Quiet Man’s Remarkable Life
From an interview with William P. Warford of the Antelope Valley Press
reprinted from the Valyermo Chronicle, no. 183, Fall 1998.
AS A YOUNGSTER he liked the social life, But once the decision was reached there was never any doubt. “I had very little hesitation that I wanted to become a monk,” he said. So, firm in his choice and solid in his faith, Vincent Martin, the son of a physician from the small town of Namur in Belgium, became a monk. That was seventy years ago.
He joined the Abbey of Saint Andrew’s in Bruges in 1928, made his first profession in 1930, became a priest six years later, and went on to live a life that could never be duplicated by anyone today.
Along the way, he has helped and befriended thousands of people. “I have a lot of good friends,” he said the other day at an interview at his home, St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo. “Quite a few are now in heaven.”
Father Vincent is 86 now. His walk is a little slower, but his mind is still quick. He remembers dozens of names of places and dates from the wonderful story that is his life.
“I have vivid memories of the First World War,” he said. “The celebrations at the end. I was 2 when the war started and 6 when it ended.” Young Vincent’s mother died when he was just 7. Even so, he did well in school and did a lot of traveling with his father. He had many friends and liked to socialize. Toward the end of what we would call junior college, “I started to think seriously about what I would do with my life.”
He decided to join the monastery at Bruges, which at that time was the leader in the Benedictine missionary movement. They wanted to open a monastery in China, and Vincent hoped he could play a role.
He studied theology and Chinese in Louvain and was ordained a priest on July 25, 1936. The following September, together with Fr. Eleutherius, who had been his ‘guardian angel’ in the novitiate and with Fr. Wilfrid Weitz, his junior, the three left for far-distant Sichuan via Siberia, Beijing, and the awesome Yangtze gorges. They joined five confreres who in the little monastery of Xishan were trying to implant monasticism on Chinese soil to foster the encounter between Christianity and Chinese culture.
On the right is Fr. Vincent Martin, O.S.B. in China at the age of 25.
In the center
PRISONER of WAR
IN HIS first two years in China, Father Vincent had his first brush with death. He became very ill and no surgeons in the region could help him. He was taken to Vietnam, where surgeons in Hanoi removed his appendix.
In 1938 he joined a group of 300 Christian volunteers gathered together by the legendary Fr. Vincent Lebbe, which became the Medical Company of the Chinese 3rd Army, 12th Division.
|Vincent Lebbe||Fr. Vincent Martin, OSB|
In those years Japan had invaded China; and the two countries were engaged in horrible fighting. Soon after Fr. Lebbe had been transferred as head of a new project, Fr. Vincent was appointed commanding officer. “I did my best,” Fr. Vincent remembers. In two and a half years I saw eleven fierce battles in very tough conditions.
At the same time he was serving as a chaplain to 500 Christian soldiers in the division. The Japanese repeatedly came close to breaking through the Chinese lines, but every time the Chinese resisted, At one point, Father Vincent and the Chinese hunkered down in caves dug by peasants in the famous loess soil of North China; and that saved their lives when the bombs fell.
In May, 1941, after a month of heavy fighting on the front lines, Father Vincent was ordered to go with a small group through enemy territory. They had little food and nearly starved. Then the Japanese captured them.
Father Vincent was tried as a spy. “The trial was three days - Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. They told me I would be shot on Thursday.” Through the grace of God, or just plain luck, a higher-up in the Japanese military overturned the decision and ordered a new trial. They came to get Father Vincent that Thursday morning, but instead of shooting him, they took him back for another trial.
This time he was sentenced to a prison camp. He was transferred to yet another camp where he made the most of his austere surroundings learning English and Russian from other prisoners.
“It’s all in your attitude,” he said.
An unexpected blessing during these years of captivity was to meet the famous French Jesuit paleontologist who discovered Peking Man and opened tantalizing vistas in Fr. Vincent’s understanding of the spiritual evolution of man. During one year when Fr. Vincent was recuperating from Beri-Beri and other illnesses in Central Hospital, Beijing, he was able to visit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin every Tuesday afternoon by ricksha. These were the most challenging intellectual encounters of his life.
COMING to AMERICA
AT THE war’s end, Father Vincent took on new duties. He was asked to serve as Chinese liaison officer with the US 7th Marines. Then, in November of 1945 he was sent to a military hospital, where 2,000 Japanese officers and enlisted men were suffering from TB. “I became responsible for getting them back to Japan,” he said. “I was trying to be careful, but I became infected.” He was ordered to have six months of complete rest, and he recovered.
