Brother Peregrine: The Youngest Man to Profess Oath

Posted: 9/12/2014

Brother Peregrine (Gene Heisler), 18, is the youngest man ever to profess his Final Glenmary Oath. He passed away one month later in September 1963, but not before making an impact on many people. This story is being reprinted from the Christmas 1963 Glenmary Challenge in his memory, 51 years after his death.

Brother Peregrine makes his Final Glenmary Oath.Summarized from the notes of Father John Dalton, his spiritual director (1963):

Athletes frequently bring glory to their hometowns. It usually fades fast. Farley, Iowa, had such an athlete last season, a basketball player named Gene Heisler, favorite of students and faculty at St. Joseph's High School. But the glory he brought to Farley won't easily fade.

In April 1963, 18-year-old Gene decided to apply as a Glenmary brother candidate. Before his acceptance, some strange developments took place. During his class trip to Chicago on Memorial Day, he was sick all the way up and back but didn't let on because "I didn't want to ruin everyone's good time." During his graduation ceremony, his pain was unbearable, but considering his parents and the party planned for the relatives, "I sweated it out."

Shortly after this, two grave-faced surgeons gave the news to Gene's parents: "Cancer—two months to live!" Their response explains the splendid personality of their son. His mother sympathized with the doctors: "We have to hear this just once, but how often you must break this news to families!"

His letter of acceptance had arrived during surgery. After word of his condition was forwarded, Father Clem Borchers, Glenmary's superior general, and his Council decided to go ahead with plans for receiving Gene. On Aug. 5, the superior general—with Father Bill Smith, director of brothers, and Brother Larry Jochim, prefect of brothers—traveled to Farley and clothed Gene in a habit of the Glenmary brothers on what he called "the happiest day of my life."

As "Brother Peregrine," he recited the Divine Office, lived the rule and offered his cobalt treatments for souls. He was always feeling "excellent," but his clenched fists and set jaw didn't corroborate that story. His spirits were buoyant and beautiful while the hollows in his cheeks deepened. (Editor's note: Gene chose his new name in honor of St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer victims.)

Brother Peregrine and his parents.On Aug. 17, the high school booster club of Farley sponsored his trip to Glenmary along with his parents; his pastor, Father Becker; and his spiritual director, Father John Dalton. There was a banquet, a program in his honor and a specially composed poem. He called it "the most beautiful place in the world."

At O'Hara Field on the return trip he refused the wheelchair in order to make the sacrifice of walking on behalf of the Poor Souls.

On Sept. 4, two Glenmary brothers visited Brother Peregrine. He took them to see the parish gym one afternoon and picked up a basketball, but he couldn't get it anywhere near the rim. He smiled and said, "How about that."

One evening, speaking to his spiritual director, he said, "You know, Father, being a good teenager is pretty hard with all the temptations. Now that I can't go to teen hops anymore, I try to say prayers that the kids will be all right."

Sept. 25 was the day the Glenmary brother candidates arrived at Glenmary; Brother Peregrine arrived at the hospital in Iowa that same day. "I have nothing to worry about and I am not afraid. We're all going to be here for a certain length of time, and if God wants me he can have me. When I first learned I had cancer I was a little shook, but then I placed my soul and body in God's hands."

The big feast at Glenmary falls on Sept. 26. On this day or the following Sunday, Glenmary traditionally celebrates Homecoming in honor of the American martyrs. This was the day Brother Peregrine took a crucifix from his father, pressed it to his lips and became the first Glenmary brother to meet his Maker.