Earlier this week Robert Collins, Saint Anselm College Class of 1937, passed away. He was a dear friend of both the College and Abbey. He was buried yesterday morning from the Abbey Church. Abbot Matthew preached the following homily at the funeral Mass.
Robert J. Collins
22 September 2011
“Do not let your hearts be troubled – for I am going to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:3)
When we hear these words of Jesus we might be tempted to think that the only place He promises to prepare for us is the one in heaven, when actually it is also true to say that He continually prepares many places for us right here on earth – from the first moment of life until the very last – and only after all these, do we pass over to that final dwelling place in heaven.
And so this morning we gather to celebrate not only Bob’s moving on ahead of us to his final dwelling place with the Lord, but we take the opportunity to reflect with gratitude on how for 95 ½ years, that same Lord has been preparing places for Bob on this earth to live out his Christian life in ways that made him who he was and through him have had an enduring impact on our lives.
We will look at three of these “places” in Bob’s earthly life. These places are interconnected, and together form a unity, a unity which is visibly represented here and now this morning in this dwelling place of God at Saint Anselm.
Place #1: Church
Bob’s Christian life began on a winter day in 1916 at St. Mary’s Church in Dover, N.H. when he was baptized into Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And from that day forward, for 95 and one-half years, he proudly practiced his Catholicism in a way that could only be called exemplary – with extraordinary faith, fidelity, humility and charity, and in a way which both invited and challenged others to do likewise. And he did so in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer until death this past Sunday morning. An ardent believer in Divine Providence, there was never a question in his mind that the presence and power of God were the great forces behind the events of his life, his labor and his love.
Bob was what we call in the Benedictine tradition which he embodied so well, a Vir Dei, a man of God, a man for whom, no matter what, God and the things of God occupied the place of primacy all throughout his many years. It was fitting that he died holding the Benedictine medal and cross in his hand – for he lived his life devoted to the legacy of Saint Benedict, so much so that we were only half-joking when we referred to him as “Brother Bob”. In our Abbey cemetery there are 61 graves. Bob knew all but the first few of these monks personally and has recorded his reminiscences for us. So you can see that Bob’s personal history of 95 ½ years, and that oif the College, 122 years are not too far apart.
The opening word of The Rule of Saint Benedict is ausculta, that is, listen. Bob cultivated listening to God in a life of prayer throughout his days. It was his ability to listen to God which, I believe, formed one of the hallmarks of his character: his gift of respectful listening to others, a gift which consistently characterized his relationship with his family, friends, colleagues, and students. In short, to all with whom he related whether tycoon, tradesman, or trustee; secretary, senator, or Sister of St. Joan of Arc; Governor King or Dusty Cofran; Blackie Moreau or Mrs. Colpas, Bob gave equal and genuine respect.
The Benedictines were not the only beneficiaries of Bob’s gifts. As enumerated in his obituary, he actively participated in a great number of Church and civic organizations, whether the Knights of Columbus or the Holy Sepulchre, the Order of Hibernians, the American Legion or the Governor’s Commission on Crime, Catholic Medical Center, the United Way or the Lion’s Club, Bob was always ready to serve, and often called upon to lead.
When the biography of Fr. Ted Hesburgh, the legendary president of Notre Dame, was written, it was entitled: “God, Country and Notre Dame.” When someone writes the biography of Bob Collins, perhaps a grandson who is now studying journalism, it would appropriately be titled: “God, Family and Saint Anselm”; which leads us to consider the second of those key places in Bob’s life: family.
Place #2: Family
On an August Sunday morning in the early 1940’s at Star of the Sea Church over at the beach, the Pastor looked out over his congregation and noticed some young blood and asked for volunteers to help work the parish fair. Independently, Dorothy Falvey and Robert Collins volunteered and were assigned to work a booth together.
It was a significant moment, for not only was it the beginning of a love relationship that would bring them back to that priest and ask him to marry them, but for the rest of their lives they would never stop volunteering to help in time of need, never stop working booths (of one sort or another) in service of God and the Church, long before the Church’s appeal that people share their “time, treasures, and talents” came into vogue. For Bob and for Dorothy this was already a way of life.
