Brother Anthony Toohey

Brother Anthony is an example of the hidden beauty of the contemplative life that is lived in New Melleray Abbey. We can see in his life the origin and development of the monastic vocation. He was born and raised on a farm at Lucan, near London, Ontario, Canada. He told a story about their turkeys, how they would line up abreast in the morning in a great line across the field and walk to the woods, eating insects on the way. Then they would return by themselves in the same way at evening and roost in the trees near the farm house. Two of Br. Anthony’s sisters became Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada: Mother Mercedes and Sister Regina. Sister Regina sent the letters quoted below and wrote:

Brother was an extraordinary person, we all thought and for what it is worth I shall tell what my mother told me when he joined the Trappists. The practical nurse who attended mother at the birth of James (born as we all were at hone) declared that he would be an unusual son. Her reason (call it Irish superstition if you will) was that he had a “veil” covering his tiny face at birth and she considered that a significant indication of an extraordinary child. 

Brother was born on St. Alphonsus Day in August [2, 1889]. His godparents were persistent that he be called Alphonse. After a discussion my father settled the argument by declaring, “James will be his name.”

We were a large happy family of thirteen, including father and mother. Brother was very musically inclined. Before he got a violin, he carved, as a boy, a wooden violin from a piece of soft wood. He took a few lessons on his beloved violin. He even taught my brother Pat to play the newly acquired violin. At that time my father bought a piano and I became a pianist. During the winter evenings we entertained ourselves playing as we called ourselves, the famous orchestra. Usually we were stopped when my father called us to join the family rosary prayer.

Brother discontinued school to help on the 300 acre farm. He was not satisfied, so he returned to school. He traveled by rail to and from college in Stratford. After graduation he was employed by the Grand Trunk Railway in Guelph. A short time later he transferred to the Canadian Pacific Railway. He was assigned to Mattawa. He was a keen business man and became interested in the stock-market. During the holidays he traveled with my brother Dennis across Canada. Most of his holidays he was home with us. He made several retreats, the last one at Oka with the Quebec Trappists. The abbot at that time advised him to get in touch with New Melleray. He would not have the burden of language difficulties.

While at Mattawa he was given the chance of promotion to North Bay. Instead he gave up everything and entered at New Melleray.

Br. Anthony entered New Melleray June 10, 1929; received the novice’s habit December 29, 1929; made temporary profession to Don Bruno Ryan January 1, 1932 and solemn profession to him June 28, 1936. He was proud of the leather belt he received at profession because it had been blessed by Dom Pachome, Abbot of Oka and also by Dom Bruno Ryan of New Melleray. He kept this belt until his death.

When Br. Anthony entered the monastery a hired man did the cooking in the guest house but was not dependable because he sometimes got drunk. One morning in this state he tried to fry eggs for the guests’ breakfast. More eggs were missing the frying pan than were getting in. They were running all over the top of the stove and onto the floor. Br. Anthony was called in to save the situation and became guest house cook for over 30 years. He would go out to the orchard and garden with an old wooden wheelbarrow to gather fruits and vegetables. Many of these he canned for winter use. He was very skilled in repairing furniture and making rosaries. In his last days in the infirmary he still continued rosary-making. He was a quiet, humble, prayerful person with a pleasant manner about him. He laughed when he told the story of the pumpkin pie he served several days on end to Abbot Celsus O’Connell. When the abbot got fed up with it he said: “Brother, don’t give me any more of that old brown pie!” Br. Anthony never wasted time or anything else, but was always working or praying and said that in the winter he prayed extra to make up for the summer time when so much cooking for guests left him less time for prayer. Here is a letter he wrote to his mother on October 29, 1931:

My dear Mother:

I have been receiving letters from all the folks telling of, and expressing joy in the fact that you are once more improving, but yesterday I received a letter from Sr. Mercedes saying that you were not so well, which cast a gloom over me. And I fervently pray that God will grant that you will be very much improved but if not, I may say “May God’s holy will be done.” Now dear I am thinking of you almost constantly and uniting my prayers, Masses, works and Communions with the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Most Sacred Heart of Mary as a continual supplication for you that the most sweet Will of God be done in and by you. Happy is the soul that does and corresponds with His Holy Will. Therefore happy are you whether you get better or pass on to His sweet embrace. It may be that God is only sending you another trial or it may be that He wants your dear soul. Now while meditating on those things, I take great consolation in hearing that you are so resigned and content. I feel very glad that you are getting such good care and indeed, there can nothing be done that you are not fully worthy of, and have well earned. There is nothing so dear on earth as a Mother and there is only one Mother dearer to us all than you and that is our Heavenly Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary and she is also your Mother. So we all fly in full confidence to Her with the anticipation that the day will come when we shall all kneel at her most sacred feet to thank, honour and praise Her for all she is doing for us…. I am happy to kneel at the foot of the altar here before the Blessed Sacrament and intercede for you, having in mind the days when I knelt at your knees while you taught me to pray. This is one of the many things I can thank you for.

