St. Nick's Outlaws
By Jim Colombo
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Copyright 2001 Jim Colombo
Father Junipero Serra built seven of the twenty-one missions in California, He
began at San Diego and the last mission was built in Sonoma. The Russians explored
Alaska down through Canada to Fort Ross in Northern California. Sutter’s Mill was where
gold was discovered in 1849. The Valley of the Moon is the famous wine country flanked
by Napa and Sonoma. In the middle of this history and rich soil is St. Helena, California,
home to Mount La Salle, where novitiates come to find out if they are called by God to
become Christian Brothers. Mount La Salle is also home to the Christian Brother’s Winery.
The order is over five hundred years old, and began in France. The white bib that they
wear today is the same style as worn by Brother La Salle, the founder. The Christian
Brothers are teachers, and make wine to help pay the cost of universities, high schools,
and the tuition to Mount La Salle Seminary. Their label is respected as one of California’s
fine wines. About sixty miles northeast of San Francisco on Highway 29, between Napa
and Calistoga, is St. Helena. There is an arch of trees as you enter the small, quiet town
that most people pass through on their way to the wineries of Napa or the mineral springs
of Calistoga. It was mid-March, and nature was beginning to wake up from winter. The
brown trees were sprouting new green leaves of spring.
Brother Raymond drove a blue 1960 Chevrolet and turned left from Highway 29 to
the entrance of Mount La Salle. He parked in the visitor parking at the entrance, got out,
and looked around at his Alma Mater. Brother Gabriel stood by the double door, and
greeted Brother Raymond. Brother Gabriel was seventy years old, and had taught
theology to Brother Raymond thirty years ago. He was hunched over and looked up to
most people. His white hair hung over his bifocal glasses. He was a slender, frail man. He
waved and said, "Good to see you again, Brother Raymond. How was the drive from San
"Scenic, Brother Gabriel. The valley looks and smells renewed for springtime. The
hills are starting to grow grass, and the air is filled with pollen," said Brother Raymond.
"I’ll call Brother Paul, and tell him that you have arrived."
"Thank you, Brother Gabriel."
Brother Gabriel walked to the desk and dialed Brother Paul’s extension. "Hello,
Brother Paul. Brother Raymond is here…. Yes, Brother, I will tell him. Thank you,
"Brother Paul has reserved the room overlooking the rose garden. He knows that
you like roses. It is down this way to the end of the patio." Brother Gabriel turned his
arthritic body slowly and pointed the way.
A dirt path lined with fluffy round yellow and orange flowers twists down the hill
behind the chapel to a group of five white cottages that are guesthouses for visiting
brothers. Each accommodates four with beds, closets, two bathrooms, and an area for
praying. The day begins at six with prayer, then breakfast, teaching, lunch, teaching,
prayer, dinner at seven, meditation, and vespers: evening pray. Some brothers
substitute meditation for singing Gregorian chants. Mount La Salle teaches four years of
high school, preparing the novice for St. Mary’s College in Moraga, near Berkeley.
There the novice studies for nine years prior to being ordained a Christian Brother with
a Ph.D. in a discipline such as Business, Science, or the Humanities. Brother Paul is a
theologian, and one of the Regents for the Christian Brothers’ Schools of California.
Brother Raymond will stay the weekend, and seek guidance.
Brother Raymond entered the cottage and saw that it was vacant. He chose the bed
by the window, relaxed for a while, then washed up for dinner. A typical dinner is a salad,
fish or chicken that is baked or broiled, a vegetable, homemade bread and wine. The
Brothers grow their own vegetables and have fruit trees. In the back there is a rabbit hutch
and a chicken coop. The Brothers barter wine for fresh fish from a famous family that owns
restaurants in San Francisco. The sloping hills are covered with mature grapevines that
are tended with loving care by Mexican farm workers. They are paid very little, but are told
that they will be rewarded one day in heaven for tending to God’s vineyards.
Brother Raymond sat at the end of the dinner table with other guests. Occasionally,
some of the local gentry join the Brothers for dinner and a tour of the winery. The guests
leave with a bottle of wine. A golden plate on an oak table by the exit accepts donations.
Brother Thomas is the head master at Mount La Salle, and is responsible for the
curriculum, the guiding of novices, and the winery. He sits at the head of a thick forty foot
long oak table that was imported from Paris and has large captain’s chairs made of oak.
The dishes are made of English bone china with gold trim around the edges from the
house of Lenox. The silverware is sterling silver from Germany. The handmade water
goblets are blown glass from Venice, Italy. The paintings on the walls are a collection of
seventeenth and eighteenth century masters. Friday is fish, and the catch of the day
is broiled salmon with dill weed. The wine is a fruity Riesling. Each guest introduces
himself, and each Brother introduces himself. Mexican ladies wear black skirts, white
blouses, gray aprons, and are married to the farm workers. They cook and serve the
meal, do housekeeping, and laundry.
That night there was no wine tour. After the meal, all walked out to the garden for
coffee and conversation. Brother Paul approached Brother Raymond and asked him to
meet him the next morning at seven in the rose garden. Mass was at six, and an hour of
recreation prior to breakfast at eight was allowed on Saturday and Sunday. They relaxed in
white rattan chairs. The conversation was about the impact of Vatican Two. The mass is
now said in English, not Latin. The Christian Brothers are not ordained priest and fought
the change. They continue to have mass said in Latin by the Franciscan Fathers. Both
despise the Jesuits, who welcomed the change. They debated the future ramifications of
Vatican Two, and quickly consumed one hour. It was nine o’clock and time for prayer. At
ten o’clock the Brothers retired for the evening.
