Brother Bernard Fitzgerald

Edward Leo Fitzgerald was born in Omaha, Nebraska on January 29, 1893. He had finished school up to the eigth grade and was a cook at the time he entered New Melleray Abbey. He received the novice’s habit and took the name of Bernard on March 31, 1918, made temporary profession August 15, 1920 and solemn profession August 15, 1923. He was community cook in 1948 and after being sent to found Assumption Abbey New Melleray. Following are some quotations from his letters.

March, 18, 1916

I arrived at the monastery about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, think it was a Saturday. I had walked out from Dubuque (13 miles). I had a room up at the Lodge for a week before I entered the monastery. We had no guest house then. They had about 16 or 17 members then. Dom Alberic was just recovering from a sickness. Br. Stanislaus (Bronnoski) was an old Polish choir brother, bell ringer, and had charge of the bees. They used to pass cider around in those days. Each one got a glass full. One day this old brother after drinking his cider got very talkative and was telling about all his adventures in the Klondike and all over the world. He spoke with a foreign accent. We had a secular priest, an oblate who only stayed a few months. He said Fr. John (Burns) should write a book telling of Br. Stanislaus’ traveling experiences and using his accent. Br. Stanislaus got angry at this and they almost came to blows. This priest was a hot headed Irishman. Fr. John quieted them down. He told me afterward that if Br. Stanislaus took the smallest amount of drink it went to his head.

The old horse barn which used to be a little on this side of the chicken house burned down the first year I was here (1916). They lost a very valuable stock horse in it. They said that it was the largest barn in the State. They built up half of it, and then this burned down four years later, and they lost just about all their fine horses in this fire. They had to buy up all the horses they could get and had some pretty scrubby horses for awhile.

About Abbot Bruno, he never seemed to care about traveling, very devoted to all his religious exercises…and in his sermons used to sometimes tell us how to spend the time…. One of his sermons he brought up very often was about making your life and all religious exercises a thanksgiving or preparation for Communion, used to say it was the greatest act of our lives. He had some very good written sermons. I have often thought of them that they would be worth keeping…. He was always and everywhere the monk….

Father Raphael Stafford, who lived with Br. Bernard both at New Melleray Abbey and Assumption Abbey wrote in his reminiscences:

From 1929 til his death Br. Bernard was a good friend of mine. He made a fine appearance in his younger days with a slim figure and red beard and pleasing ways. He was guestmaster or helper all his days, was always communicative and quoting poems. He did much for the community such as guest-master, dishwashing, gardener, community cook besides all the classes and prayers of the community down the years. He believed mediocrity was the safest path since so many failed in the higher and lower ways. He didn’t sleep well at night but made up for it wherever sleep overtook him especially during classes. He ardently admired Br. Ambrose Corbett’s sanctity and feared for himself whether all his sidelines like growing berries and roses were always done with proper blessings. Shortly before his death I was appointed to help him make whiskey jelly so I could secretly wrest his recipe for it. In the midst of the solemnities he said: “I Just think, in a few days I’ll be up in my eighties.” After a short pause I said: “Up in his eighties he went to Hades.” Br. Bernard giggled so much he couldn’t stop til finally sweeping his arm twice in front of him, he said: “God forbid! God forbid” After talking to anyone he would dismiss himself saying: “Well, I’ll leave you in peace now.” I noticed this especially after telling you about hell, anti-Christ, the end of the world, etc.

He was ever grafting and planting fruit trees and the dozers and cat tractors seemed ever to plow them up so in desparation he cleared a place way up high on the side of the hill south of our old monastery. Not seeing it when I buried the water tank there, I ruthlessly dug up his apple tree and I don’t know how many times he reminded me of it. He went to great lengths starting a strawberry patch up here at our new house. Shortly after he died the crows got them and next year I planted Job’s Tears there. All in all Br. Bernard did very well and could make a rosary as fast as a lady could knit and they were excellent.

Father Benedict Clevenger contributed his reflections on our brother as follows:

Br. Bernard was one of the first monks I met at the Ava monastery as he was the guestmaster at the time I began writing the abbey. He was “personable,” could speak of many things and put me at my ease. He wasn’t in a hurry and so I never felt I was imposing on him. His health was always delicate. He looked frail and thin and had a stooped posture whether sitting or walking. He was quite susceptible to colds and flu. I think he had a particularly hard time with the cold weather–and appreciated lots of warm clothing and a heated room. Ever since I knew him he had a love for flowers and other plants and trees. He was often seen planting them and caring for them and knew how to collect the seeds, how to graft and so on. He could carry on quite a conversation about flowers with some of the guests who were like-minded. He had a pleasant way about him. I never felt forced to be other than myself in his presence. He had an attractive smile. His laugh was always a subdued chuckle but his eyes would sparkle. Basically he was a happy person and had a pleasant sense of humor. His memory was fabulous. There were certain poems and nonsense rhymes which he had memorized that went on and on. I can remember one which played on “Barry” as a man’s name and “Berry” as a fruit. He had an ear for music, too. Although he never sang in choir, he enjoyed certain hymns and psalm tones. When I was cantor, he more than anyone else would have comments to offer on the various things we sang. He would hum to me a melody of a hymn or a psalm tone that he particularly liked. He could also be critical of melodies he didn’t care for. I recall one of Ray Repp’s pieces which he termed “bombastic.” He appreciated my own talent of singing and let it be known to others, even though he never directly told me. It was Br. Bernard who started us on the wine and whiskey jelly. This took place when he was cook for our community. As I think back about his cooking, all I can remember is that it was good and substantial. I don’t remember anyone complaining about it. Just as Br. Bernard could be appreciative and grateful, he also had a discerning mind and could openly express his displeasure for certain situations and behavior. He lived in reality. He was sensitive to what went on. Stinging remarks thrown in his direction he would feel deeply. His inner life with God, I don’t know much about. He followed the brother’s office whether of the Paters and Aves or the small breviary. I remember seeing him often with the rosary. I think he liked to read the older type devotional books such as THE GLORIES OF MARY. I vaguely recall some discussions with him on theological issues. I have no doubt that he had a deep prayer life and that he suffered not only from the austerity of Trappist life in his early years but also from his keenly sensitive character. I always considered him as one of the cornerstones of our community. As far as I could tell he walked along with everyone, i.e. he fit in and tried to live at peace with all. He took his vocation seriously and lived it to the end.

Br. Bernard’s last Superior, Abbot Robert Matter, helped me to collect this information about Br. Bernard and added:

There isn’t really much to be said or can be said about Br. Bernard. If there was anything that stood out in his life it was simply his ordinariness. In his last few years he used to use crutches since he had a sore on his leg. I don’t know if the doctor told him to use crutches or if he just started using them. I would accuse him of wanting to use crutches just so he could have something to lean on when talking to people. It always amused me to see Brother tearing thru the house looking for his crutches. Sometimes he couldn’t remember where he left them.

A week or so before his death he suffered his first noticeable stroke. After that first stroke his end came fast; he was in the infirmary less than a week; he had a peaceful death; died in the night; Fr. Benedict was with him.

It is love, esteem and gratitude that promted me to write this about Br. Bernard who contributed so much to the happiness of my monastic life and to the communities of New Melleray and Assumption Abbeys.