Your sickness was announced in Chapter here, the whole Community being asked to pray for you, while you were also remembered in Masses. So, although I dearly long to see you, I console myself in being so much better to help you, do so much more for you here. It pains me to have to close this as I could keep on writing to you dear indefinitely. I will continue to pray–pray, and may God bless you with oceans of love. Your loving son…

A devotion dear to Br. Anthony and many in the Community was The Way Of The Cross. He was often seen making the Stations at night after Compline.

Mr. Thomas J. Drennan, a dear friend of our Community for many years wrote an accurate description of Br. Anthony to brother’s sister, Mother Mercedes that is worth quoting:

Dear Mother M. Mercedes: Jan. 15, 1945

By way of introduction., please permit me to say, I’m a Mr. Drennan, a friend of your good and saintly brother at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa. It has for a number of years been my custom to, now and again, spend a few days at New Melleray Abbey. My friendship with good Bro. Anthony dates back to about fourteen years ago. To be a friend of that saintly man is a friendship that I cherish very much and I think often of him. To me he is the ideal monk. Always he seems the soul of cheerfulness, and his infectious smile from that open countenance impresses all whose privilege it is to meet him. The rigors of the Trappist life, he seems to take in stride. Nothing of the mortician demeanor about Bro. Anthony. His lively sense of humor, I much enjoy. I tell him funny stories and his alertness of mind in grasping the point, followed by his hearty laughter, is heart-warming. His ability as a cook, it makes me hungry to write, recalling it. Everyone praises the delicious meals he serves. One half of the praise he receives for his excellence in the culinary arts would turn the head of any housewife were it bestowed on her. But to me the outstanding and fascinating trait in the good monk is his deep spirituality. And with true humility does the good man carry that inestimable treasure. Frankly, (and I’m not writing in a mood of hyperbole) when I’ve stood in the kitchen at the monastery chatting with Bro. Anthony, I’ve had the feeling that in that brown clad monk, I’m in the presence of true greatness. So deftly has the chisel of spiritual sculpture been wielded on that honest soul, that charity in its essence seem the diffusing results. But, most respectful Mother, with all the admiration I have for Bro. Anthony, I confess that I harbor an envy of him. That envy is, I am envious because I cannot emulate him.

Br. Anthony’s health and strength declined a bit in the 1960’s but he still continued cooking, especially pies, canning and cutting meat for the guest house. He even repaired big, heavy feeding tables for cattle and his delicious apple sauce was often served to the Community. Here is a letter of this period he wrote to his sister:

Dear Sister Regina: March 5, 1962 

I rather think I would be unfair to you if I did not write before Lent set in. I was very happy to receive your last letter. I do hope you are well to carry on the good work you are about. I read so much about the important work nuns are doing. But of course not without much labor on account of the worldly attitudes of the people–pleasure, comfort and gain. I pray and hope that your recompense will be great in heaven, and that M. Mercedes is now enjoying the rewards of her part in the same work which she fulfilled to the very end…

We are snowed in here, snowing every day, but not too cold. Many here have been laid up with the flu. I did escape but got a very bad head cold, and am still bringing up oysters. Thank God I did escape this time, I was bad enough last year. Thank God, after it all I never felt better for a long time than I do now. So I am going around thanking God all the time and throwing in some for you also. I would like to take you through the new Infirmary. Thanks to Br. George’s good planning, it is a peach. Retreats are still going strong too, only had 45 young men this week end. That is a good sign faith is much alive….

Br. Anthony got a room in this infirmary and I often visited him there. He once gave a beautiful description of death, saying: “Jesus comes and says, ‘Come, my child.” He had arthritis and sometimes had to lay down because of the pain. He also had cancer and the various ailments of old age. Near the end his eye sight was so poor that he said it was like looking into a fog and he got dizzy spells. Every evening I took him for a walk and made a visit with him to the Blessed Sacrament. A group of us prayed the rosary together in his room and he was most happy when priests offered holy Mass in his room. Sometimes on entering his room his face seemed to glow and filled me with reverence for the working of God in him. It was a real grace and spiritual experience to know him and be associated with him. Now I pray to him and experience his help. He died a peaceful, happy death surrounded by the Community praying for him. There was the joy of a child returning to God. This happened just after we had sung Vespers for the Solemnity of the Founders of The Cistercian order, January 25, 1973.