Next the monastery ordered him back to Europe to tell the story of what he saw in World War II. “I got back to Belgium on Christmas of 1946.”
At this point, Father Vincent had no higher academic degrees, so he headed to America and enrolled at Harvard. He always believed he would eventually return to China. But by 1949, the Communists had taken over, and by 1951 time was running out for any chance to go back. “The door was closing. I wanted to go back, but I had to complete my degree. By the time I got my Master’s degree in sociology in June, the door was closed. It was too late. I continued my studies towards the doctorate.”
So he stayed in America, and the monks of St. Andrew’s decided to open a monastery in this country. They thought California was the place. “From February to September of 1955 I did nothing but look for a place for the monks. I had only $50,000, a gift from our mother-abbey in Belgium.” Father Vincent recalled.
His search was frustrating. He made hundreds of phone calls and found some places he liked, but they were out of his price range. Finally, he saw an ad in the Los Angeles Times for what turned out to be the ranch in Valyermo, then known as “Hidden Springs Ranch.” “On the 30th of September, 1955, I walked these grounds for the first time. I bought the place as Mr. Martin because in some places they would not sell to Catholics, or they would hike the price.”
The horse stable became and remains the monastery chapel, the cow barn became cells for 10 monks.
ON the ROAD AGAIN
ONCE THE monastery was up and running, Father Vincent was off and running again. He returned to Harvard to finish his doctorate in sociology. He then spent 10 years in Jerusalem, first at Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, and later as director of worship at the Tantur Ecumenican Institute. He wrote and published in 1995 A House Divided, the fruit of years of research on the parting of the ways between synagogue and Church in the first century. Recently he wrote a pamphlet entitled Israelis and Palestinians at a Crossroads, searching the roots of the conflict. “I have good friends on both sides. It is very difficult.”
Back in the states, Father Vincent was much involved in the Jewish-Christian dialogue that led him to take on an unusual position. He accepted the invitation to start the chaplaincy at Cedars - Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Rounding out his career, he taught sociology of religion in the department of religious studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
In 1996, Father Vincent’s dream of returning to China was realized. He led a tour of the Holy Land, and then went on to China for several months. Fr. Vincent still has many friends there, and while in China he visited the site of the monastery in Xishan, which after twenty-five years of occupation by the army, has been returned to the care of the local Chinese Catholic bishop in Nanzhong.
“There are many good Christians in mainland China,” he said. “At the universities now, Christian culture is ‘in’.” There are about 140 Catholic bishops and 10 million Catholics in China. The growing pains of a tiny minority church are testing their faith and their dedication.
Now back at St. Andrew’s, Father Vincent is busy with writing and keeping up with the everyday life of the monastery.
He’s done so much and seen so much in a most remarkable period of history. “Not bad for a poor man,” Father Vincent said.
Editor’s Note: A little over one year after this article appeared, Fr. Vincent Martin died, quite suddenly but without any suffering, of a heart attack. He is buried in the monastic cemetery at St. Andrew’s Abbey.
L.A. Times [[Necrology]]
Founder of Abbey Left Legacy of Adventure
By ANNETTE KONDO
DEC. 3, 1999 12 AM
TIMES STAFF WRITER
VALYERMO — The richness of Father Vincent Martin’s world can be seen in his 4-inch-by-3-inch black leather address book.
Its robin’s-egg blue pages are neatly filled with the addresses of the famous: a countess here, a cardinal there, a glamorous Hollywood celebrity.
Many other names are lesser known, but equally precious: simple monks, family in Brussels, colleagues in China, lifelong friends in Israel.
Father Vincent, who died Tuesday at 87, is best known for his founding of St. Andrews Abbey, which opens its doors once a year to the public to sell its famed ceramic images of saints and angels.
But among the monks at the abbey, nestled between the High Desert and the San Gabriel Mountains near Littlerock, he is remembered as someone who knew wealth as well as poverty. He relished vigorous theological debate and plunged himself into foreign cultures.
It was his constant thirst for knowledge--and the globe-galloping soul of an adventurer--that made it easy for Father Vincent to call the world his home.
And it was his faith as a Benedictine monk that sustained him through a Japanese POW camp, the growing pains of starting a monastery in 1955 at a former Antelope Valley turkey ranch and his barrier-breaking appointment as the first Catholic chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Father Vincent’s monastic life began in 1928 when he joined the Benedictines at the Abbey of St. Andrew in Bruges, Belgium. Shortly after his ordination in July 1936, he and two other monks left their native Belgium to open a monastery in China.
