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20-Year Jesuit Reunion for Select Few : Ex-Novices, Priests Return to Relive Early Memories

September 13, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — One was greeted as Frater (Latin for brother) Willers, the other Frater McKenzie, when they arrived at the Jesuit novitiate in the hills above this city on Sept. 7, 1965. They were 18 years old and anxious; but each man believed that God was leading him to the greatest vocation on Earth.

Today, Chris Willers is a Jesuit priest living in Oakland. Chris McKenzie, who left the order after four years, teaches English at Belmont High School in Los Angeles.

For several years the two men were estranged by an unspoken understanding that one had succeeded while the other had strayed from the path. But since mending their friendship, they began to wonder what had become of the other youths who entered the order with such conviction 20 years ago.

Last weekend, McKenzie and Willers, both 38, hosted an event that is unheard of, they said, in religious communities--a reunion not only of those brothers who continued in religious life, but also those who never went on to make the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Of the 85 men who entered the Santa Barbara seminary--the sole Jesuit novitiate for men from California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada--in the years 1964, 1965 and 1966, 28 former novices showed up for Saturday's reunion at the hacienda-style house that used to serve as the novitiate. (It's now used mostly for retreats. There is a new novitiate house next door.)

Worldly Path

Eight of the reunion-goers are currently Jesuit priests; the Jesuits historically have been the largest and most powerful order in the Catholic Church. Some of those who had left the order arrived with wives and children, evidence of the worldly path they had chosen.

"I looked forward to this more than to my 20-year high school reunion," said John Aldrian, principal of a school for the retarded in Riverside County. In his shirt pocket he had a 20-year-old picture of himself wearing his black cassock, as well as a snapshot of his 2-year-old son, Eric. "I feel so much closer to these people than to my high school friends. I was very happy here. I really was."

Willers agreed that the feelings stirred by the get-together were more profound than those inspired by the usual 20-year reunion. "We're not here to see our old drinking buddies," Willers said. "These are the men we prayed with, and intended to become priests with."

Justin Green, 11, was anxious for the Mass to be over so that he could get his skateboard out of the family van and explore the hilly grounds of the novitiate, which commands broad views of the city, sea and mountains.

"He (my father) was going to be a priest, now he's a probation officer," Justin explained.

Steve Green of Santa Maria said that although he has never concealed the fact that he was a Jesuit novice as a youth, he doesn't talk much about it to his family or friends because it is a difficult experience to explain.

"Some people are kind of awed by it, some hold it against you," Green said.

Baseball Games

"We used to play baseball out here where the lemon trees are," Green, 37, remembered as he gestured toward the lawn in front of the residence. "We planted pickle weed all over the place (many of the reunion attendees hiked off to see what the years had done to their planting projects). At night we'd sit out here on the porch and watch the sunset."

Justin said that he could never see himself entering a novitiate as his father once did. He competes in bicycle motocross racing every weekend, he said, and the religious life would interfere with his hobby.

Over in the new novitiate building, the young men who had entered the seminary the week before were observing a three-day silence.

The reunion-goers passed by a few of the youths as they walked on the grounds. For Chris O'Hearn, it was an upsetting meeting. He said he could see his own youthful face in the young men, and he knew some of these novices would be ordained, as he had once hoped to be.

"Even though it was my decision to leave the order, I haven't 100% come to terms with it," said O'Hearn, a professor of English at Harbor College in San Pedro.

O'Hearn said he left the community after the first year to work out some personal concerns, with the resolve that he would return. He reapplied three years later and a series of delays finally forced him to continue his life outside the religious community, he said.

"I'm married and have three children now, but this (the pain of leaving the community) has never totally healed," he said. "I'm hoping that being here today will help."

One who stayed was Tom Weston.

"I was 18 years old when I came here," said the Jesuit priest, who was wearing worn jeans and a flannel shirt, with a fashionably stubbly red beard. "I'd been drunk a few times, been out with a couple of ladies and thought I was real slick. What a very, very young person I was."

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