Brother Vince Wilmes

Brother Vince WilmesBy Glenmary Father John S. Rausch

Brother Vincent Wilmes and I share the same birthday, though he started life 29 years before me. I had always rationalized that his greater kindness came from his head start in life. But even though he passed to the Throne of Kindness on Aug. 15, 2005, I probably will never catch him.

In 1973 Glenmary assigned Brother Vince and me to St. Therese Church in St. Paul, Va., when I was only one year ordained. He assumed the role of parish brother—dealing with maintenance, doing outreach to the poor and looking after me.

His simplicity of life frequently showed up at table. One time he emptied a week's worth of leftovers into a single dish, so I asked him what he called it. He shrugged and said, in a droll voice, "I don't know, but you can't get it at the Waldorf-Astoria."

He arrived at Glenmary's farmhouse-headquarters in Glendale, Ohio, two weeks before his 25th birthday in December 1940. The society, consisting then of Glenmary founder Father William Howard Bishop, Father Raphael Sourd and three deacons, welcomed him as the first Glenmary brother.

In those early years, Glenmary first published what has become a Glenmary icon—a photo of Brother Vince teaching catechism to a dozen children with a log church backdrop. This picture captured a sense of the home missions and the mission spirit of Glenmary. For 65 years Brother Vince continued to teach the faith by befriending down-and-outers with charity and guiding youngsters with his kindness throughout the missions of Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

A friend of the poor, Brother Vince was always ready to respond to the doorbell that signaled a neighbor holding a hefty light bill, a single parent needing food, or an unemployed traveler begging gas.

The rectory in St. Paul boasted tack quilts in practically every room as Brother Vince bought crafts from folks eking out a living with traditional mountain skills the marketplace no longer valued. Some he resold, some he gave away; at least one kept me warm at night. He joined with area churches to establish Operation Helping Hand, a community fund that helped those who fell through the cracks of the anemic economy. Each month every penny of his allowance supported friends through craft purchases, loans and outright gifts.

A magnet to young boys searching for a healthy role model, Brother Vince coached his Little League teams through endless losing seasons. He consistently chose the kids of lesser ability or awkward coordination because he wanted everyone to play. Although few of his Little Leaguers were Catholic, he'd march them into church before a game and teach them a prayer. One year the kids creatively inserted their team name into the Hail Mary: "pray for us Senators." Kids with little religious background remembered the experience.

Cliff, a left-fielder Brother Vince hadn't seen in 15 years, called one night when he found himself in trouble with the law. A broken family life left him few allies. So he contacted the one person who always accepted him—and asked for prayers.

Brother Vince told me in later years that he regularly wrote to four people in prison, three of them from his Little League teams. Then he added with a sigh, "I guess they're in a different ball game now."

The magic of Brother Vince radiated from his care for others, his forbearance with their faults, his kindness toward them. "My contact with each person is a genuine gift," he wrote, "I meet my Christ in the eyes of my friends."

In 1975 a young journalist volunteered with Glenmary for the summer and lived with us in St. Paul. After returning to Wisconsin, he wrote a column for his county newspaper.

He described me as an energetic young priest working hard in the missions, but he referred to Brother Vince as "steady," "consistent," "generous" and "good." That journalist saw Brother Vince as the people of the missions saw him. The title of the piece: "The Kindest Man I Ever Met."