Sometimes, the best story comes to you when you least expect it. At least, that’s the way it happened to me.
It began last summer while I was working on a book that is influenced by Thomas Merton, widely considered one of the most influential thinkers, philosophers, writers, Christian mystics, and social rights and peace activists of the 20th century. His mega-selling book The Seven Storey Mountain is often compared with The Confessions of St. Augustine as a coming-to-faith autobiography. In all, Merton published 65 books.
During his lifetime, he communicated with many of the world’s greatest writers, artists and social rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. He was one of the most vocal critics of the Vietnam War. In his speech to Congress on Sept. 24, 2015, Pope Francis mentioned Merton numerous times, praising him as one of the greatest Americans, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Abraham Lincoln.
Although born in Prades, France, Merton spent the last 27 years of his life in Kentucky as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani a few miles south of Bardstown.
One day, as I was working on the book in a coffeehouse, a fellow came over and asked me what I was writing. I replied that it was a novel influenced by Thomas Merton, certain that a local would have no idea who Merton was.
Instead, his answered floored me.
“Oh, I know all about Merton. A little old lady I used to work with used to be good friends with him, and she has these trunks full of his personal belongings from the Gethsemani monastery,” he said quite matter-of-factly.
My jaw dropped.
“Really?” was all I could muster in reply.
“Yep. She was a nun back then. I think she lived at the convent a few miles away from where Merton was. That’s how they became friends.”
“Do you remember her name?” I asked eagerly.
“Helen Marie [not her full name]. We worked at the same place back then.”
“And she told you she had these trunks … of stuff?” I asked.
“Do you think she was telling the truth?”
“Nuns don’t lie. Besides, I’ve seen them … about 20, 25 years ago.”
I didn’t know what to say. My brain was racing, red-lining with a million questions.
“How did she come to have them?” I asked. “Do you think she’s still alive? Where does she live? Do you think she still has them?”
Several conversations with this intriguing fellow ensued during the following weeks, and I couldn’t let it go. Each time I saw him, I asked about the trunks full of Mertonalia and the little old nun. After some phone calls, he told me that she was still alive and living in Kansas City, a three-hour drive southwest of where I lived. We made an appointment to visit her and drove down to see her in his little truck. Did she still have the trunks? What was in them? Would she show them to us? If she did, what then? My mouth was dry with anticipation. At the same time, I tried to prepare myself in the event it was all just a big snipe hunt.
We arrived on time, and Helen Marie greeted us at the door. I was at once impressed by her openness, her sense of jubilation, and her kindness. She was in her mid-80s, lean and fit, and she stood only a little over 5 feet tall. She kindly invited us into her living room, which was overflowing with angels of every variation: porcelain doll angels, stuffed animal angels, angel pictures on the walls, crystal angels. An enormous portrait of Jesus hung above the fireplace.
For two hours, Helen Marie told us about her friendship with Father Louis, as Merton was known at the Abbey. As she spoke, I furiously scribbled notes on a yellow legal notepad. Her story went something like this: In 1966, after 15 years as a nun in a convent in Brooklyn, she wanted to go meet Merton. She and many of the other nuns had been reading Merton’s books, and Helen Marie felt a burning desire to learn from him. She had been having doubts about her life in the convent. She wanted a spiritual teacher to help guide her. Other nuns told her that someone as famous as Merton wouldn’t make time for someone like her, an uneducated scullery maid who had spent her vocation washing and scouring dishes in the convent kitchen.
Apparently, they didn’t know Sister Mary Pius, as she was called back then.
She was a plucky and feisty force to reckon with. She told the abbot, Father Campbell, of her desire to meet Merton, certain he would try to dissuade her as had her fellow sisters. To her amazement and relief, Father Campbell encouraged her to go, with certain provisos, namely, that she not write or call the Abbey of Gethsemani to arrange a visit. Instead, he urged her just to go. Just show up on the doorstep. It would be more difficult for them to turn away a nun who had traveled partway across America. Father Campbell reached into his wallet and gave her the money for round-trip Greyhound bus tickets.
