Along the Way: A Death in the Family
Some of the travel I need to do as provincial can be very difficult. It has nothing to do with distance or conditions; the toughest journeys are undertaken because part of the ministry of prior provincial includes presiding at Carmelite funerals and being present to the family of the deceased as well as to our brothers who are mourning the loss of one of our own.
Last week I was in Bergen County, New Jersey—one of the bedroom communities of New York City—for the wake and funeral of John Russell, O Carm. Jack, who was 78, had held many jobs in our province since he professed simple vows as a Carmelite in 1954. He was a teacher, dean, associate pastor, novice director, and assistant provincial and prior provincial. He also was trained as a theologian and spiritual director, where he fulfilled both ministries as a professor at Darlington Seminary and Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University.
His resume, however, doesn’t begin to capture the essence of the man. Jack was a wonderful Carmelite. Much of his study and writings involved St. Therese of Lisieux, the beloved saint who was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church because of her powerful message and influence on many people through her “little way.” Therese believed God was found in “little ways” and she also thought of herself as “little” in this wide and expansive world.Jack published numerous books and pamphlets regarding the life of St. Therese and had a great ability to make her writings understandable and applicable to our lives today. A few years back I was on a retreat at Carmel Retreat in Mahwah, NJ and he gave a lecture each day on Therese. His ease in presenting the material and his kind and down-to-earth demeanor during the retreat were remarkable. But what was most apparent was that Jack—a very gentle, positive, and hope-filled person by nature—was in many ways the embodiment of Therese’s charism.
Our province’s roots run very deep in this part of the country. We arrived in Englewood, NJ, in 1869 at St. Cecilia’s Parish. At one time we administered 11 parishes, a shopping center chapel, and a retreat center. Today we are in five parishes and maintain the mall ministry in Paramus. It became clear at Jack’s wake and funeral that his impact on others ran equally deep. Both events were notable for the number and variety of people who attended. Many members of our province, the Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary were present. Our brothers from the St. Elias Province, which includes New York state and the east coast of Florida, came to pay tribute to a man who bridged both our provinces by serving as novice director and provincial, along with being a spiritual director to many.
In addition, the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged & Infirm, Lay Carmelites and a huge number of Diocesan priests and seminarians form Newark, NJ all attended. Jack served all of these various people through his teaching, retreat work and spiritual direction. He truly was a man who not only had many friends, but also had a profound spiritual impact on many people.
John Russell, O.Carm. embraced his Carmelite life, and shared it with many others. As we continue to travel along the way of our own discipleship, we are inspired by the impact one person’s life can have on so many. We will miss Jack, but our lives have been enormously enriched by having known him. May God continue to bless each of us with influential people who inspire and lead us toward understanding a little more about ourselves and our relationship with God.