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The muddy Illinois River ranks among the least distinguished of the Mississippi’s tributaries, a brown expanse of water sliding past slippery banks strewn with refuse. From time to time, after heavy rains, the river jumps its traces. But such floods disrupt only momentarily the rhythm of life along its banks. Eventually the rain stops, the water subsides, and the old routines resume.

Neither grand nor beautiful, the Illinois’ chief character is mere serviceability. And that is likewise the character of the towns that lie near it. Their names are not without charm: Ottawa, Chillicothe, Seneca, and Marseilles (“Mar-sails” in local argot). But these prim villages remain largely unknown, hidden in the vast rural heartland, a region long settled yet all but lost in a nation defined by its great cities and its sprawling, distended suburbs. To travelers passing through from the East Coast or even from Chicago, these small towns are not even subjects for nostalgia. Like the odd surviving dime store or drive-in movie, they are artifacts, bound for oblivion and not likely to be missed.

That the Illinois Valley would offer an auspicious setting for a monastery school for boys no longer appears obvious. But in the late 1800s, this was boom country. Opportunity—to farm, to work the railroads out of Chicago, to mine coal, or to snare a job in one of the small factories sprouting along the river—drew a steady stream of immigrants into the valley. First the Irish and Germans, then the Poles and Italians, came in waves, their arrival not only swelling the population along the Illinois but giving the valley a pronounced Catholic character.

That the sons of these newcomers should receive a distinctively Catholic education went without saying—at least so concluded John Lancaster Spalding, the energetic first bishop of Peoria, installed in 1877. Spalding’s master plan for his newly created diocese envisioned a full-scale network of Catholic institutions—not just in prosperous Peoria but upriver as well. To found such institutions, however, Spalding needed to recruit the religious staff to run them—no small task when it came to the backwater towns along the banks of the Illinois.

But Spalding had luck as well as energy: the Benedictines of St. Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, were then embarking upon an ambitious campaign of missionary monasticism, seeking to extend the order’s presence throughout mid-America. In 1890, the abbot of St. Vincent’s accepted Spalding’s challenge and dispatched a tiny contingent of monks to the Illinois Valley to create a new monastic community and to found a school.

The end of the nineteenth century was a time of rapid growth for the Church and Catholic education in the United States, and Spalding’s enthusiasm for institution-building was hardly unique. In dioceses across the nation, brick-and-mortar prelates pursued similar programs, giving rise to the empire of churches and schools, seminaries and convents, hospitals and retreat houses that would constitute the tangible patrimony of the American Catholic Church in this century.

The new Benedictine endeavor along the Illinois, however, was in some ways atypical. At a time when the character of the American Church was decidedly urban and working class, the transplants from St. Vincent’s set about establishing their community virtually on the prairie. And at a time when the Church was almost stridently ethnic, they determined to transcend chauvinism: In naming their enterprise, they passed over the patrons identified with locally prominent ethnic groups to select the great Benedictine scholar of early England, the Venerable Bede.

On September 7, 1891, the new school opened, a faculty of six welcoming fifty students. Bishop Spalding had envisioned a full-fledged college. What he got was a high school, situated on a spacious tract along the river’s northern bank (on land once belonging to Daniel Webster and known locally as “Webster Farm”), catering to a mix of boarders and day students, the sons of farmers or local businessmen. The result was a far cry from Groton or Choate. But the men of St. Bede did not aspire to create a fancy prep school decked out in papist regalia. Nor did they presume to vie with the likes of Notre Dame or Georgetown, hungry to achieve acceptance in the secular precincts of American higher education. For St. Bede, the very notion of such ambition was absurd. Yet far from breeding a sense of complacency or provincialism, diffidence fostered a clarity of purpose. From the outset, this was one place that knew what it was about. The school took root.

By the time I enrolled in 1961 as a fourteen year-old “minim,” St. Bede was in its seventieth year. Years earlier, it had become our “family school.” In attending I was following in my father’s footsteps—almost, it seemed, in a literal sense. For in the twenty-five year interval between his matriculation and my own, the spartan campus had hardly changed. The strands of continuity extended well beyond the iron bedsteads, battered steel lockers, and scarred wooden desks. The program of studies and the daily regimen to which my fellow boarders and I were introduced had served my father’s generation well enough and—despite the cataclysms of the 1940s and 1950s—would presumably serve my generation just as well.

Parents, students, and faculty all took this for granted, indeed, found it reassuring: continuity signified strength and steadfastness. Within this small enclave, self-contained and even somewhat aloof on its bluff overlooking the river and beyond the outskirts of town, past and present formed a seamless whole. We expected things to stay that way.