On July 1, 1944 Bob and Dorothy were married and brought forth four children: Skip, Christine, David and Brian. And for more than 60 years Bob devoted himself to Dorothy and to their children, each child uniquely loved. This love was then extended to their spouses, Joan, Kevin, Lucy, Rachel and to 13 grandchildren who became his pride and joy: Sarah and Patrick; Tim, Matt, Katie, Tom and Beth; Kathy, Greg and Kelly; Sean, Erin and Liam (who shares a birthday with Bob) and finally, to four great-grandchildren: Rebecca, Zachary, Paige and Emily.
Until the end, Grampy was always interested and supportive of whatever a son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter might be doing. He went to your sports events, recitals and ceremonies – and was your greatest fan – and it is quite evident to me that you are his greatest fans. He was the perfect grandfather: proud, interested, supportive, spoiling even, but not smothering. For, consistent with all his other relationships, he held each of you with profound respect. He is for you a personality and a presence, an influence and a legacy never to be forgotten.
He also communicated some not so subtle messages to the younger generation about family and faith. Can you hear him say, “Now in my day, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no dating sites on the Internet, recall that the very fact that my 4 children, 13 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren even exist today is due is due to the fact that Dorothy and myself went to Mass on a Sunday morning and volunteered for service.” Was the message clear? “So, you might want to consider turning off that Facebook once a week just for an hour and going to Church – to meet God and serve others. Who knows, you too, may meet the love of your life!”
His pride in all of you, his children and grandchildren, which he was not shy about expressing to others, was no fiction. The care and support that you all returned to him over the years but especially in recent times are proof positive that Bob is more than justifiably proud of you. May the Lord console you all and bless you in return for all your dedicated and sensitive care and support to Dad.
Place #3: Saint Anselm
You are well aware that you were not his only family. It has been jokingly rumored that for many years Bob had two wives, one named Dorothy and the other Alma- “Alma Mater”, that is, also known as Saint Anselm College, a relationship that Dorothy graciously accepted and entered into herself. Bob has been an integral and formative part of the Saint Anselm family in ways too many to be counted. For 78 years there has been forged a deep relationship between the Bob Collins and the Benedictine community both here on the hilltop and at St. Raphael’s where Bob and his family have been faithful parishioners (and volunteers!) for decades. In the Saint Anselm family, Bob has and will continue to be known as “Mr. Saint Anselm.” There has never been a soul more devoted to his alma mater. How many times have you heard in the past few days, “They broke the mold after they made Bob”? But you also know how Bob would respond to that statement. In his very polite manner he would say: “First of all, comparisons are odious, and I would add ‘unfair’. The mold? There is no one mold. We all are uniquely and differently made and gifted by the good Lord. The important thing is to use your gifts generously and wisely.” In other words, no excuses!
Following in the footsteps of his brother Jim, Bob came to Saint Anselm in 1933 as a 17 year old and one could say, never really left, save for a short time working as a salesman for the radio station WMUR. Over the years he received several lucrative job offers, opting instead to serve his alma mater. Later, Fr. Jonathan will speak more about his outstanding career of service at Saint Anselm. Here I would like to highlight his unflagging commitment to the mission and identity of the College and his collaboration with the Benedictines for decades. The full extent of the role played by Bob Collins in bringing the College to the place of prominence it now enjoys may never fully be known. He developed lasting friendships and working relationships with monks of the past: Abbots Bertrand and Gerald, Fathers Bernard, Paul, John, Michael, Placidus, Brother Joachim; and, of course, with us current monks who have had the privilege of knowing him and working with him. He was a master mentor, confidant and friend to so many of his colleagues at the College. Skilled in public relations, Bob, the College’s consummate ambassador, created a strong network of committed supporters for an institution which he deeply believed in and loved and which at various moments in history found itself struggling for survival. He brokered deals and cultivated friends for the College long before the word “cultivation” became the by word of development work.
Bob’s philosophy of “cultivation” was based on his philosophy of life: God, family and Saint Anselm. Bob’s method was to assemble and sustain a network of support for the College, financial, moral, and spiritual, by entering into lifelong friendships with scores of men and women who became pillars of support for the College. One of the ways in which he went about doing this was to invite these members of the wider Anselmian family into his own family circle with Dorothy and their children, Bob’s way of sharing hospitality in the spirit of Saint Benedict.
