Hope in the Ashes

After a year of tragedy, a community grieves and finds renewed communion with God.

BY TRACY SEIPEL
ILLUSTRATIONS BY NICK MATEJ

At the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in the hills rising above Los Gatos, a year of dread and despair seems over.

But the sense of loss lingers.

Since March 2020, eight Jesuits living out their retirement in community surrounded by towering evergreens, sturdy oaks, and sweet-smelling chaparral have died from complications of COVID-19. During that same time, 19 others died from causes unrelated to the pandemic—cardiac disease, dementia, the heartbreaking vagaries of aging.

For the 70 priests and brothers remaining at the retirement home—a sturdy white block of buildings among the trees—a return to something like normal is both profoundly welcomed and profoundly reminiscent of those who once shared this space.

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On a sunny day in June 2021, a trio of Santa Clara University students perform scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and As You Like It. The three Shakespeare comedies seem to lift the spirits of the 17 Jesuits in attendance.

“You have to be a pretty good actor to get it across,” says former Seattle University Professor David Leigh, S.J., 84, who taught Shakespeare. “They did a nice job.”

Among the men lost to the pandemic who also taught young scholars and would have delighted in their successes were Robert B. Mathewson, S.J., longtime principal of Bellarmine College Prep, and Portland-area Greek and Latin teacher Michael Lavelle Cook, S.J.

Then the SCU students recite the Bard’s Sonnet 71, “No Longer Mourn For Me When I Am Dead.” The lines seem to reflect more closely the dark year from which their audience—and the rest of the world below—is emerging.

“Nay, if you read this line, remember not

The hand that writ it; for I love you so,

That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

If thinking on me then should make you woe.”

In these lines, the audience could find memories of departed friends and fellow travelers whose lives, like those of Jesuits everywhere, had been devoted to helping others, often through traumatic times. The virus had turned the tables, though, and no amount of prayers could save the lives of some of these men of faith.

As woe and love, communion in faith and tragedy, past pain and present joy combine so fluidly—how does one reconcile God with such circumstances?

REPRIEVE

Home for retired Jesuits who have served in 10 western states is a four-story building on a 175-acre campus in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was a Jesuit seminary college from 1888 to 1968, preparing students for ordination to serve as clergy or Catholic academics. And it is where several of today’s residents, including its longtime Superior, John Privett, S.J. began their Jesuit journey, often just out of high school.

Sacred Heart is also known by insiders as “the finishing school,” a place so many Jesuits know they will return to one day, to live out their final years with all their needs provided for—food, rest, medical appointments, recreation, spiritual guidance, and community.

Like many Americans living in retirement homes and assisted-living facilities in early 2020, Sacred Heart residents never anticipated the threat this virus would pose, let alone imagined being shut out from the rest of the world to stay safe.

By early spring, it was clear COVID-19 could be tragic in such care facilities. Yet for almost eight months, the center’s residents remained COVID-free.

By wearing masks and social distancing, banning visitors except the most essential of workers, and having their temperatures and oxygen levels checked daily, the Jesuits at Sacred Heart were able to attend daily Mass, join each other for meals and happy hours, and enjoy bingo games, exercise classes, and walks on the grounds, among other diversions.

“Death is not a surprise to us here; it’s not shocking. But the virus was,” says John Privett, S.J., Superior at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center.

Bernie Bush, S.J., 86, who had once ministered to prisoners at Alcatraz, could still rib colleagues about their “organ recitals,” the daily lamentations about which parts of their bodies were failing.

Joe Fice, S.J., 82, could tend his garden that produced delicious heirloom tomatoes, “secret” pumpkins, and stunning flowers, which were incorporated into meals or centerpieces.

And, though now blind, 78-year-old Silvano VottoS.J., who once taught literature and ancient languages in Rome, could continue to share his great love of art in illustrated weekly lectures on European painting, assisted by the center’s recreation director, Julie Johnson, who would describe the images for Votto’s rapt audience.

UNWELCOMED GUEST

As the coronavirus surged in California in November, however, it finally found its way inside the center, says Lucas Sharma, S.J., M.Div ’24, a 34-year-old Jesuit in-formation currently studying at SCU’s Jesuit School of Theology.

The youngest resident at the center, he was sent to Sacred Heart to keep him safe from COVID-19. Sharma received a kidney transplant six years earlier and requires medication that suppresses his immune system to stay alive.

The Monday before Thanksgiving, he was among the first group at the center to test positive for COVID-19.

“There are two theories of how we could have gotten the virus,” he says. Either an employee at Sacred Heart unknowingly transmitted it, or a Jesuit may have interacted with an asymptomatic person during a visit to a doctor’s office.

Whatever the case, says Fr. Privett, “we got whacked by the virus.”

Sharma and 10 others fell so ill they were sent to the hospital, where many, including him, were placed on oxygen. It would take Sharma a month to recover. The week after he was diagnosed, 20 more Jesuits tested positive, including Privett, the Superior, whose symptoms included the hallmarks of COVID—including fever, chills, cough—as well as hives.