Saturday morning, the sunrise was at six-forty, and the mass in the chapel was
celebrating the Communion. The Eucharist was given to all. The sunlight washed the
valley with bright light and raced across the wineries. Rays of light illuminated the red and
blue stain glass windows. The chapel was filled with the morning sunlight and the
presence of the Holy Ghost. At the end of mass all were blessed by the Franciscan Priest
serving mass, and left renewed to begin a new day.
Brother Raymond arrived at the rose garden first and was impatient. He was a
fatalist and believed that God has put him in a position to do His bidding. The rose garden
was actually a cemetery for Indians who had died a hundred years ago building Mount La
Salle. Their spirits lived on in the rose bushes in the garden. Brother Paul tended the
roses and sometimes felt the presence of the Indian spirits. Brother Raymond turned
when he heard footsteps on the brick entrance to the garden.
"Good morning, Brother Raymond."
Good morning, Brother Paul. You have beautiful a collection of roses."
"Thank you. I come here each day to escape the real world and tend the spirits of
the past. There are fourteen Indians buried here and I feel their presence. This is my
spirit world. I come here for guidance."
"Why not the chapel? Why here?"
"I hear God speaking to me in the wind. I find peace here. I am not pleased with
the changes in our church. I sometimes wish that time had stopped in 1961."
"I am sorry that you feel that way, Brother Paul."
"Don’t feel sorry for me. Feel sorry for those who follow, not knowing what it was
like once upon a time in the Catholic Church."
"You said in your letter that you wanted to discuss certain matters at St. Nicholas."
"Yes, Brother Paul. I didn’t choose to be a part of this, but I now find myself in the
middle of a situation with my superior, Brother Justin."
"I didn’t approve of his appointment. He is the new breed. Continue, Brother
"I have a list of grievances from the faculty, students and alumni. They are
frustrated with Brother Justin’s absolute authority. He won't listen to others. He dictates."
"What can I do for you, Brother Raymond?"
"First, Brother Paul, I need to know if the cutbacks are from the Regents."
"No. We do not sacrifice education. That is why God has put us here. No."
"What authority does Brother Justin have to make changes without challenge?"
"Absolute authority, unless he misappropriates his power."
"Did the Regents agree to pay Mr. Russell’s tuition to quietly settle the Casaza
"No. That was upon advice of our legal staff. None of us wanted to pay the damn
Jesuits for Mr. Russell’s education."
"I thought that he went to Riordan."
"No. That was smoke. If we knew prior to the fact that Mr. Russell was going to
St. Ignatius, we would have never agreed to the settlement. He planned to go to S.I. all
the time. We were about to finalize the settlement when his lawyer changed from Riordan
to S.I. He backed us into a corner, so we signed. His lawyer is a good liar. He will make a
good politician some day."
"Why the cutbacks?"
"To ease the pain and guilt of the financial burden he has instigated. Brother Justin
wanted to sweep the embarrassment away as quickly as possible. I believe he knew about
Mr. Russell’s intentions to go to S.I. and recommended they say Riordan.."
"I didn’t know that."
"Did you think that we wanted to build a community center? No. That money
came from our education budget. Brother Justin is a businessman and thinks that by
cutting back the education budget at St. Nicholas to pay for the Russell embarrassment he
will be rewarded with a promotion.
"That was never explained to us."
"He does not have to explain, Brother Raymond."
"What can we do, Brother Paul?”
"First you have to understand the politics of his promotion to St. Nicholas, who he
knows on the Broad of Regents, and the legal staff. Brother Justin and Mr. Russell’s
lawyer approached our legal staff. The legal staff met with the Regents on the Budget
and Allocations Committee. That’s where the real power is, and Brother Justin’s allies."
You’re telling me that there is nothing we can do."
"No. I did not say that, Brother Raymond. I am saying that if Brother Justin
misappropriates his powers, then you can have him reviewed by the Regents. He has to
meet certain educational standards. Sports are another issue, but education is our
charter from God. He hasn’t violated his fiduciary oath, just re-allocated funds."
"Thank you for enlightening me. I realize now why I wasn’t chosen president of
St. Nicholas. I didn’t realize that it was necessary to dance with the devil to become
A bell rang announcing that it was eight o’clock and time for breakfast.
"We will talk again before you leave tomorrow. I will advise my allies about
Brother Justin and show your list. We will communicate by letter. Do not save any
correspondence between us. I will burn this list after I show it. Brother Justin and his
allies are the new breed. You and I are the old guard. Be careful, Brother Raymond.
Please go first and I will follow in a while."
"Thank you for seeing me. The Lord be with you."
"The Lord be with you, Brother Raymond."
Brother Raymond left the garden and went to the dining hall. Brother Paul stayed
and watered the roses. The wind whispered through the trees, and some of the rose
petals fell to the ground. Brother Paul turned off the water and coiled the green hose in the
corner of the garden. He went to get a towel to wipe his hands that he had left near the
shed, where he kept his gardening tools. He found it on the dirt by the shed. Brother Paul
went to get the towel and noticed footprints in the damp dirt leading away to the winery. He
went to the dining hall for breakfast, and reached the entrance at the same time as Brother
Albert, the president of the Regents, who was younger than Brother Paul.
"After you, Brother Albert."
"Why, thank you, Brother Paul."
Brother Paul extended his arm to graciously allow Brother Albert to enter. He
noticed traces of dry mud on Brother Albert’s shoes. As Brother Albert walked up the two
steps to the dining hall, the dry mud cracked and broke off, revealing the darker fresh
mud, still moist. Brother Paul picked up the mud and asked Brother Albert why his shoes
"I took a walk to the winery."
After breakfast, Brother Paul asked the gardener when he waters the flowers at
"In the afternoon, Brother Paul. Why?"
"An old man’s curiosity, Paco, just curiosity."
More next week...