The list could go on and on, I will simply reference a few names: Joe Sullivan, Lionel Kavanaugh, Bill Stoutenburgh, John Carr, Bill Baroody, Bob and Lucille Davison, Governor John King and his wife Anna, Ray and Eleanor Custer, Dom and Emily DiMaggio, Lou Perini, Constance Breck, Judge Rowe and his wife Von Dy, Leon and Betty Goulet, the Gadbois sisters, and many more.
For many newcomers to Saint Anselm College here today, many of these names are familiar because they are on plaques for campus buildings. For the Collins children, they are familiar because they were faces at places around their kitchen table over the years. For Bob these were friends not just benefactors. And in the spirit of true friendship and that charity which characterized his life, he in fact became their benefactor, supporting them in moments of difficulty and caring for them in times of illness. How many times did Bob chauffeur monks to provide the Maurus blessing for the sick and the Sacraments of the Church when death drew near? How many times did he pick up Fathers Michael or Mark to say Mass for a homebound friend? How many funerals did Bob attend? And with how many of those friends did Bob stay in contact until the very end, both their ends and his own? For the answers, we might as well ask how many bricks are in this Church? Liam, start counting!
In all of the above, Bob was clearly a uniquely gifted man – but he also is representative of his generation, judged by Tom Brokaw and others as the “Greatest Generation.” With World War II underway, Bob enlisted in the United States Navy, assuming that he would be deployed overseas. But God and the Department of the Navy had other plans. “Bob, what ship were you on during WWII?” “The ‘BCB’ of course, … that is, the ‘Big Cement Building’ right here in Boston doing administrative and secretarial work.” “Did you fail the physical?” “No, they found out that I knew how to type!” Where he served his country is less important than that he served his country in its time of need, thus embodying those characteristics described by Tom Brokaw:
“The young Americans of this time constituted a generation marked for greatness…It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed them and who prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order.” (Brokaw, p.11) “Towering achievement and modest demeanor” – that was Bob Collins.
Another “sacrifice of the highest order” for Bob was the death of his beloved Dorothy who passed to the Lord six years ago. Bob, supported by the daily attention of his family, continued his routine activities with his accustomed gracious spirit and infectious smile. But some six months ago when declining health put his safety at risk, he moved to a new dwelling place at St. Teresa’s Manor. Now for 95 of his 95 ½ years, Bob never complained about anything. He was the consummate Christian gentleman, always gracious and grateful, but he found the adjustment to the nursing home challenging. We might say that after all those years of patient listening to others complaints, he deserved to have a few of his own, but even this was marked by the traits of character that he had reinforced for more than nine decades. When his family or other close friends came to visit him at St. Teresa’s, he would sometimes claim that he was lonely and languishing there, anxious to return to his own home. But after they left, in an almost Ferris Buehler mode, (imagine that at age 95!) he would spring into action and go about his work of ministering to the needs of the other residents, sitting with them, listening to them, praying the Rosary with them, even crooning a few Irish tunes to bring life and joy to the downhearted. One day, Chris and David stopped by for an unannounced visit and while still in the lobby heard a man’s voice singing “When Irish eyes are smiling”. Recognizing that it was Dad’s voice, they quietly left and left him to continue his ministry.
Later, residents of St. Teresa’s informed the family that Bob’s pastoral visits to people, along with the crooning of old Irish songs, was a daily occurrence. Just this past Saturday, the day before Bob died, there was a traffic jam in the hallway of St. Teresa’s Manor, as a cavalcade of walkers and wheelchairs lined up to pay a final visit to Bob and express their thanks for his presence and ministry to them.
There are two things inscribed on the Collins tombstone in St. Joseph Cemetery. On one side of the stone is the Medal of St. Benedict; on the other side is a quote from the Church’s funeral liturgy which we will pray later in the Mass. “Life is changed – not ended.” The full text is “Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”
This brings us back to the dwelling place theme where we began. Today we are celebrating Bob’s move from the earthly dwelling place to the heavenly dwelling place, prepared for him by God for all eternity. We pray that he now experience the fulfillment of the promise made to him on that winter day in 1916 when he was baptized into the family of God’s Church on earth. May he join his beloved Dorothy in the heavenly Church in that new dwelling place where life is changed forever not ended. And may his Irish eyes continue to smile as he beholds his Lord and Redeemer face to face forever. Amen.