of cancer that required periodic treatment in New York City. My wife visited him during a business trip to New York, and they shared a lengthy lunch at a nearby restaurant. Margaret told me about a remarkable insight from the dying Trappist: “I believe I have been given this illness so that I may teach my monks how to die.” This is the kind of leadership Father Francis provided to all his charges, and why we remember him with love.
Margaret and I continued our relationship with Mepkin and made our most recent retreat in the fall of 2019, just before Covid curtailed on-site retreats for several years. [I should add, though, that the Abbey has developed creative on-line services, including monthly Zoom group meetings in which clusters of six Mepkin “alumni” meet to discuss an assigned spiritual text. Margaret and I joined this program at its inception.] During our 2019 retreat, I had time to visit the abbey’s extensive library of monastic literature, a large research center and part of Father Francis’ vision for the monks. It is located near the abbey’s chapel and burial grounds. I stopped to read the monument list of major donors of the library, arranged in groups or circles. I discovered that one of the donor circles was named after “Richard L. Fleshren.” Evidently, he had been remembered fondly by the monks and their supporters.
And more to the point, I deduced that Mepkin had been a significant spiritual home to him. I was happy for him and, having been changed myself by years of association with Mepkin and the Trappist blessings, I can easily see why The Dude would have felt at home here. Located in the deep South, near Charleston, Mepkin’s scenery and silence would have allowed him the reflection and quiet that, even in our formation years, he seemed to hunger for. Moreover, the monks—for all the strict observance to routine—are the most warm and hospitable hosts to folks of all faiths and all kinds of suffering. Their table is simple and vegetarian; their chapels blissfully austere; their prayerful interaction—as I have encountered it in my hour-long annual general confessions, for example—have fed my soul to overflowing. It was good to know that Dick’s feet trod this sacred ground.
This year, 2022, for the first time Margaret and I were invited to the Abbey’s Founders Day observance. We drove up to South Carolina for the Sunday [November 13] event last weekend. We attended Mass in the abbey and the annual blessing of the monks’ graves, and then had time to kill before the evening concert and dinner. We spent part of it “doing our Zoom homework” for our next on-line meeting with our Mepkin lay support group, reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation in the retreatants’ chapel named after the late abbot, Father Francis. Then, on a beautiful fall afternoon, we proceeded to visit the abbey’s columbarium where our ashes will be interred at our death. We continued our walk past the Henry Luce Family cemetery garden to a small cemetery I had never noticed before. It contained a modest collection of flat grave markers, most of them from the early 2000’s or thereabouts.
And then I happened to look down, and at my feet was a marker which read “Richard L. Fleshren OFM.” How fitting that he came to final rest in a site where the monks would pray for him every day. What struck me, too, was the “OFM.” I have no idea whether this symbolized a legal/personal reunion with the friars or whether, in his soul, this is how Dick wished to be remembered. I like to think both.
As I made communion thanksgiving last night at Saturday Mass, I prayed for Dick, and for all the guys I had the privilege of knowing in Callicoon who have gone on to eternal rest. I also had to smile at the fact that in death I would be interred just down the path from the gentleman I first met on Aroma Hill in the college dorm. I hope that at our next meeting The Dude finds me a quieter, more settled man, no pun intended.