On Jan. 13, 1966, after a long journey that began at Manhattan’s Port Authority Building, Helen Marie showed up at Gethsemani’s gate during the biggest snowstorm there in years. The hour was already late. She had no means by which to go back to Bardstown or Louisville at such an hour. So the abbot did the only decent thing he could do under the circumstance—he put her up for the night in the guesthouse outside the walled monastery. For two days, Helen Marie waited in the guesthouse for Merton to come to see her. She was told he was at his hermitage up in the hills, and that, because of the snow, he wasn’t going to see her. But she was determined: She wasn’t going home without meeting Thomas Merton.
Finally, Merton showed up. He had heard how far she had come to meet him. He told her that he admired her tenacity. They sat and talked in the guesthouse for a couple hours, and it was decided that she would return to the nunnery in Brooklyn and that he would work with her abbot back home to get her reassigned to be closer to Gethsemani so that he could become her spiritual teacher and adviser.
In no time at all, Sister Mary Pius found herself assigned to the Sisters of Loretto, a convent in Nerinx, only a dozen miles or so from Gethsemani. The Sisters of Loretto was a place for the care of aging and infirm retired nuns. She was granted dispensation from the convent in Brooklyn, a formal sabbatical of sorts. She was further instructed not to wear her habit during this period, although she was required to uphold all other vows and religious observations.
For the next two years, Helen Marie worked at the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse caring for elderly nuns. Every Sunday, she and other nuns took a bus to Gethsemani to attend mass. At Gethsemani, she met a monk named Brother Irenaeus (his worldly name being Robert). Brother Irenaeus had lived a busy life at the monastery for 15 years, running the tailor shop. It was also his job to store the monks’ worldly clothes and the trunks bearing their belongings with which they arrived at Gethsemani. In addition, he repaired clothing damaged during the course of manual labor around the monastery. Physical labor, contemplation, the rigorous observance of ritual, chant and silence comprise the hallmarks of Trappist monks.
After mass, Father Louis, Helen Marie and Brother Irenaeus would go for Sunday drives around the countryside in the monastery’s doorless, four-wheel-drive Ford Bronco. Brother Irenaeus always did the driving, with Helen Marie sitting by the passenger side door and Merton in the middle. Brother Irenaeus went along on the rides as a chaperone, as required by the abbots of both the monastery and the nunnery. Although Helen Marie hitched a ride to mass with other nuns, she alone stayed at Gethsemani for much of the rest of the afternoon and, therefore, frequently had to walk home back to Loretto. Over all those Sundays, a friendship was forged among the three.
On Dec. 11, 1968, Father Flavian, the abbot of Gethsemani, received word that Thomas Merton had died the day before in a small community near Bangkok, Thailand. He had been attending an interfaith conference where he met and counseled with, among other religious figures, the Dalai Lama. Father Flavian, worried that relic hunters would descend on the monastery, directed Brother Irenaeus to collect all of Merton’s personal possessions, especially his clothes, and to get rid of them discreetly. The abbot himself didn’t want to know what he did with them.
So instructed by the abbot, Brother Irenaeus took two empty trunks from the storage room, drove up to Merton’s hermitage, and filled them with his friend’s belongings. Among the items he packed were Merton’s personal rosary and his psalter. Also included were his white habits, his black monk’s cowl, his now-iconic denim jacket seen on so many book covers, work clothes, blue jeans, sleeping clothes, blankets, ceremonial flagellation whip, the colorful hood he had received with an honorary doctoral degree from Bellarmine College (now University), and other objects. Even the blankets and pillows from Merton’s bed were placed into the trunks. Inside the pockets of one pair of jeans were two used and wadded-up handkerchiefs.
Days later, when Merton’s body was returned to the U.S. via military flight and eventually to Gethsemani, Brother Irenaeus added to the trunks some of the clothing attending his body, including the new white habit Merton wore in the iconic photo of him posing with the Dalai Lama, and some suit ties he had bought and worn while in Bangkok.
