January 18, 2013

Holy Cross Brother Joseph E. Umile remembered for his commitment to others

By John Shaughnessy

Holy Cross Brother Joseph Edward UmileHis eyes glowed with mischief and his smile beamed in one of those classic moments that captured part of the essence of Holy Cross Brother Joseph Edward Umile.

The moment occurred as “Brother Joe” looked back on his 14 years of pouring his heart and his soul into leading Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis.

On that spring day in 2007, just before he stepped aside as president of the North Deanery interparochial high school, Brother Joe recalled how he initially heard that the school was searching for a leader in 1993.

As Brother Joe told the story, he first learned about an opening at Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind. The opening at Bishop Chatard was listed two weeks later. On the east coast, the provincial of his order pulled out a small map, looked at Indiana and told Brother Joe—a Connecticut native with a love of the ocean and lighthouses—that with either job, Brother Joe could live with the Holy Cross Brothers at the University of Notre Dame near South Bend.

In recalling that moment, Brother Joe gave his characteristically hearty laugh when he shared the question he asked his provincial after he had to drive nearly three hours from South Bend to his interview at Bishop Chatard.

“When I got back to New Rochelle, I asked my provincial, ‘Would you show me the map where it’s 40 minutes from South Bend to Indianapolis?’ ”

That moment was among the many stories and memories shared after the news spread that Brother Joe died on Jan. 13 at age 64.

At the time, Brother Joe was serving as the project assistant to the president of Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Ind., where he had been working since 2011. He died at St. Joseph Medical Center in South Bend, with friends and members of the Holy Cross community praying with him at his bedside.

A memorial Mass is scheduled to be celebrated for Brother Joe at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 29 in the chapel at Bishop Chatard High School.

Beyond remembering his hearty laugh and his sharp sense of humor, friends also recalled the immense softer side to the heavy-smoking, sometimes-glaring man who often tried to project a tough-looking image.

They remembered how he crocheted baby blankets for children and grandchildren of teachers and staff at Bishop Chatard.

They mentioned how the proud Italian often slipped an apron on and slaved over a steaming stove to make his homemade spaghetti and meatballs for all the high school’s sports teams, its drama club and other school groups.

They recalled how the only child doted on his mother, quietly took care of people and situations, visited people when they were dying, and built a staff that became devoted to the school and each other.

“One of the things that stands out about him is his approach to kids,” said Father Gerald Kirkhoff, who lived with Brother Joe for three years during his time as pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis. “Remember that old Army slogan, ‘Be all that you can be’? He wanted that for all the students at Chatard.

“Because of his own academic success, he wanted Chatard to be a first-class school academically, spiritually and socially. He wanted the students to realize their Catholic faith, and he supported all the things—retreats, service—that would renew their faith.”

That combination of faith, education and humanity was always at the heart of his life. Before he left Bishop Chatard, he started the Summa Cum Laude program, a rigorous three-year honors program for academically gifted students that aimed to develop the whole person through extensive service requirements, demonstrated leadership in extracurricular activities, and a commitment to faith-related retreats and projects.

“I think of the Book of Micah when I think of him,” said Benedictine Sister Louise Hoeing, who served as the head of Bishop Chatard’s guidance department during Brother Joe’s tenure. “It mentions three things we should do: To act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8).

The touch of humility came through in that he didn’t talk about his own extensive education background. A 1970 graduate of Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., he also studied at the University of Paris from 1968 to 1969. He earned a master’s degree in French at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., by studying for eight summers while he was a teacher. He entered the Holy Cross Novitiate in Vermont in 1975. He professed his final vows in 1983.

Brother Joe taught French and Italian in high schools early in his career. In 1984, he began a two-year stint as the principal of Notre Dame International School in Rome. For the next six years, he served as the school’s headmaster before returning to the United States in 1992. A year later, he came to Bishop Chatard.

“He will always be remembered as one of the finest high school leaders in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis,” said Annette “Mickey” Lentz, chancellor of the archdiocese who served previously as the executive director of Catholic education and faith formation during the time that Brother Joe led Bishop Chatard.

“He was the guy whose strong personality was needed to turn upward the success of Bishop Chatard High School. His skills in development and advancement were instrumental in bringing in new students, programs and donors. He was a deeply committed individual who wanted to see good things happen in the North Deanery of Indianapolis as they related to education, spirituality and athletics.”

Lentz also remembers Brother Joe for his “freely given opinions that never ceased,” adding that “many of them were right on task.”

“He had a beautiful smile, and his gifts and talents were beyond ordinary,” she said. “That is why his legacy will long be remembered. He was caring and generous, even though he would deny it. But those who knew him and worked closely with him knew better.”

Brother Joe is remembered in a fitting symbol on the grounds of Bishop Chatard. When a huge boulder was excavated from the site where a new activity center was built at the school, officials looked at the boulder and viewed it as a perfect tribute to Brother Joe.

Located near the school, the boulder has a plaque that includes his name, his years of service, the symbols of the school and the Holy Cross order, and this tribute to him: “The ‘Rock’ of Bishop Chatard.”

“We coined that phrase for him because of his unwavering commitment to our Catholic mission for 14 years,” said Bill Sahm, current president of Bishop Chatard who considered Brother Joe as a friend and a mentor.

“Wherever he went, he built community, and he built family. And he did that through his wit and by his very loving and hospitable nature. He could be curmudgeonly and sarcastic, but on the inside he had a heart of gold.” †

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