Oasis: Last of City’s Marist Brothers Greening South Wheeling
*Originally published by The Intelligencer: Wheeling News Register on November 5, 2022.
WHEELING — It was a day so blue-sky perfect it seemed entirely possible. The garden oasis the city’s two remaining Marist brothers have wrapped around their tidy Victorian and leapfrogged into an empty lot elsewhere in the neighborhood could clearly stretch some more.
Past an auction sign just next door. Past a house across the street whose long emptiness has inspired target practice.
“It was just a BB gun,” Brother John Byrd was quick to explain of the small holes that pierced most of that home’s front windows.
Such South Wheeling vagaries do not alarm him or the “other brother.” Both Byrd and Brother John McDonagh have each worked in the Bronx in their years of ministry. McDonagh is, in fact, a native of that borough of New York City and can turn the accent on and off at will.
They’ve seen urban. They’ve seen blight. South Wheeling really isn’t either in their opinions.Instead, Byrd tentatively sniffs the air. The former Bloch Bros. Tobacco Company — still operational in Swisher’s incarnation of the same industry — sometimes scents the neighborhood’s air in a good way. And, the garden remains colorful and full of herby fragrances all its own.
Neighborhood kids are meandering home from school with backpacks and violin cases in tow. The brothers watch it all from their porch steps, still surrounded by bright orange marigolds, and smile.
Their order may be smaller than the glory days when 14 or so Marist brothers were staffing and administering Wheeling Central Catholic High School. But, there is still much that can be done. And, one way or another, they’re going to do it.
At 81, McDonagh said he is leading a quieter, book-filled life these days. The days of teaching Spanish and religion classes hither and yon — including a stint in Puerto Rico — are done. The years of caring for retired brothers in New England and serving as chaplain at Wheeling Hospital, Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital and the former Ohio Valley Medical Center are finished, as well.
But, McDonagh said he can still be leavening. That is a scriptural reference to a little yeast being able to set an entire ball of dough into action.
Byrd, 73, is still thinking more ball of fire, in contrast.
A California native who grew up in Wheeling and graduated from Wheeling Central, he worked as an English teacher and guidance counselor in locations as far flung as Kobe, Japan and the Pine Ridge Agency of the Oglala Lakotas in South Dakota.
Aging parents brought him back to Wheeling about 20 years ago. A heart attack brought an end to school life, but Byrd pivoted.
“I call it ‘refirement,'” he joked. “I had to stop full-time teaching. But, I realized I was still alive.”
Indeed. In recent years, he co-founded the South Wheeling Preservation Alliance with Ginger Kabala, wrote a history of the neighborhood and was instrumental in getting the area declared a historic district. That brought historic preservation tax credits into play for home and business owners.
Byrd assists with liturgy at times at the downtown Cathedral of St. Joseph — donning the black cassock whose deep cuffs once served as a repository for detention slips. He also puts his Master Gardener skills to work at home and in the neighborhood plots at nearby Gorczyca Gardens — another of his creations.
He is enthusiastic to near twitchiness about the gardening side of his life and ministry. He’s planted roses along the fence of one neighbor and would clearly like to dig and prune his way up and down the street. For now, his own garden is bursting with color and unusual perennials such as a witch hazel shrub that’s more commonly seen in the woods.
Byrd noted neighbors of all ages sometimes ask to pop in just to see what’s in bloom or to run their fingers through herbs such as lavender. He loves it when they do.
Once, he said, two older teen girls who hadn’t finished high school were interested to the point he put them to work and paid them — to their astonishment. The three became friendly enough that he had just gotten the forms necessary for them to pursue equivalency diplomas when they moved with no warning.
“That saddened me,” he said, noting that helping people get sufficient education to prosper and to come out of spiritual poverty is the heart of Marist philosophy.
Founded in France in 1817, the Marists formed to fill the gap left behind when Napoleon siphoned off the educated from rural areas, McDonagh explained. The brothers feared peasants could otherwise be doomed to illiteracy.
Then nicknamed the Little Brothers of Mary — the order took on a permanent educational ministry that is reflected in their modern name, the Marist Brothers of the Schools, he added.
That educational commitment — which now includes running schools all over the world — is what brought the Marists to Wheeling, Byrd said. While the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston operates area Catholic schools, Marists were contracted in the 1930s to staff and administer Wheeling Central, he explained.
Brothers originally lived in a large, communal home near the school, he said. Later, the men maintained two homes in South Wheeling.
Byrd believes the Marist tradition of simplicity and gentleness — intended to be a reflection of the character of the Virgin Mary for whom they are named — is still present in area parochial schools.
He noted some of the present teachers were themselves educated when the Marists were still in broad service.
Now down to two brothers in one house, they both fear something special is disappearing from Wheeling, however.
They pointed to the corresponding dwindling of multiple orders of Roman Catholic sisters once serving in Wheeling down to one — the Sisters of St. Joseph.
A lack of religious vocations has led to a shortage of priests, but Byrd said it has hollowed out the middle ministries of the faith.
“It used to irritate me when people would ask why I wasn’t a priest,” Byrd admitted of what amounts to an internal competition among Roman Catholic orders. “The priesthood still has that cachet as being prestigious.”
Cachet or not, both men said they knew by high school that they wanted to be Marist brothers like those who taught them. Byrd compares the order to jelly-jar drinking glasses in terms of simplicity and community presence.
They each said they knew it was a life they would love.
They just wish it was on the radar screen of more young Catholics. “We have young brothers come and visit us for summers,” McDonagh said wistfully, joking that Wheeling is far enough away from the East Coast states from which many of the remaining vocations hail to feel exotic.
Byrd noted that Marists have seen tough times in the past and have survived. He explained that, after World War I, an anti-clerical sentiment arose in France that caused the order to move as far afield as China and South America.
The brothers founded schools, taught classes. “That’s what our founder would have wanted,” Byrd said. “It’s like a garden. You look around and see what needs to be done. I think we’re all called to do that as Christians.”
That potential broadening of service also gives McDonagh hope for a continued Marist spirit if not an actual community in Wheeling. “It will never die because people have needs,” McDonagh said. “People need brothers. People need sisters.”