A three-month-long lockdown followed. No one was allowed to leave their room; meals were left outside their doors. The community so cherished by residents was replaced by required isolation.

All communication happened by phone, email, or Zoom. Mass was broadcast on a closed-circuit television channel. Privett used a building-wide intercom to announce patient updates and deaths.

WAVES OF GRIEF

“‘This is John Privett calling with more bad news,’” Sharma recollects the Superior’s exhausted voice over the intercom. “And it was like that for days upon days, one after the next.”

In the five-week span between Dec. 6, 2020 and Jan. 4, 2021, eight Jesuits died from the virus. Another five died of unrelated causes in that time.

“There was this air of having so much to announce, who was coming or going from the hospital,” Sharma says.

Privett and others watched as fire engines and ambulances pulled up in front of the building’s main entrance, disgorging emergency crews dressed in protective gear, including masks and face shields, to safely transport yet another friend to a hospital.

“And I would say, ‘Please God, let him come home,’” Privett recalls.

But eight Jesuits, including Bush, Fice, and Votto, never returned; nor could anyone visit them in the hospitals to say their goodbyes, or administer last rites.

One by one they died, three at home at the center, five others in hospital beds, all of their ashes either sent to relatives or returned to Sacred Heart where they were stored in urns next to Privett’s office.

Together with the ashes of Jesuits who had died from other causes, the urns multiplied until Privett was allowed to transport them to the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery for final rest. Funerals were held months later, still only allowed over Zoom.

“Death is not a surprise to us here; it’s not shocking. But the virus was,” recalls the Superior. “Throughout the whole time, my thought process was, ‘HELP!’” he says. “I said, ‘OK, God. We gotta get through this, and help me and help all of us. How do I, together with my Jesuit brothers, face this illness in ways that recognize that some of us may die?’”

SEEKING SOLACE

Sharma—who had become close to many of the Jesuits through the weekly dinner parties and a book club he hosted focused on anti-racism literature—was overcome by sadness and an acute sense of loneliness.

Yet he still does not believe that God causes bad things to happen to good people, and rejects the well-worn cliché that “everything happens for a reason.”

“I don’t believe that for a second, and maybe that’s the sociologist in me,” Sharma explains. “That being said, I believe God grieves with us. Lots of bad things happen, and yet still God enters the world … God still makes an effort, even in the worst of circumstances.”

For her part, Johnson, the center’s recreation director, did whatever she could to fortify the residents’ mental and physical health.

“The one thing they wanted was communion with God, the bread of life,” she says. “Every day they had gone to the community chapel for Mass, but now they could not do that. They had to watch it on their closed-circuit TV.”

Prayers for the sick and dying were shared through their television screens as well, alongside photos of those individuals in desperate need of God’s grace.

“I believe God grieves with us. … God still makes an effort, even in the worst of circumstances.”

She also made sure to continue sharing the cheerier lists of birthdays being celebrated each month. Still, Johnson would remind the men that after the lockdown, life would be different; some of their friends would be missing from it.

She encouraged those who were able to continue their daily exercises, from yoga to Tai chi to Pilates, within the confines of their rooms. What they once attended in person was now available via Zoom from their instructors working from home.

“The hardest thing going into any retirement home is depression,” says Johnson. “But now you add COVID-19 to the list of physical illnesses like cancer or dementia, and you have no activity or positive people around you. That’s not retirement heaven; that’s hell.”

For entertainment, she streamed every Academy Award-winning movie to the Jesuits’ rooms, starting with the 1927 silent movie Wings. It was Johnson, along with SCU Professor Aldo Billingslea, who would later arrange the SCU drama students’ performance, who came up with the idea.

And, as the pre-Thanksgiving COVID-19 deluge bled into the Christmas season, Johnson committed herself to ensuring there would be presents for each Jesuit to wake up to, just outside their doors, on Christmas Day.

Together with her assistant, she wrapped packages stuffed with items they knew each Jesuit preferred, from chocolates to licorice, chewing gum to shortbread cookies, even spicy wasabi trail mix. Socks and books also went into the mix.

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OUT OF DUST

Critical help arrived in late December, when Julian Climaco, S.J., a former registered nurse, and Travis Neuman, S.J., a Jesuit-in-formation and former licensed vocational nurse—both of their licenses still in good standing—were asked by then-Provincial of Jesuits West Scott Santarosa, S.J. ’88 to report to Sacred Heart to tend to the sick.

For Privett, the self-described “part pastor, part cheerleader, part manager” responsible at all times for his fellow Jesuits, a gut-wrenching feeling persists that despite adhering to all the rules and regulations, colleagues who eventually caught the virus might not survive.

At 81, the energetic and dauntless Superior has seen just about everything in his various roles as a Jesuit priest and administrator, the last 14 years leading the center. But nothing, he says, has come close to being as difficult as weathering the pandemic.

Yet he did not wonder what God was saying to his community during this time. Nor, he says, did he question God.

“I think the attitude is that God is with us, and we need to cooperate and do what we can to get through this,” he says. “I did not have any problem with God.”

