The life and times of Father Richard VanderWeel, SSE
Life loves a tragedy and so does Father Richard VanderWeel, S.S.E., most notably King Lear. Lear’s suffering has enlightened some over the centuries and it is certainly tops in this Roman Catholic priest’s book. He says it’s because it lays out everything Shakespeare has to offer. “And he’s got a lot to offer,” VanderWeel chuckled.
While he humbly states he is far from the perfect priest, he is just what is called for to many. One such chap who thinks so is Saint Michael’s College Professor Nick Clary who admits to having laughed himself into stitches a time or two (even inside of a theater) with this dear friend and colleague. “Shakespeare, and the tragedies he loves, are dense and loaded with intellectual, moral issues,” Clary said. “He is not someone waiting for the next musical to come around. He loves theater for the intellectual challenge.”
When asked what stands out as most significant about this Edmundite, Clary laughed, “He hates turnips, prefers his potato chips folded, and he doesn’t play golf.”
In all seriousness, Clary said it’s noteworthy that his longtime associate is disarmingly funny and that students pay close attention to his humorous style. VanderWeel, 84, was a philosophy professor before retiring in 2005. At the time, in class, it may have looked like there was neither rhyme nor reason to his actions but there was indeed a method to his madness. Humor is particularly helpful in taking a break from a deep, intellectually sharp mind. “He is among one of the smartest students to come through St. Mike’s, as I understand it,” Clary said. “He was an outstanding undergraduate. He liked doing intellectual work. He was good to have on the faculty.”
VanderWeel first took vows in August of 1956. He became acquainted with The Society of Saint Edmund in his hometown of Dunkirk, NY, where the Edmundites ran Cardinal Mindszenty High School. His parents, Leonard and Edith, were Catholic and sent both of their sons to Catholic high school.
Before it turned into an all-girls school, VanderWeel attended St. Mary’s Academy “nestled on Lake Erie's shore,” he remembered. He recited their anthem, “It taught us all what’s right in life, and the things worth striving for, and when our sails turn back to you from the ports to which we roam we know St. Mary’s Academy will claim us as her own.”
He snickered as he said, “I would sing it but I was always told in the seminary to just move my lips. So, I recite, I don’t sing.”
He attributes his longevity and humorous outlook on life to his folks. The name VanderWeel is Dutch and his mother’s parents were from Sweden, however both Leonard and Edith were born in Dunkirk, NY. “My mother would always tell my father, ‘stop making the kids laugh, they gotta eat!’ My dad was a card. My mother was funny, too. Life is easier with humor.”
As childhood anecdote of the times, VanderWeel whimsically recalled, “When I was a kid, when they evacuation of Dunkirk, France, in WW2, you remember, I thought it was happening in my hometown of Dunkirk, New York. I just thought because we didn’t live on the lake that I couldn’t see it. I was 6 years old.”
VanderWeel had a younger brother who played a starring role in his biggest life decision. Discernment led him to making an appointment with Edmundite Father Paul Morin at the Cardinal Mindszenty High School to tell him he was interested in becoming an Edmundite priest since his little brother had attended there and had so many good things to say about them. The boys were two years apart in age and attended different schools.
“I just thought it would be good to be in the Church. It appealed to me. I loved being at Church,” VanderWeel said. “Church is the great equalizer. We are all in there for one reason. It doesn’t matter what you do or who you are.”
Sports were not the agenda, but philosophy certainly was, when he enrolled at Saint Michael’s College a few days after his visit with Father Morin. He graduated in 1958. After novitiate, he headed to seminary in Burlington. He started graduate school in the summer of 1959 at Laval University in Quebec.
There were initially three universities he could have chosen from to continue his studies in philosophy back then, St. Louis, Ottawa and Laval, but they had eliminated St. Louis because it was too hot during the summer. “I studied at a French university because of the weather,” VanderWeel quipped. “The courses were in French but I could write my papers and exams in English. I got used to it. We were usually working with some text, Aristotle or something. Books were in Greek or Latin. It was a struggle but I loved it.”
