This article was originally published in a series of reflections based on the lives of Xaverian Brothers who have played influential roles in the life and development of the Congregation in America. They are written in commemoration of the Xaverian Brothers 150th Anniversary of their arrival in America in 1854.
Written by Brother Thomas Ryan, C.F.X.
This reflection is a compilation of thoughts and reminiscences by myself as well as other Brothers who knew, lived and worked with, and admired Brother Philip Neri and who, so similar to his own persona, wish to remain anonymous.
For sixteen years I lived with Brother Philip Neri in the Shrewsbury community of St. John’s High School where we were both members of the faculty. Two enduring images of him have remained imprinted on my memory – his daily and solitary presence in a darkened St. John’s Chapel hours before the other community members would assemble for morning prayer and Mass, and his nightly lesson preparation where he would write out in his meticulously-kept plan book the solution to each algebra and calculus problem he intended to review in class the next day. This spiritual and academic commitment, from a man already forty years a vowed religious and thirty-five years a classroom fixture (and rumored by successive generations of students to have been a clandestine member of the Manhattan project which developed the atomic bomb), was always inspirational to me.
Extraordinarily dedicated religious and extraordinarily dedicated teacher – these seven words alone are an ample source of reflective material about this gentle, humble, faithful, and indisputably talented and brilliant “good community man” who joined the Xaverians in 1932 from Mission Hill.
For those who lived with him, Brother Philip Neri was the yardstick against which the value of religious life could be measured. As one Brother wrote, “He was the prime model of the spiritual life. His was a solid, constant, and deep-seated piety. There was a regular time set aside each day for a period of meditation, spiritual reading, community prayer, private devotions and Mass. He was never known to say ‘No’ to a person who asked of his help. He was constantly fulfilling requests to repair a damaged object, to rebuild some article that fell apart, or to create from his workshop some new piece of furniture. His last project was the construction, from scratch, of a dollhouse for the granddaughter of a member of the lay faculty. He was able to make all the parts for the house, even to having lights that worked in the rooms. He was stumped on how to provide running water for the kitchen.”
This same man, who could construct a dollhouse, whittle a piece of wood into a tiny bird statuette, or fashion small vases from wood scraps with colored wire for flowers, also possessed the technical know-how to, in one summer vacation’s time, lower the ceilings and install new insulation in every second-floor classroom of St. John’s High School. And this is but one example of the improvements he wrought in the thirty-three years he spent in Shrewsbury. As a collaborator and co-worker on many projects would write, “No matter what he was asked to do, whether to make a new handle for a sledge hammer, to carve a plaque from wood, or to install cabinets in the science laboratories, all were produced to a craftsman’s delight. They were accomplished with precision and skill, and many are still in use today.”
I arrived at St. John’s in the late summer of 1971, fresh out of Xaverian College, a twenty-two year old first-year teacher in need of all the pedagogical advice and skills I could find. And what a teacher-training college that campus provided. Just to name a few: Brother Ivan Corkery, instilling the basics of the faith to his five religion classes of “freshies”; Brother Victor McCarthy, wondering if any of his sophomores would parlez-vous any Francais after nine months of his expert tutelage; Brother Nelson Conley, condensing entire chapters of Jenney’s Latin I on a 3×5 index card; Brother Thomas Lydon, passing on the wonders of biology while his students wondered if he was really related to Jimmy Cagney; eighty-five year old Br. Flavian Coughlin, prefecting the bus arrivals and pushing that ubiquitous wheelbarrow as he dug and weeded in his campaign to beautify the grounds; and Br. Philip Neri, presiding over the physics lab, the junior math classrooms, and his basement workshop. Many St. John’s graduates would proudly boast that, throughout their grammar, high school and college careers, Brother Philip Neri was the finest teacher it was their privilege to have had.
Complementing Brother Philip Neri’s brilliance was a genuine humility and simplicity. He never held any congregational, administrative or school positions of authority. To paraphrase words used by Brother Aubert to describe the Brothers’ work of that generation, he was, for sixty-five years, “just another G.I., slogging along in the mud and carrying out his infinitesimal part in the Great Effort.” He lived the vows as he believed they should be lived. In his 2004 Easter letter to the Congregation, Brother Arthur wrote of five challenges we face in our commitment to help one another and others to “fall in love with the service of God.” The fifth one read, “We need to have personal and communal lifestyles that are sustainable and credible for a community of men who rely increasingly on others to support us and our mission. In very simple terms, we cannot honestly ask others for their support if our own style of living is far above that of other people within our own cultures.” Brother Philip Neri’s personal and communal lifestyle, consistent and unvarying, was a living testimony to his vowed life of poverty. As one Brother wrote, “His bedroom was quite Spartan. He did not have a radio or TV, and his only concession to leisure was a reclining chair which came with the room. His wardrobe was quite sparse and serviceable for his individual needs. If there was any superfluity, it might be that he had two screwdrivers of the same size in his workroom.” I’ve often wondered if one of his more subliminal motives in donating his body to medical research after his death was the reduced undertaker’s bill that would result.
As conclusions are sometimes the most difficult to write, I’m passing that task on to someone else. A former student of the Brothers at Stepinac High School, reflecting on the Xaverians he had known as teachers, wrote the following about Brother Philip Neri, a faculty member of the White Plains school from 1956 to 1964: “My most impressive and rewarding educational memories, bar none, are of Brother Philip Neri. He impressed me beyond my ability to clearly articulate, not the technical aspects of the educational process – that’s minor, but rather the goodness and basic fiber that he infused from himself to ourselves – direct, firm, fair, honest, friendly, thoroughly knowledgeable, personally interested in you as a person as well as a student, an example of everything Christ expects of us.” Brother Philip Neri was born on October 25, 1914 and died on May 22, 1997.
We invite you to reflect on Brother Philip’s story and consider leaving a comment about someone (a Brother, a colleague, a friend) who embodies similar qualities to Brother Philip Neri. Who in your life is “direct, firm, fair, honest, friendly, thoroughly knowledgeable” and personally interested in your well-being? Those are difficult balances to trick in individual, but we ask you to try and bring someone to mind. Share with us that individuals special qualities, so that as a community we can share in your gratitude!
A REMINDER: We are on Twitter (@XaverianBros) and we Tweet 140-character versions of these Brothers’ stories each day, to correspond with Brother’s Death Anniversaries. Follow us or search the hastag #iamxaverian. Here are some examples: