Remembering Jerry Ryan

A Common Laborer, an Uncommon Reader, a Man of God
Christ of the Breadlines, Fritz Eichenberg

Jerry Ryan came into my office at United States Catholic Conference in October 1973, just weeks after the coup d’etat in Chile, an event that totally consumed my work life for many months.  Until 2001, 9/11 meant only that day in 1973 when a flawed leftist democracy had been violently overthrown by the Chilean military led by General Augusto Pinochet.

Jerry had come up from Argentina, having fled there from Santiago, Chile, where he had been working in a foundry that the new government shut down. He was staying at Tabor House in Washington D.C., a Christian community founded by a Carmelite priest and a Mercy Sister. After recounting a bit of his quite extraordinary experience, he said, “Let’s get out of here—let’s get a beer.”

So we went out the back of the USCC’s old building at 1312 Massachusetts Avenue and into Stoney’s Bar and Grill on L Street, where he continued the fascinating story of his life as a Little Brother of Jesus, most recently in Chile. I told him this was a story that needed to be told and that he should write it up. He said he had already done so and pulled out a five-page, single-spaced typed manuscript. After doing a bit of editing for grammar and punctuation, I sent it to Jack Deedy at Commonweal. “The Chilean Coup: An Eyewitness Account” appeared in the November 2, 1973, issue of the magazine. It was the first of what would turn out to be well over thirty Commonweal articles. The Chile article began with an editorial comment:

The following is a Chilean foundry-worker’s first-hand account of events surrounding the September 11 coup. The author, who managed to escape into Argentina where he wrote this, must remain anonymous, but he is well known to the Division for Latin America, U.S. Catholic Conference, which verifies this is his account.

Today’s writers and editors may be interested in what they paid for articles back then. I have a note from Ed Skillin apologizing for failing to pay the author—I had requested payment be made to the Division for Latin America, which would then get the money to the author—and the check was for $60. Quite generous when you consider that a similar article I had fenced with Christianity & Crisis brought in only $35. Yet another article by Jerry—he was bursting with tales to tell—was rejected by the Nation but brought a nice note from Carey McWilliams, who said they were running “a somewhat similar” piece. I sent a third article to Bob Hoyt, then editor of The American Report, noting that if he didn’t want it, “I may try a paper out in Kansas City I’ve heard about.” Bob, of course, was the founding editor of the National Catholic Reporter, and had been unceremoniously dumped by the NCR Board. Jim Castelli, then NCR associate editor, replied that much of it sounded close to Fr. Fred McGuire’s Congressional testimony for the USCC. No surprise there, as I had written the testimony, based largely on Jerry’s accounts. He was also to publish five articles  in NCR and one in the Catholic Worker (under the byline José Obrero) and would soon become a close friend of Dorothy Day, whom he had first met in the 1950s.

 

He spent most of his life as a common laborer—working as a coremaker at a foundry, as a fisherman on a Norwegian banana boat, and as a gravedigger in Leeds.

It would take some years—and the reading of several lengthy accounts of Jerry’s life, a couple of brilliant but unfinished personal memoirs, lengthy essays on Joan of Arc, as well as numerous letters back and forth between the two of us—before I could claim to really know Jerry, but my admiration and affection for him was there from the beginning. He was a good writer but a great reader: of Léon Bloy (“my master and inspirer”), François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Jacques Maritain, Charles Péguy, plus the European pre–Vatican II theologians, plus Dostoyevsky, plus Christopher Dawson, T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, Mortimer Adler, and more. Though he spent most of his life as a common laborer—working as a coremaker at a foundry, as a fisherman on a Norwegian banana boat, as a gravedigger in Leeds, and, for over thirty years, as a cleaner at the Boston Aquarium—he was also a profound thinker and a sophisticated theologian. He was also a bit of a skeptic in his way, rejecting, or at least being indifferent to, church teachings that didn’t arise from identification with the anawim, the poorest of the poor.

