The black cassock Marist Brother Richard Michel wore 30 years ago in classrooms at Aquinas High School looks as good as new today.
"It feels like I never took it off," said the 87-year-old brother, who shares a home with four other members of his religious order, Brothers James D. Brady, Luke Driscoll, Francis Klug and Joseph Teston.
The order will close its house, the last Marist community in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah, in about two weeks and move the brothers to other cities. The move will end some 60 years of Marist service in Augusta.
Bishop Kevin Boland will offer a Mass in their honor at St. Mary on the Hill Catholic Church, 1420 Monte Sano Ave., at 7 p.m. Thursday. A reception will follow.
The Marists or Marist Brothers of the Schools (FMS), a teaching order with international headquarters in Rome, came to the diocese in 1919. They operated a school in Savannah for about 20 years. During the Depression, the bishop decided to close it and the brothers moved to Augusta, where they started the Marist Boys Catholic High School in 1939.
In 1957, the school merged with Mount Saint Joseph's Academy to form Aquinas, a co-ed institution.
The brothers all had great personalities and were important to the students, said the Rev. Daniel Munn, whose four children attended Aquinas. "They were just great guys. I am just amazed that there are men walking around who think being a single or married teacher is better than being a Marist brother."
He recalled Brother Pat Urban, a guidance counselor, who kept a leprechaun sitting on his bookcase. When he heard an unlikely alibi from a straying student, the brother would hit a hidden button and the leprechaun would say "ha, ha, ha," the Rev. Munn said.
Mark Rosen, news director at WJBF-TV (Channel 6), remembered that the brothers liked hopping into their golf cart to cross Highland Avenue to play a round of golf, he said.
They liked to play, but they were "always great disciplinarians and great educators," he said.
He recalled that Brother Francis started his physics class off every year with the same question - `Why is the sky blue?' Of course, you knew (when you left) the first day. It was a great way to get everyone into physics," he said.
The long years the brothers taught in Augusta allowed them to teach generations of the same family, such as the Schweers family. Brother Richard taught Noel Schweers at Boys Catholic and later his daughter Ann Marie (Schweers) McManus at Aquinas. "I loved the continuity of it," Mrs. McManus said.
When her father died in March, Brother Joseph lead the rosary for him. Her children had been sheltered from their grandfather's illness but were accustomed to saying the rosary with Brother Joseph and prayed right along, she said. "Brother Joseph gave them that."
Faculty member Barbara Marks worked across the hall from Brother Richard's French classes in the early 1970s. She later worked alongside Brothers Francis, Luke and James, she said. The Marist brothers "have enriched my life and set a Christian example for me for decades."
Though the men retired from teaching - the last, Brother James, retired in November 1993 - they continued to serve. Brother Francis worked at Catholic Social Services; Brothers Joseph and Luke did pastoral work; Brother Richard was a substitute teacher; and Brother James manned the information desk at St. Joseph Hospital.
Leaving Augusta after so many years will be hard, said Brother Joseph, 80, who will go to Miami, as will Brothers Richard and James. Brother Francis will go to Brownsville, Texas, and Brother Luke to New York City.
"I will be doing things, but I won't be tied down," Brother Joseph said.
He entered the Marist order after finishing eighth grade in the Savannah school, which Brother Richard also attended. Although people today are less interested in long-term commitments, pursuing a vocation at such a young age was "no big deal," Brother Joseph said. "Now you need to be a college grad before you knock on the front door."
Some view a life as a religious brother or sister as a life of deprivation and great sacrifice, said Brother Francis, 74, director of the Augusta community. "To me, the call to be a religious is a special gift from God to the individual called, his/her family, the Church and society."
There are about 5,000 Marists worldwide, serving in about 80 countries. At one time they numbered about 700 in the United States, but now there are only about 250, he said.
All men in the Augusta community were trained in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where Brother James worked in the tailor's shop. There the brothers' cassocks were cut and sewn to each man's dimensions. "Cloth had to be good. One thing that eats through a cassock is chalk dust," Brother James said.
A thrice-knotted cord tied round the waist represented their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. A large crucifix was tucked in the front of the cassock.
Although most members stopped wearing cassocks in the 1960s, they were comfortable and livable, said Brother Richard.
And they had deep pockets along the sides, said Brother James. "The kids were always wondering what you were carrying in the pockets."
For more information, call 736-5516 or visit the Marist Web site at maristbr.com/index.html.
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336.
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