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A DEATH IN THE PRIORY: Fr. Pierre Hyacinth Conway, OP

In Three Parts

 

by Joseph Barranger, O.P., Prior
Priory of the Immaculate Conception
The Dominican House of Studies

 

 

1946

 

2003

Part 1         Part 2         Part 3       Epilogue

Part One: The Journey

The journey was a long one. It took ninety years, with sixty five of those years of pilgrimage spent as a Dominican priest. When I think of the last years of Pierre's life, I can't escape the image of the journey: of the pilgrim's slow progress to his blessed destination. For many years, and for the better part of every day, Pierre was moving along a well-worn path. First by his own efforts, then with the help of a cane, and then with a walker, he plodded along the priory's cloister corridors to fulfill his mission. One day three years ago, he told me that as long as God gave him the ability to move, he would continue to fulfill his mission. Then to my astonishment, he preached to me for twenty minutes on the meaning of the Beatitudes, and the relationship between philosophy and mathematics. My private "sermon" helped me to understand this Dominican priest's mission, and why he continued his journey with such tenacity.

The slow walk through the corridors always had an important destination: the small chapel where he would celebrate his daily Mass, a parlor where he would provide spiritual direction and counsel, or the poor person who came to the door looking for food and consolation. He journeyed through hallways preparing rooms for our many guests, and he greeted them when they arrived at the front door. His constant movement belied a man who was driven by a powerful motive: "You can never do enough for them," he said, "because you're doing it for Jesus. Jesus is in every face." To the brethren, Pierre's slow walk through the cloister corridors seemed as if it would never end. After each illness or setback he would soon appear again, walking with cruets of water and wine, or a sandwich for a homeless man at the door. Back and forth he walked.

Although he wanted to continue his earthly journey as long as God willed, Pierre was well prepared for the journey's end. Years ago he decided to donate his body to science, and his Living Will was put in order "just in case." Those of us who lived with Pierre knew how much he loved our community, and how faithful he was to prayer. I will always remember seeing him in the corridor when I returned to the priory after being elected to another term as prior. Ever the guest master he exclaimed: "My father in Christ! Welcome home!" It was always Pierre's fervent prayer and passionate desire that he be able to live out his remaining days in the community. He too wanted to be welcomed home, and to die at home in the community of his brothers. Despite frequent assurances from me and from others that he would remain with the community, his constant shuffle up and down the cloister path served as a willful reminder that Pierre was still with us, at least for another day.

But then, a day before his final illness began, Pierre resigned his decades long ministry as guest master for the community. As we sat down together and I received this momentous news, a silence fell between us and it seemed as if time had stopped. The significance of this news came crashing down upon me. With a smile (or was it a grimace?) on his face, Pierre was telling me that he was coming to the end of his earthly journey.

Part Two: "It is Finished"

When the next morning came it seemed that Pierre's earthly pilgrimage would end quickly. He called my room to say that he was dying and to ask for the anointing and Viaticum. He cautioned me to take my time in gathering everything I needed lest I "mess this up." I realized what he had meant when I found myself trembling as I gathered my bundle of the Holy Oils and the Eucharist. After Pierre gave me (novice that I am) explicit instructions on how to administer these sacred rites, there were many holy and Grace-filled moments and hours that followed. His strained voice bellowed the prayers, and then whispered: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you..." He asked me to recite the Apostolic Pardon twice to make sure that I got it right. He wasn't fooling around.

During the hours that followed, Pierre waited patiently for the Lord to come. We prayed the Psalms and the Rosary together, and he assured me that "this wouldn't take too much of my tune." Pierre drifted off to sleep, but would occasionally awake with a start and open one eye. Each time I would assure him that he was, in fact, "still here." Pierre survived the night and slept through my vigil, and for the next three days remained weak but cheerful. He asked not to be taken to a cold hospital, but to remain at home where the brethren would pray for him and sing the Salve Regina when the time came. During these last few days, the priests of the community quietly visited Pierre, prayed with him, brought him the Eucharist, and assisted him with whatever he needed. From several of us, Pierre humbly endured the indignity of the bed bath and the bed pan. He was appreciative of every fraternal gesture from the brethren, and every bodily ministration.

