As a student in the 1930s, James Lavin worked as a sacristan in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas. He swept the floor, laid out priests’ vestments and discovered a spot behind the statue of St. Thomas to stash his toaster during summer vacations.
After his ordination, Lavin would say Mass in the chapel almost daily during more than six decades as a priest, educator and counselor.
And after his retirement, he literally wrote the book on the chapel. His 1997 Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas: Discovering Its Message described the theological themes – “the whole plan of God’s dealing with men,” in his words – found in the stained-glass windows, statues and paintings.
So it was appropriate on Friday, Sept. 21, that Lavin’s funeral would be in his beloved chapel, filled by 500 priests, co-workers, friends and relatives gathered to pay their respects to the man who died Monday at age 93.
“And now for the last time his body is present for the Mass, the sacrifice of Calvary with its sacramental veils,” said Father James Stromberg in a homily peppered with recollections of Lavin’s life as a priest and service to his university and his church.
Stromberg, who taught philosophy at St. Thomas from 1956 to 2002, said that when Lavin was ordained in 1945, he and his fellow seminarians were asked to promise obedience to the archbishop and his successors. “Their Latin response was ‘libenter.’ What they said was ‘willingly,’ ‘freely.’ It could even have been translated as ‘gladly.’”
After serving a year at the St. Paul Cathedral, Lavin was assigned to teach religion at St. Thomas. In addition, Stromberg said, Archbishop John Murray assigned him one more task: “Mother Antonius will ask you to teach a religion class at the College of St. Catherine, and you will say ‘yes.’ And of course, he did. ‘Yes’ was the word that would mark Father Lavin’s priesthood for all of 67-plus years.”
Most of those years were spent in Ireland Hall, living with undergraduate students. Other priests also lived in Ireland as floor deans, but nobody came close to matching Lavin’s tenure – or wanted to.
“Most of the priests of the house looked eagerly to the day when such living arrangements were no longer necessary – not out of contempt for students – but because of fatigue,” Stromberg said.
“But Father Lavin remained, counselor, confessor, confidant. And yes, with the now legendary peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served on Thursday and Sunday nights – Lavin Burgers and prayer. The available priest was always on the ready to give aid and comfort to undergraduate innards and undergraduate souls.”
Friends laud Lavin for his kindness and compassion
Father John Forliti, one of 50 priests at the funeral, said Lavin Burgers were “a brilliant idea.”
“They almost became sacramental for him,” said Forliti, who served as vice president of student affairs at St. Thomas from 1985 to 1992. “A sacrament is a visible sign of God’s love, and he was that sign as a priest.”
Forliti called Lavin “a rock – just a rock. You always could depend on him.”
Lavin was the second person whom Bill Malevich met when he enrolled at St. Thomas in 1951, and they collaborated when Malevich was dean of students and Lavin was director of counseling in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I have always said, ‘He’s my nomination for sainthood.’ I don’t know anybody better for that job than Father Lavin.
Nephew Mike O’Brien attended St. Thomas from 1979 to 1982 and lived in Ireland Hall. He praised his uncle’s unselfishness.
“He was the guardian angel looking over your shoulder,” O’Brien said. “He put everyone else first. He was the original ‘pay it forward’ guy. Long before that was a fashionable term, he was that guy.”
Scott Hull worked with Lavin as an administrative assistant in the Alumni Association office from 1997 to 2004 and admired how Lavin “fought for the kids. They saw the salt of the earth.”
Hull recalled how he found a tersely worded letter that Lavin wrote to Ireland Hall students in the late 1970s after a weekend of revelry. The movie “Animal House” was popular at the time, but Hull said Lavin’s letter advised them, “Let me be the first to tell you that’s not the way it’s going to be around here!”
“I can’t tell a better story than that he lived in Ireland Hall for 56 years with all of those kids and all of that noise,” Hull said. “That just says it all. The kids kept him young, and he knew the only way to stay on their level was to live with them. He never tired of it.”
Mike Degnan, a St. Thomas philosophy professor and 1977 alumnus, lived in Ireland for three years. He remembered how Lavin took him hiking for the first time as a student and gave him a tour of the chapel when he returned to teach.
“He explained the stories behind the stained-glass windows so I could share the same stories with my students,” Degnan said. “He sure loved this chapel.”
Lavin’s legacy, Degnan said, is a simple one: “Service to the students. He embodied that better than anybody. He had real humility. He never sought to be the center of attention, but he always was there for people.”
Archbishop John Nienstedt, principal celebrant at the funeral, also cited Lavin’s unselfish service and called him “a priest’s priest.” Nienstedt read a letter from Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn, who described Lavin as “a shining light for every priest.”
Nienstedt visited Lavin a couple of weeks ago. “He was rather weak but very, very joyful,” the archbishop said. “He knew that he was dying, yet he faced all of that with great joy.”
Service extended beyond the campus
Stromberg pointed out that Lavin’s activities were not confined to campus, as he became St. Thomas’ ever-present ambassador at wakes and funerals.
“There was not a mortician in the Twin Cities and its suburbs and in the near countryside unfamiliar with Father Lavin,” Stromberg said. “He heard the hymns ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ many more times than any priest in the archdiocese. His record will stand.
“My dear friends, if in the greater part of the 20th century and into the present century St. Thomas had a Catholic face, it was largely that of James Martin Lavin.”
Lavin always took time to befriend others, too. Stromberg told the story about former St. Thomas employee Bill Farley, who ended up in a nursing home and was “pretty much alone in the world.”
“James Lavin would check him out of his nursing home early on a Saturday afternoon and take him to a piano bar on University Avenue,” Stromberg said. “There, Bill would enjoy a beer or two while he watched the nice-looking lady play the piano.
“He could only watch because he was nearly stone deaf. Meanwhile, Father Lavin could be found in a quiet corner of the bar with just enough light to read his breviary (daily book of prayers). After returning Bill to the home, he would be off to help with confessions in one of the local parishes.”
Life at the Little Sisters of the Poor residence
With his health in decline, Lavin moved to the Little Sisters of the Poor residence near downtown St. Paul four years ago. He celebrated Mass as often as possible and made the rounds to visit residents.
“He was a wonderful role model of a kind, compassionate priest,” said Sister Theresa Robertson, residence administrator. “He touched our hearts and souls.”
When he took his daily walks in the hall, “he would bless everyone he passed,” she said, “and he had a wonderful, wicked sense of humor. He always had that twinkle in his eye, that great Irish smile, and he loved to tease people.”
Mary Jean Loomis, his administrative assistant in the Alumni Association for several years, said Lavin loved life at the Little Sisters residence. “He would say, ‘They’re fussing over me!’ ”
Sister Maria Francis, who cared for him in his final days and was at the Mass where he died, agreed with Loomis.
“He told me, ‘Sister Maria, do you see why I didn’t marry one woman? It takes 10 women to take care of me!’ ”
After the funeral, on the steps outside the chapel, she pulled from her purse a prayer that she feels perfectly describes Lavin. Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, a 19th century French priest, wrote “Priest of God”:
“To live in the midst of the world without wishing for its pleasures, to be a member of each family yet belonging to none, to share all suffering, to penetrate all secrets, to heal all wounds, to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; to return God to men, to bring pardon and hope, to have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity, to teach and to pardon, console and bless always, what a glorious life! And it is yours, O priest of God!”