Those expectations proved to be illusory. Even then, outside the Illinois Valley, floodwaters were gathering. St. Bede was about to be engulfed, and when the waters receded, they revealed a school and a Church utterly transformed. The changes were irrevocable. They were also profoundly disorienting.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Americans in large numbers teased themselves with the notion that the United States was about to enter a new and exciting era. The moment had arrived for the nation to shake loose from the uptight, button-down, gray flannel spirit of the immediate postwar years. And for evidence that Big Change was indeed beckoning, one needed to look no further than the national political scene where avuncular old Ike—epitomizing the flaccid politics of the 1950s—was giving way to the glamorous and dynamic John F. Kennedy.

The symbolism of JFK’s storied inauguration of January 20, 1961 extended well beyond the generational passing of authority from five-star general to lieutenant, junior grade. “The Sixties” had arrived, a time when style and substance became interchangeable. Embodying the new age was the aura surrounding Kennedy himself and his bright young men: the alluring mixture of elegance and energy; the witty and self-deprecating personal manner; the huge stores of self-confidence; the jut-jawed idealism stripped bare (so we were informed) of all illusion; the eagerness to grapple with the great and dangerous challenges of the day. “Our problems are critical,” Kennedy announced in his first State of the Union Address barely a week after his inauguration. “The tide is unfavorable. The news will be worse before it is better.” Thus taken into the handsome young President’s confidence, Americans found such grim prospects to be at once invigorating and titillating. Perilous seas lay dead ahead and our green-as-grass helmsman unflinchingly set course for the storm’s very center. We thrilled at the prospect.

To top it off, the Kennedys were conspicuously, even ostentatiously, Catholic. To the President’s co-religionists, this was a hugely important fact, further reinforcing impressions that events in general were taking a positive turn: Kennedy’s ascent to the presidency—and his clan’s investiture as America’s Royal Family—seemed to eradicate the last vestiges of American anti-Catholicism. When Jack and Jackie moved triumphantly into the White House, American Catholics at last laid claim to full citizenship.

So things appeared even in the most obscure corners of the American Church. When I arrived at St. Bede, the spirit of the New Frontier pervaded the campus. A resplendent portrait of the President and First Lady hung in the school office. The schoolboy-editors of Via Baeda acclaimed the onset of the “Soaring Sixties,” a decade that they proclaimed uniquely rich in promise. If fulfilling that promise required that the stodgy, the timid, and the cautious would be discomfited, so be it. There was abroad in the land an eagerness to reinvigorate flagging causes (above all, the fight against communism), to right old wrongs (starting with racial inequality), to drag dated institutions into the modern world (not excluding the Church), and to affirm the righteousness of American power (rendered by Via Baeda as ICBMs, B-52 bombers, nuclear submarines, and Mercury space capsules).

That imposing photos of the latest in rocketry and military hardware—provided courtesy of the federal government—should grace a high school annual seemed altogether fitting. Technology was the lubricant that greased the wheels of progress. Unlike other sources of wealth or power that were finite, technology-in the classroom, we tended still to refer to it as “science”—was boundless. Better still, in the advances that technology promised to the Soaring Sixties there would be no losers. There would be nothing lost.

News penetrating our enclave told of momentous events unfolding in Washington and elsewhere. Throughout our four years, the clamor for civil rights grew ever more insistent and was the single story most consistently dominating the headlines. But there was much more. In our freshman year, John Glenn orbited Earth in Friendship 7 and the President seized the moment to commit the United States to putting a man on the moon by decade’s end. When we were sophomores, the world survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tale of hubris, miscalculation, and barely averted catastrophe recast as an epic starring the valiant young Roland and his stalwart lieutenants. In our junior year, Kennedy was assassinated, achieving in an instant a status beyond history. By the time we received our diplomas, the American air offensive against North Vietnam had begun and the first U.S. combat troops were deploying to South Vietnam, determined to make good the martyred President’s vow to “pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Even as self-absorbed teenagers, we sensed that these developments were historic. Yet however much we yearned to have a hand in some great undertaking, amidst our cornfields we remained mere spectators, consumers of news bulletins from Cape Canaveral or Birmingham or Dallas, eager readers of Time magazine’s latest upbeat dispatch out of Saigon. Traipsing from dorm to chapel to refectory to classroom under the watchful eye of the men who served as our prefects and teachers, we could not possibly imagine that the old order was about to be swept away, with St. Bede itself an ancillary casualty.

