Brother Stephen Joyce

A visiting priest who met Br. Stephen at the abbey said he never found such a mixture of heaven and earth as he did in Br. Stephen. He contributed very much to the spiritual and human beauty of monastic life at New Melleray.

He was born in Galway, Ireland, on November 27, 1883 and named after St. Patrick. He remembered as a boy that his family gathered to watch the first car go down the road in front of their house. His brother was a champion shot-putter in Ireland but Br. Stephen considered it vanity. He also had a brother who was a policeman in the United States. Br. Stephen was a farmer and liked outdoor work. He also did road work under the county engineer for five years. He entered the Capuchin Order in Ireland but left before final vows and joined the Trappists to get the outside work he needed. He entered New Melleray Abbey August 13, 1927 and received the novice’s habit from Dom Bruno Ryan March 11, 1928. He made simple vows on August 20, 1930 and solemn vows June 28, 1936. He said there were 30 in the Community when he came.

He impressed me very much from the time I entered in 1948. He was the biggest and toughest looking monk here. He seemed to be on horseback herding cattle more than on the ground. His skin was thick and weather-beaten and he wore a very coarse brown religious habit that well matched it. I used to think it was made out of leather. You could smell horses and cattle as soon as you came close to him. He was simple and conscientious about his spiritual life and work. Sometimes I helped him in the evening when a cow was calving. He would make every effort to get back to church for evening prayers with the Community even if he would be late. I never heard anyone pray as beautifully as Br. Stephen when he said the Our Fathers and Hail Marys for the lay brothers’ Office. Though work often took him away from community exercises his heart was always with the community. 

We took long horseback rides working on the cattle. I couldn’t speak to him at the time but he told me many stories of Ireland and what he learned as a boy at school, including stories of the Child Jesus from the apocryphal Gospel. When he told me the story of Nebuchadnezzar (in Daniel 4) he laughed that a man would have a name like that and eat grass like an ox. He felt sick himself to see a sick animal and told me nothing needs more help than a sick animal. He noticed a steer bleating one day after its horns were sawed off and called a veterinarian who came and sewed the artery, saving the steer’s life. In the fall he would pick black walnuts, husk, dry and sell them to a grocer in Dubuque. The husking turned his hands black.

He was very helpful and charitable towards his brothers, as when he joined us in the oats harvest. He must have weighed over 260 pounds. Br. Thomas O’Donnell told us that years ago they used big, heavy wooden gate posts. Once they went to get four farm hands to lift a post into a hole. Br. Stephen came up and did it by himself. He could stick a bale of straw with a pitch fork and throw it overhead into the barn loft. Br. Malloy, our vet, said he never knew anyone who could recognize cattle as well as Br. Stephen and never knew a good cattle man who liked pigs. I remember one time helping Br. Thomas on the pigs. Br. Stephen came up to tell Br. Thomas something. I never saw such a disgusted look on his face when he got near the pigs and he wouldn’t even enter the hog house. Another time he fell from a hay loft and his hand went into cow manure. He just got up and made the Sign of the Cross.

On horseback one can get much closer to wild animals than on foot. Swallows fly around us. Once two little calves ran up to look at us and Br. Stephen said: “See how nice they are.” He killed a skunk one day and thought it didn’t spray him. When he sat down in the chapter room that evening for the reading before Compline, the brother next to him got up and left. Then all the brothers near him left. Finally Abbot Bruno told him to leave. The skunk had gotten Br. Stephen after all. Once a horse he was riding slipped in the snow and fell, breaking Brother’s foot. Another time he drank gasoline from a jug, thinking it was a soft drink. He sure spit it out quickly. As he yelled at the cattle so he sometimes yelled at his helpers and asked for a helper with thick skin.

Br. Stephen spoke Gaelic fluently and used it on the cattle. He had a strong Irish brogue. Once he went to confession to an Irish retreat master and Father asked him what part of Galway he came from. He asked Fr. Vincent Daly how the priest knew he came from Galway and Fr. Vincent replied: “All you have to do is open your mouth for anyone to know that.” The tenderness of Br. Stephen came through in many ways, as when he saw a canary someone had given us in the infirmary. He asked the Infirmarian to make a little nest of rags for it.

Br. Ailbe Collins wrote this about Br. Stephen: 

He was still a novice when I came (in 1929) and was helping at the dairy barn. Later he was in charge of the sheep. He had a whistle to which they responded pretty good. Br. Stephen was the kind of man one could easily make a wrong judgment about. He was rough and rugged on the outside and one could easily mistake it for “hard boiled” as they say. Yet I found out thru the years that the contrary would be much closer to the truth. I found out on many occasions how tenderhearted and compassionate he was. Abbot Vincent knew him pretty well and he told me one time it took him by surprise to find out how softhearted he was. I remember one time in the early days there was a steeplejack painting the cupolas on top of the roof. Just about noon time there were half a dozen of us by the bell tower looking up at him. Brother Steve came down the path, and as he approached he too stood and looked up. I was standing right in front of him. His face turned quite pale and he became quite tense. “Praise be to God,” he said, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”, and he crossed himself. It was quite dramatic the way he said it. He was quite solicitous for the man he saw on the tip-top of the cross, and whom he felt sure would come tumbling down any second. At his early days at the cattle he was very worried about the cattle at calving time. He would even go out in the middle of the night to see them. Abbot Vincent (he was then in his simple vows) used to go with him. One night he called at Br. Vincent’s couch and then went outside to wait for him. After a long wait Brother was not coming so he went back a second time and there was Br. Vincent sitting on the edge of the couch, one shoe on and sound asleep. Later when he became abbot he put a stop to Br. Steve going out at night and the cattle got on alright. He sure was strong and healthy those early days. He came in with a half dozen icicles hanging down from his beard, his chest all exposed and you could see his bare shin bones.

About the last ten years of his life he had an enlarged heart and gradually lost some of his size, strength and vigor, but he rode horses til near the end of his life and worked til the very end. When he first met me after I returned from helping our Indonesian monastery for five years he embraced me and cried. We were close and I still pray to him every day. It seemed veny fitting the way he died. He had started the monastic day as usual and received Holy Communion, then at the community high mass he got a heart attack and died on January 28, 1966 during our community retreat.