When war broke out, Father Vincent became chaplain to the Chinese Christian soldiers who hunkered down with him as the Japanese bombed the countryside.
Later, after narrowly escaping execution in a Japanese POW camp, Father Vincent staved off boredom by learning English and Russian from fellow prisoners. Then with the war’s end, Father Vincent took up new duties as a Chinese liaison officer for the U.S. Marines.
Sister Karen Wilhelmy, a longtime friend, said the war left some imprints on Father Vincent that surfaced periodically.
Once at a restaurant, she watched as he carefully carved “every last fiber” of meat off a bone. Her brother asked if he should order another meal for Father Vincent, but Sister Karen shrugged it off, and explained he never wasted a morsel of food after his experience as a prisoner of war.
After the war, Father Vincent traveled to the United States and attended Harvard University, earning master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology.
But one of his most challenging assignments was in 1955, when the abbey in Belgium called with a request: Go to California. Set up a monastery. And here’s $50,000 to do it.
The search was exhausting, from Long Beach to Santa Barbara, and across Los Angeles.
As was often his style, Father Vincent turned a challenge into an improbable opportunity.
The only affordable and appropriate property was a 720-acre turkey ranch in a desolate High Desert valley in the San Gabriel Mountains.
“If it wasn’t for Vincent we wouldn’t have what we have,” recalled Brother Dominique Guillen. “It was he who did the legwork, it was he who did the negotiations. It was he who searched out over 200 properties.”
In a 1993 Times interview, Father Vincent described the abbey, a collection of former ranch buildings and newer simple structures, as an “island of sanity” that attracted people “like they were coming for clear water.”
Surrounded by a blaze of mustard-colored cottonwoods and elegant poplars, the abbey has grown over the years.
Of the eight founding fathers--seven from Belgium and one from Indonesia--only two are still alive, Father Eleutherius Winance, 90, and Father Werner de Morchoven, 86.
Father Vincent’s death will be felt in many religious circles, local leaders say.
A longtime scholar of Israel, he lived in Jerusalem for 10 years, studying at Hebrew University and at the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur.
After his return to the United States, Father Vincent, fluent in both the scholarly and cultural knowledge of Judaism, was selected in 1977 as the first Catholic chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He also served on many joint Catholic-Jewish committees and commissions, recalled Rabbi Norman Pauker, who retired from the Mishkan Israel Congregation of North Hollywood.
During the High Holy Days, Rabbi Pauker said Father Vincent would come to Mishkan Israel and read from a Hebrew prayer book.
But his fondest memory was their first meeting 28 years ago at a joint Catholic and Jewish gathering in Los Angeles. Rabbi Pauker sat alone at a table with kosher food. No other rabbi or priest sat with him. “Father Vincent came to join me,” he remembered Wednesday. “That was how our friendship began.”
Father Vincent’s scholarly writings also explored the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, most notably his 1995 book “A House Divided--The Parting of the Ways between Synagogue and Church” and his 1998 booklet “Israelis and Palestinians At a Crossroads” dedicated to actress Jane Wyatt.
It was, however, probably Father Vincent’s one-on-one relationships that may have forged his most powerful influences on Christian-Jewish relations.
Years ago at Cedars-Sinai, on the first night of Hanukkah, a patient wanted to light the first candle. Father Vincent fetched a candle, brought it up to him, and stayed to share those special moments. “He told me about it in a nonchalant way the next day,” said Rabbi Levi Meier, a chaplain at the hospital.
With its starkly beautiful isolation, the Valyermo monastery served as base camp for Father Vincent’s travels to Israel and China, his teaching at UC Santa Barbara, and his writings.
Father Vincent’s world extended far beyond the walls of the monastery. “I speak in English, think in French, move in Jewish circles and dream in Chinese,” he once said.
Indeed, it was also that internationalist mind-set that served him--and the monastery--well.
It was summer 1984 and a Chinese Benedictine brother had been imprisoned for 26 years in China for his religious beliefs. The St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo wanted to get him out, but how, they wondered?
The answer was closer than they ever dreamed.
Someone suggested the monks make a direct inquiry to Arthur W. Hummel Jr., then-ambassador to China.
“I know Arthur, we were in prison together,” Father Vincent said in a matter-of-fact voice.
With that POW connection, the path was paved to secure Brother Peter Zhou Bangjiu’s release and visa. Today, the brother still resides at St. Andrews.