Even today, with the utility of the sixties as political metaphor firmly established, the decade remains contested terrain. Some persist in seeing it as a period of bold experimentation and high ideals, a grand progressive assault on the forces of oppression and reaction, a popular uprising of the young, the marginalized, and the dispossessed bound together by their common commitment to liberation. For others the 1960s signify disaster, the moment when America went off the rails, plunging into an abyss of political, fiscal, and moral profligacy from which it has not yet managed to extricate itself.

Neither interpretation is empirically sustainable. A balanced appraisal of the sixties will probably remain beyond reach until the Baby Boomers who defined its sensibility finally pass from the scene. For the moment, the most that lies within our power is to document in an evenhanded and truthful way the world that the sixties swept aside. For a conservative undertaking such an enterprise, America’s present-day pathologies and debased culture offer tempting points of departure. But to work back from the present is to make a great mistake, one guaranteed to degenerate into faultfinding while reviving controversies that today possess all the relevance of love beads. Better to begin such an appraisal simply by remembering the small and seemingly insignificant places that great events swept aside. St. Bede Academy was one such place.

I do not mean to portray the Old School in golden hues. St. Bede did not lack for shortcomings. In some respects, it fell short even of its own modest aspirations. Viewed from afar, the St. Bede campus can easily be mistaken for a minimum security correctional facility. A silvery water tower—standard-issue to even the most unassuming settlement throughout the Midwest—dominates a cluster of brick buildings. Only after one leaves the highway to drive up the long, tree-lined access road—“the Lane”—does the institution’s academic purpose and religious identity become apparent. The Lane ends in a tear shaped turnaround at the school’s entrance. Centered in that teardrop is a small circular fishpond, and centered in the fishpond stands a small statue of Mary. In those days, peacocks strutted on the lawn and among the trees, their whimsical presence part of the surroundings as long as anyone could remember.

A commitment to function over form apparently inspired the deservedly forgotten architects who over a period of decades designed the school’s buildings. That the result may still please the eye is a tribute to the capacity of otherwise undistinguished old structures to transform themselves as they settle comfortably into their surroundings.

At St. Bede, the main building, housing classrooms, study halls, chapel, and dorms, is plain, purposeful, and solid, its no-nonsense exterior redeemed upon entry by tall ceilings and windows and cool, dark corridors hung with photographs of past graduating classes. Extending directly behind the school is the refectory and above it the library, this wing also connecting to the silent precincts of the abbey proper. Adjacent to the school is the gymnasium, a monstrosity of stone, metal, and glass designed in the boxy style of the 1950s and within a decade of completion already acquiring a slatternly look. Directly behind the gym are playing fields: courts, diamond, and gridiron surrounded by a cinder track. Near the athletic fields and in the shadow of the water tower squats a large barn, home in the early 1960s to several dozen milk cows.

As a place to live, week-in and week-out, such surroundings left much to be desired. The entire operation was strictly no-frills. In my time, student sleeping quarters were long open dorms, musky with the smell of young bodies, wet towels, and dirty laundry. This absence of privacy defined every aspect of our existence outside of the confessional. We dressed together, showered together, attended Mass together, and dined together on meals that achieved a spectacular standard of unpalatability.

The daily routine was fixed and distractions few. Weekdays began with mandatory chapel and ended with mandatory study hall. The time for lights-out did not vary. Campus amenities consisted of little more than vending machines and battered pool tables. Even on weekends—apart from brief afternoon excursions when we prowled nearby towns for unattached girls—we were confined to campus. Violation of this rule meant immediate expulsion. On rare occasions, we ventured under strict monkish supervision to some local parish hall for a sock hop, encountering the same girls we had pursued earlier that day (raising questions as to who was pursuing whom).

Given such restrictions, diversions tended to be of the roll-your-own variety: for the hard cases, sneaking cigarettes and trading off-color stories in the lavatory; for the self-consciously sensitive, long walks down the Lane with longer conversations that invariably concerned parents or girls; for the high-testosterone crowd, sweaty, exhausting evenings in the gym playing full-court, shirts-on-skins, call-your-own-fouls basketball. We forged lasting friendships. Yet as teenage boys throbbing with adolescent anxieties and bewildered by our yearning to achieve manhood, we behaved at times toward one another with a casual viciousness and petty brutality that one can only recall with shame.

We knew that St. Bede was a religious community as well as a school, but we attributed little consequence to that fact. We were seldom out of the sight of priests, but we were singularly incurious about who they were. From time to time—when attending a requiem mass for a deceased member of the community, for example—the curtain would part and we saw something of the inner life of the abbey. But for the most part we paid little conscious attention to the life of the men in whose care we had been placed. Nor did we wish for more: for the most part, we took it for granted that the abbey existed to serve us—when the reverse was no less the truth.

