As seen in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (pages 4-6)
By Fr. Stephen Rossey, O. Praem.
“How would you feel about my tagging along?” At the time I never realized that simple question would lead to a lifetime friendship.
Fr. Xavier Colavechio, O. Praem., was planning a trip to Innsbruck, Austria, for a General Chapter of the order in 1968, a gathering of the Norbertine Order’s abbots and house delegates from around the world. I remarked that if I could tag along we could leave early and travel to European cities, churches, and museums before he went on to participate in the chapter meetings. For me it would be an occasion to see many of the places and objects about which I taught in art history classes, but had never really seen. For Xave it meant he could brush up on the numerous foreign languages he had learned during his student days in Rome and spend time with me, who knew something about art. It seemed like a win-win situation.
The trip was a great success. I could not have done it without Xave, as I knew no French, Dutch, or Italian. My friend’s previous trips had familiarized him with European train schedules and travel, menu selections, and cheap lodging. He knew how to barter, flatter, and cajole. He was a storehouse of knowledge: history, theology, philosophy, and national customs. Best of all, he was a great companion; he never complained about my idiosyncrasies. Whatever I wanted to see or do he made possible, with nary a complaint.
With my 1971 transfer to Archmere Academy, a college-prep high school founded by Abbot Bernard Pennings, O. Praem., just outside Wilmington, Delaware, again I called upon Xave to lend a helping hand as I endeavored to found an art department for the school. Student trips to Europe began in 1974 during the two-week Easter break. They were repeated each year, and in 1978 we spent a month in France with students. Xave set up the travel arrangements, booked the hotels, contacted our abbeys, and even drove a van.
While in France, we stopped at our Romanesque pilgrimage abbey of Conques. Conques is on the pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago in Spain and is famous for its treasury of precious relics as well as an untouched architectural style. During a delightful tour of the church, I was able to crawl above the galleries to see where medieval pilgrims slept. Xave was able to arrange such a feat by promising to send colostomy bags from the U.S. to an infirm French confrere who was unable to get what he needed in France.
In 1979 Xave was granted a sabbatical from the St. Norbert College faculty. He studied at Oxford, and I accompanied him to attend classes and research the art and architecture that underlies the neo-renaissance villa of the Archmere Estate. Xave and I roomed and boarded at the Jesuit Campion Hall at Oxford, and by the end of the first term we rented our own flat in London, where Xave could do research at the British Library and I could spend hours at London’s many museums.
Here we soon found out that Xave was a much better cook than I, so my domestic duties were limited to laundry and house cleaning. It was a system that worked out very well. We spent our evenings watching Maggie Thatcher on the BBC and reminiscing on what we had seen and done each day. They were mutually rewarding days, to which our daily diaries attest.
We were fortunate to be in Florence for Easter and were invited to participate in the services at the cathedral. What a thrill it was to process down the main aisle with banners flying and bells ringing, cross the Duomo Piazza and enter the Baptistery through Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, for the chanting of Morning Prayer. Another thrill came when Cardinal Benelli asked us both to help distribute Holy Communion during the Mass. What a privilege it was.
Another General Chapter, this time at our Mother Abbey of Berne in Holland, was held in 1984, the 800th anniversary of Berne’s founding. Our travels by rail took us through Bayeux in France, where we all headed to the depot restrooms. Mine had a tank of water mounted near the ceiling with a pipe running down to a hole near footprints embedded in the concrete floor. The floor around the hole was littered with bits of toilet paper and hundreds of flies. I remarked what scoundrels these French are! After finishing my duty I pulled the chain to flush with the water stored in the tank. Little did I realize that the French had not flushed because there was a hole in the pipe—and just at chest height. The pressure from the water pinned me against the wall until the tank was empty and I exited from the restroom totally drenched. My companions had a laughing fit as I pulled dry clothes from my bags and emptied my shoes.
In 1989, with the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we visited our abbeys in Eastern Europe, which had been under communist control for a half-century. This time Fr. Brian Prunty, O. Praem., and Fr. Salvatore Cuccia, O. Praem., joined Xave and me. New languages to decipher, devastated landscapes, old women dressed entirely in black, and ruined abbeys confronted us; yet it was edifying to see the courage and stamina of the few remaining confreres who had endured hardship for so long.
My simple request to tag along almost 40 years ago has yielded me a lifetime of memories, for which I am most grateful. Xave’s companionship, quick wit, unbelievable patience, and enduring friendship have changed my life. From him I have learned to have faith and trust in others as well as myself. I believe our mutual friendship has made me what I am today.
What is most difficult for me to accept today is to witness the diminution of my brilliant, faithful companion as Alzheimer’s disease erases all memories of our wonderful times together. Tears well in my eyes as I witness Xave shuffle aimlessly up and down Xanten cloister, fumble through the pages of our monastic prayer book, and ask repeatedly, “What’s next?” and “What time is it now?” Those are questions he never would have asked in the heyday of our excursions. My role now is to help him find the right book, the right page, and the ever-meandering chant line. Now it’s my time to lead him instead of his leading me—and this is indeed a privilege.
You’ve been a good and faithful friend, Xave. You have taught me more than you will ever realize. I couldn’t have made it this far without the constant gift of you to me and to our community. “What’s next?” you ask. God’s final call is all I can envision. My prayer is that when that call comes I might be granted the privilege of tagging along once more.