In the new year, a saving grace surfaced when the Moderna vaccine arrived for residents and employees on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. It was followed by a second shot on Feb. 17: Ash Wednesday.

On many an Ash Wednesday before 2021, the priests at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center would have uttered, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” while smudging ashes in the shape of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of reflection and repentance leading to Easter. It reminds Catholics of their mortality, of the ash from which they believe God made humankind and to which they will return.

But it is also an invitation to come back to God.

As Pope Francis said in his homily the same day the Jesuits in Los Gatos received their second shot: “Yet upon this dust of ours, God blew his Spirit of life. So we should no longer live our lives chasing dust, chasing things that are here today and gone tomorrow. …”

Because in our hardest moments, the pontiff continued, “where we are most vulnerable…(God) came to meet us. And having come to meet us, He now invites us to return to Him, to rediscover the joy of being loved.”

With the start of spring, the center slowly began its return to many pre-COVID-19 routines. And come summer, under Billingslea’s direction, the Santa Clara University students traveled up the mountain to perform Shakespeare for the retired priests, prompting the men to perhaps reflect upon their journey, about those they loved and lost in the winter, and to pray we may continue to safely commune together to find God in all things.

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In Remembrance

WORDS BY BR. DAN PETERSON, S.J. IMAGE BY TRAVIS NEUMAN S.J.

ROBERT B. MATHEWSON, S.J. was a longtime principal of Bellarmine College Preparatory, and devoted his career to Jesuit secondary education. Fr. Mathewson joined the Jesuits in 1949. Following his ordination in 1962, he earned a master’s degree from Santa Clara University. A few months later, he established the first counseling office at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. He died Dec. 6, 2020.

BERNARD JOSEPH BUSH, S.J. was ordained a priest June 4, 1965. During his studies, he taught at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. On occasion, Fr. Bush would accompany James Tupy, S.J. on his rounds as chaplain at Alcatraz Federal Prison. As an unofficial chaplain’s assistant, Bush would stroll through the yard, chatting with some of the more notorious prisoners, including Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen, and maintained contact with some of them. In later years, Bush would be one of the speakers at the Alcatraz reunions; as one of the last survivors of that era, he would give a talk on his experiences and offer Mass in the prison chapel. He later taught and counseled at JST, USF, and in Boston. He died Dec. 7, 2020.

JOSEPH JAMES FICE, S.J. was a religion teacher at Jesuit high schools in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and a retreat director. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at Los Gatos in 1961. As a theology student, Fr. Fice organized anti-war protests against the Vietnam War, and was active in the pro-life movement. He served at LMU and in Sacramento, and spent 26 years as a teacher. He died Dec. 13, 2020.

After two years of studies at the University of San Francisco, SILVANO P. VOTTO, S.J. entered the Jesuit novitiate at Los Gatos in 1962. Studious and with a gift for languages, Fr. Votto listed on his application an interest in “language, literature and philosophy” and competence in Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Latin. His first assignment was to teach classical languages at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to young Jesuits, who perhaps did not share his enthusiasm. He studied and taught in Berkeley and in Rome. He died Dec. 16, 2020.

MICHAEL LAVELLE COOK, S.J. entered the Jesuit novitiate at Sheridan, Ore., after graduating high school in 1953. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga University and taught Latin and Greek at Jesuit High School in Portland. Fr. Cook completed his theological studies at the Alma College campus of Santa Clara University in Los Gatos and was ordained a priest in Spokane in 1966. He taught at the Jesuit School of Theology and Gonzaga University and was a visiting professor at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago and Hekima College in Nairobi, Kenya. He died Dec. 17, 2020.

JOSEPH ONEAL MCGOWAN, S.J. was born in a Houston taxi, on the way to the only hospital in town that would care for African Americans. Although he decided to become a priest when he was quite young, Jim Crow laws meant his family needed to leave Texas for him to continue his high school studies in a Catholic school. They moved to Seattle at the suggestion of a relative. After graduation, McGowan studied at Gonzaga University, the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, and Seattle University. He served at Seattle University, taught high school, worked as a counselor, and was a parish priest. McGowan died Dec. 23, 2020.

CHARLES JON (CHUCK) PETERSON, S.J. spent most of his years in service above the Arctic Circle. While studying in Canada he took a 500-mile canoe trip with other Jesuit scholastics from Midland, Ontario, to Ottawa, following the path of the early Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebeuf. He was ordained a priest in Missoula in 1969. Fr. Peterson taught at Copper Valley School in Glenallen, Alaska, and later served in Nome, Fairbanks and Seattle, largely ministering to native populations. He died Dec. 24, 2020.

GERALD V. (JERRY) GORDON, S.J. was a university theology professor and chaplain at Pacific Northwest hospitals—serving in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and beyond. In 1943, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Sheridan, Ore., and later studied at the Alma College Campus of Santa Clara University in Los Gatos. He was ordained a priest in Spokane in 1957. Fr. Gordon taught theology at Gonzaga University and Xavier University in Cincinnati. He died Jan. 4, 2021.

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