While he didn’t choose suffering, he welcomed it as participation in Christ’s Passion, and he welcomed a lot of it. He recounts having a wisdom tooth extracted—on Halloween—“and the friendly dentist who did the job broke my jaw in the process. This resulted in extreme facial pain which would last years and very often prevented me from sleeping.” Just a few years ago, at age seventy-seven, he fell down and broke a hip and wrist. He later told of having to drink heavily just in order to fall asleep, which led to his becoming addicted to alcohol in his later years.

Jerry was a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, Hermanitos de Jesús, one of the communities founded by René Voillaume, inspired by the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld. Jerry was the first American to be accepted into the Fraternity, although as he was leaving for France to begin his novitiate, he met Denis Goulet (another friend of mine), who had just left the Paulist seminary, as Jerry had just left the Josephites. Jerry described Denis as “brilliant and aware of it,” but they became fast friends before Denis left the Fraternity. (He went on to teach at Harvard and Notre Dame). For years, Jerry was the sole “gringo” among some 270 Brothers.

Jerry Ryan was born July 18, 1937, of Irish and Lithuanian ancestry—what he called a “mixed marriage”—and identified as Boston Irish in his youth but loved his maternal grandparents’ tales of Russia and Lithuania. He was later to join a Russian Orthodox choir near his home in Chelsea. He studied at Boston Latin, applied to both Holy Cross and Boston College, which offered him a 75 percent scholarship. He throve in his studies and social life at B.C.

At that point in his life, he considered himself an agnostic. But he noticed that, while at Boston Latin everyone competed against everyone, at B.C. everyone helped each other. And his new friends “seriously challenged my agnosticism.” He was to recount an experience “on a Friday evening, at dusk, on the trolley from B.C. to my job on Beacon St… It just suddenly hit me that God did exist, that he wanted me to live for Him alone, and in a certain way. Everything was given to me at that moment and the rest of my life has been an unravelling of this initial grace.”

He went to see his Jesuit Greek teacher, put himself under his spiritual guidance, decided he should become a priest, and hit upon the Josephites as “the humblest community I could find.” A fellow novice lent him The Spiritual Writings of Charles de Foucauld and “a new form of contemplative life began to take shape—a contemplative life lived among the poor, without a cloister, sharing the living conditions of the lower classes, working for a living at menial and poorly paid jobs, sharing the precariousness and vulnerability of those without name or influence.”

He joined the Little Brothers, suffered the obloquy of being neither French nor German, mastered the French and Spanish languages, worked in several European countries before being sent to Latin America, parts of which were convulsed in the rabid and violent anti-Communism of the 1970s and ’80s. First to Argentina, then Peru, Paraguay, Bolivia and Chile. Under grave threats in Bolivia, he met Nayda Madrid, a member of a Bolivian missionary congregation and, in time, each of them received permission to put aside their vows as religious and married.

Apart from Nayda, Jerry’s entire life was guided by his appreciation of two women, Joan of Arc and Dorothy Day. He wrote extensive essays on the Maid of Orléans and had become a close friend of Dorothy’s. At Dorothy’s funeral on December 2, 1980, Jerry had what can only be called a mystical experience, which he recounted in a Commonweal article, “The Fear of God” (September 12, 2014):

The only physical experience I’ve ever had of the “supernatural” occurred during Dorothy Day’s funeral Mass. When the gospel reading began, I saw sparks coming from Dorothy’s coffin. My first thought was that there was a short circuit somewhere, but no one seemed concerned. Once the gospel reading was over, the sparks stopped. I dared not mention it to anyone at the time, and no one commented on it. It took me years to muster up the courage to ask my friend Patrick Jordan if he had noticed anything unusual at the funeral. He hadn’t. When I told him of my experience, he said quite simply, “That was for you.” There it was: a gift, a reassuring vision, and my only reaction had been fear and shame.

Jerry Ryan died peacefully at 2:30 in the morning of January 23 with Nayda at his side. He leaves not only his widow and son, Steven, and a large number of friends and admirers, but also a trove of unpublished writings that, one hopes, will someday find their way into print.

Tom Quigley is a former policy advisor on Latin American, Asian, and Caribbean issues to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

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