On January 23rd, his last day, I decided to move Pierre from his own room to the infirmary room on the first floor of the priory. Here Pierre could more easily be cared for, and he would have the comfort of a hospital bed. As I had expected, Pierre resisted my plan vigorously. Understandably, he wanted to remain in the familiar landscape of his room where he was surrounded by his books and papers. He asked me for a notebook where he had been keeping notes for an article that he was composing. He said that he had a few more lines to write. I left Pierre alone for awhile so that he could compose his thoughts and put them in print. When I returned, I reminded Pierre about his move to the infirmary room. He said that he preferred not to move, but that he would be obedient if I said that he must go. He then asked if we could take some time to pray about this decision before it was finally made. I left Pierre's room feeling like we had made some progress. I also realized that he had played me like a violin.

Later in the day when we moved Pierre to his new room he did not complain. Comfortable in a freshly made bed, Pierre was able to visit with a dear friend of many years who had come a long way to see him. She read to him a beautiful letter which I had just received via FAX from his brother John in Texas. After the community finished with dinner, one of the priests brought Pierre Holy Communion. I settled in with him waiting for the night nurse to arrive for his first night's duty, and Pierre spoke about how blessed he was to receive the answer to his Compline prayer of so many years; the Grace of a peaceful death.

When the nurse arrived, we tried to arrange Pierre comfortably for a night's sleep. For some reason he became agitated, and concerned about being able to see the clock on the bedside table. He said that it was important that he be able to see the time when he awoke during the night. A short time later, at 10:59 PM, as the nurse was helping Pierre to move toward the center of the bed, he took a last breath and died suddenly and peacefully.

At the news of his passing, many of the priests gathered around Pierre's body with me to recite the prayers for the dying and for the dead: "Go forth Christian soul..." We placed a priestly stole around Pierre's shoulders and his rosary in his hands. As the news of Pierre's death spread throughout his familiar corridors, the brethren began to assemble at his bedside.

Part Three: The Last Vigil

The priests and student brothers of the community where Pierre wanted to die assembled in the hallway outside of the open door to his room. There we sang the Salve that had been so important to him. The brethren took turns visiting the body and keeping vigil in silence. Then the student brothers led us in the Rosary, and vigil prayers were said: "Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord, Lord hear my voice..." The final arrangements were made with the mortuary to remove Pierre's body in a few short hours, the only time that we would have with Pierre's mortal remains. It was profoundly moving to see how the brethren remained by Pierre's side, refusing to leave until the final goodbye. During those hours of vigil it was evident to me why Pierre wanted so much to remain among the brethren until the end. The love and reverence that we had for our brother was being poured out in prayer and in presence. The youngest brothers were helping to usher their eldest brother into the arms of God. A long white line of friars was mourning the passing of a spiritual Father and guide. The most earthy and sublime elements of our Dominican community life were being fused in a cloister corridor where a dead brother had just begun his final journey to his eternal home.

When the hearse arrived at 1:30 AM, several of the brothers helped as we wrapped Pierre's body in new white sheets. The brothers did not hesitate in this difficult and unpleasant task, because it was clearly a labor of love. I wrapped Pierre's head and his face and said the Dominican prayer to Our Lady for the friar's last moment with the community. Then six student brothers carried Pierre's body down the corridor and stairs, where they placed him in the hearse. As the community said its silent farewell prayer, we stood and watched until the hearse was no longer in sight. Requiem aeternam dona eis.

Epilogue: Tempus Fugit

I had removed Pierre's wristwatch before his body was taken away, and the next morning it sat on a table in my room. As I made arrangements for his memorial Mass and notified loved ones, I found that my eyes were frequently drawn to Pierre's timepiece. He had been so concerned with the passing of time the night before, and now I was equally concerned about the passing of time the morning after his death. I wondered why Pierre had been so preoccupied with the clock by his bed, and then realized that he must have been marking the time until eternity. Later, I went to his room to find the "few more lines" that he had wanted to write, and there I found a clue about his concern with tune and eternity. I expected a final word about philosophy and mathematics, but what I found instead was the Word of God scribbled in Pierre's unmistakable hand:

 

O Lord, our God, how wonderful is your name in all the earth!
What is man that you are mindful of him,
Mortal man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
With glory and honor you crowned him. (Ps. 8)
Amen.