By 1990s standards, the monastic community I knew would fail to qualify for sympathetic interest. For starters, the abbey would flunk present-day diversity requirements. Not only, of course, all male and all Catholic, it was also (with a single exception) all white. Further, although the priests and brothers of St. Bede lived a meager existence, they were poor not because they were oppressed but because they chose to be. And with each member of the community having taken a vow of celibacy, individual sexual orientation was not a matter of huge political significance.

Yet the monks made for a rich collection of characters and personalities. They ranged from the very old to the very young, with several of our teachers still in their twenties—astonishing to recall at a time when it has become increasingly rare to find an American Catholic priest not approaching eligibility for social security. Some were gentle and tolerant; others irritable, impatient, and ill-tempered. We had teachers and prefects who were erudite and sophisticated, accomplished men of letters who expended entire careers patiently tutoring unreceptive teenagers in first-year Latin or initiating them into the splendors of natural law. We had a few others who could be crude and loutish, bumpkins who invited teenage ridicule. In manner, a handful were effeminate, in one or two instances excruciatingly so; but the rest—the great majority—were vigorously and self-evidently masculine. In retrospect—though as boys we were oblivious to the fact—it is clear that some among their number were wrestling with the same fearsome demons that we would ourselves come to know soon enough.

In short, they were flawed, quirky, and utterly human—polar opposites of the exalted clerics we had beheld from an appropriately respectful distance in our parishes at home. Indeed, living at close quarters with the monks of St. Bede Abbey overturned our understanding of what it meant to be “religious.” These men were not obviously pious or saintly. They were, it seemed, merely men.

Yet to our adolescent eyes, they were men not quite up to the mark. In their disciplined commitment to the Rule of St. Benedict, the monks of the abbey accepted—seemingly reveled in—their own individual insignificance. They had forsworn even the possibility of real achievement, accomplishment, or recognition, at least as such things were defined by the world at large. Unable even to conceive of significance except as the world defined it, we found this to be unfathomable. Wayfarers engaged in some incomprehensible quest, they had chosen to remain rooted in a single place. For us, St. Bede could never qualify as a destination. It was a transit point, a waystation through which one hastened en route to places of real importance. As a result, our evaluation of the men who had chosen to live out their lives there—even those for whom we felt affection and gratitude—was, at its kindest, patronizing. Life was passing them by, while we, dazzled by the cardboard-and-paste grandeur of Camelot and hungry with ambition, were eager to hurl ourselves into the “real” world.

In that world, events soon revealed that things were not what they were purported to be. Big Change came all right—to the country, the culture, the Church—but the results were hardly as promised. Much of it was disastrous, all of it disconcerting.

Responding to the tumult of the sixties—war, sexual revolution, and economic duress—St. Bede also changed. Although the campus still looks much as it did in my day, things are fundamentally different. The last boarder cleared out his locker years ago, and at roughly the same time, the school went coed: with these two decisions, St. Bede shed one identity and put on another. More significantly, as priestly vocations dried up (indeed, as several of the younger monks quit the abbey and priesthood altogether) and as age thinned the ranks of monks able to teach, lay teachers gradually supplanted them in the classroom. For a Catholic school in the 1990s, none of this qualifies as unusual. And the St. Bede that exists today—that continues to prosper and to serve the people of the Illinois Valley—may be in its way as good as the school that my father and I attended. But in the differences between what St. Bede was and what it has become there is loss.

However inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, St. Bede was a place where men strove to rise above paltriness. Woefully late I have come to understand that the lasting value of our education at their hands derived not from what we learned in the classroom but from their generosity in permitting us to glimpse the enterprise to which they were committed as men stubbornly aspiring to true freedom and the possibility of a genuinely purposeful life.

My own son today attends a Catholic high school for boys, a school run, needless to say, by lay people. They are well-meaning, dedicated, and competent. Yet inevitably, his own schoolboy experience differs from his father’s and my own father’s. Although my son carries on his own frustrating struggles with Latin and natural law, he will never view a priest as other than a remote and exotic creature, a figure to be approached with a mixture of wariness and respect. Deprived of intimate contact with men like those among whom I once lived—Timothy and Hugh, David and Marion, Roger and Andrew, Allen and Gabriel, Arthur and Claude, and all the rest—he is likewise deprived of the manly aspirations that they exemplified and that are now all but lost. Tempered only by the fact that my son’s generation and those that follow will remain unaware of it, that loss is incalculable.

A. J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Image by chrismetcalfTV licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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