With their friend gone, there was nothing to keep Helen Marie and Brother Irenaeus at Gethsemani. For some time preceding Merton’s last journey, the couple had sought Merton’s counsel about their growing love for each other and the possibility of marriage. Merton had advised them to follow their hearts and get married, saying that they could still find ways to serve God and others as laypeople. Within days of Merton’s burial, Brother Irenaeus loaded up the heavy trunks and went to collect Helen Marie. They moved to Louisville, only a 30-minute drive north, marrying shortly thereafter. The monks from Gethsemani baked their wedding cake. Years later, they moved to Kansas City, where they both worked for almost a quarter century in the prayer room at Unity Village, a popular interreligious education campus and retreat. It was there in the mid-1990s that they worked with the gentleman who first set me on the trail of this amazing story.
After listening to the history of her friendship with Thomas Merton, I asked Helen Marie if she still had the materials. In reply, she changed the subject. But I had already learned a lesson from this determined little woman. Although respectful, I was … tenacious.
“You know,” I’d say every five minutes, “if you have them stored in the basement or in the attic or in the garage or buried under boxes, I could move them for you.”
Eventually, she took us downstairs to her garage and pointed out the trunks, which were buried under 20 or more boxes. We had to dig them out. I was absolutely amazed at the treasure trove when we at last opened the trunks. I recognized many of the objects from photographs of Merton. Seeing my reverence and enthusiasm and commitment to finding the proper homes for the items, Helen Marie told me to take them.
Over subsequent visits and interviews, Helen Marie brought out more materials to give to me, including photo albums full of letters and notes and photos, including images of the inside of Merton’s hermitage around the time of his death. My favorite is a photograph taken by Helen Marie of Merton with a Budweiser at one of their picnics. There also was a rather prescient poem that Merton had written the day before he died. Robert had found it inside a pocket when Merton’s body was returned.
In 2004, Robert suffered a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body and institutionalized. Helen Marie retired from Unity Village so that she could spend every available minute by his side. Robert died in August 2009. Alone and devastated, for years Helen Marie prayed for an answer as to what she should do with the belongings of Thomas Merton.
Then one bright and sunny day in the summer of 2015, I arrived at her doorstep, an answer to her prayers, or so she tells me every time we talk. Helen Marie wanted the items to be made freely available to the world in institutions and museums so that the millions of people who have been touched by Merton’s writings and by his example could come closer to the man who was the most famous monk in the world.
Obliged with a sense of purpose, I spent the summer on a pilgrimage of sorts. I rode my motorcycle to the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville. It was there at Bellarmine University that Merton himself wanted his archives to go. I drove past Bardstown to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani and to spend some time talking to Merton at his graveside. I promised to do my best to find the right places to donate his belongings.
Toward the end of summer, Helen Marie was diagnosed with stage-four lymphoma, for which she has been receiving treatment, including chemotherapy. Her hair has fallen out, and she feels tired most of the time, yet she remains, as always, cheerful and certain that whatever happens to her is God’s will. I can see why Thomas Merton befriended Helen Marie. She is joyful and kind, simple and humble, and her heart is full of love for others, more so than anyone I have ever met. Her prognosis is good. She seems to be responding well to her treatments. She accompanied me and my family to Louisville in January to attend the opening of a Merton exhibit at the Frazier History Museum.
Last fall, after Pope Francis told the world of his admiration for Merton, I wrote to the Pope, offering to donate at least one of the iconic artifacts to the Vatican, one that embodies the simplicity and humbleness of Merton’s life—a coarse, simple shirt the monks at Gethsemani wore while working the vast fields. After all, Thomas Merton was a Roman Catholic priest beloved by more than one Pope—Pope John XXII gave Merton a gold-embroidered liturgical stole, and Pope Paul VI gave him a bronze crucifix, saying that Merton was among his favorite Christian writers in history.
About the author: John Smelcer, who was born in Kentucky and now lives in Missouri, is an award-winning author of more than 50 books, including his new mountain climbing novel, Savage Mountain. His writing has appeared in hundreds of magazines, including The Atlantic. Learn more at johnsmelcer.com.