He graduated in 1968 and holds a PhD in philosophy. His thesis was, Definition and Demonstration: a Study in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. “If you had enough money, I could sell you a copy,” he declared with his signature smile.
Ordination into the priesthood happened in 1962 and the first class he taught at Saint Michael’s College was Latin a year later. “That is why I needed my father’s sense of humor,” he joked.
One of his first students was Edmundite Father Marcel Rainville. It was an 8:30 a.m. Latin class. “He was a good student,” VanderWeel said of his religious brother. “Thank God for Marcel. He tolerates me. He is such a fine guy.”
Rainville reminisced back to that time in their mutual history, “I remember he taught me that living is only worth it if we are learning to delve into the mystery of awe and wonder. I have lived by that. But he was hilarious in the classroom. He was outrageous.”
Edmundite Father Richard Berube also had him as a professor at Saint Michael’s College. “He was funny but focused on the material,” he said. “He was always super prepared and could take you through a text like Aristotle or Aquinas and break it down. He really knew his stuff, there is no doubt about it.”
Berube also mentioned VanderWeel’s scholarliness and curiosity. “He indexes texts, traces reference and citations. His expertise as a scholar, his ability to really crack open a text—it is impressive.”
While VanderWeel loved teaching, taking sabbaticals in England where the Edmundites used to have a parish in West London was a delicious highpoint in his life. He even lived there, once upon a time, with Edmundite Father Dave Theroux, for a year, when he worked on research at the British Library in London. VanderWeel has been to London 16 times.
While research has its value, the theater is what kept him pining for his next trip abroad. Aside from King Lear, a favored play is Travesties by Tom Stoppard, first performed in 1974. “It began on a Monday night, and I saw it on a Tuesday,” VanderWeel said. “The play itself was a comedy fundamentally, but it was so beautifully performed. It was done by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.”
Edmundite Father David Cray was the first person to give him a tour of London. “I got to know the city through him really,” VanderWeel said. “We had supper at a place called The Great American Disaster. They specialized in hamburgers and Schlitz beer. We saw a play that night too, it was Designed for living with Vanessa Redgrave.”
In the early 1970s, pal Nick Clary offered a summer course on Shakespeare that VanderWeel sat in on. “It was marvelous,” VanderWeel said. Clary retired a couple of years ago, but the two still diligently follow the works of their favorite playwrights.
“Some of my very best students were tutored by VanderWeel,” Clary said. “He is a very private person except for when he does a homily or goes on retreat.”
Retreats at Saint Anne’s Shrine with Saint Michael’s College students, specifically LEAP retreats, and making hospital visits, rank highest in VanderWeel’s list of favorite things to do in his vocation. “I realize the glory, if that is what you want to call it, of being a priest where you could talk to someone you admired more than yourself and yet you had something to offer,” he said.
When he is not on the telephone with his favorite niece and her family, he spends his mornings and afternoons “trying to read philosophy,” he said. In the evenings, he watches the news. “Did you know, it wasn’t just the German Nazis who killed Jews in WWII?” he asked. “There was a small city in Poland, and the folks there, regular folks, not soldiers, killed their Jewish neighbors. So much anti-Semitism had been stirred up that people had taken it into their own hands. The racist remarks and anti-Jewish sentiments we see today are disconcerting.”
He continued, “Have we progressed? We have greater technology, sure, but have we progressed in our love for one another? Are we better than the ancient Greeks or the early Christians? We have better machines but are we better people? It’s a real problem.”
Back in the classroom, he would attempt to cut the sting of sober realities like this by pretending to smoke chalk. It seems VanderWeel tried to make his courses as merry as they were long. Playful antics were the spoon full of sugar needed to help the medicine go down. Father Rainville said, “He’s a brilliant man. His quacky-ness masks the serious intellectual man that he is. He laughs often. Students love him. A good sense of humor is important because it is sometimes hard to stay awake in class.”
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