Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Biography: Father William Fraser



St. Agnes, formerly St. Francis

William Fraser, he appears to have had no middle name, was born on April 2, 1867 in Inverness-shire Scotland and immigrated to Canada at age five in 1872. He attended St. Paul's School in Toronto and the University of Toronto's St. Michael's College. Following his graduation (about 1888) William joined the building trades as a carpenter like his father, according to the census of 1891, working at his trade for over a decade. Then he made a very dramatic move,joining the Trappist Monks at the Abbey at Our Lady of Gethsemani of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, in Louisville Kentucky in July of 1896 at 29 years of age. Although second oldest in the family, William was the last to join a religious order.

William became attracted by the monastic life after doing some carpentry work at his sister Teresa's convent. The peace and tranquility of her new life as Sister St. John, had a profound affect upon him. Some sense of that attraction to the monastic life can, perhaps, be found in how the Trappists describe themselves:

We are Trappists, Cistercians, Benedictines, monks. Trappists are a kind of Cistercian; Cistercians are a kind of Benedictine; Benedictines are a kind of monk. It is a question of different ways of being monks, of seeking silence, solitude, discipline for the sake of living the gospel well, for the sake of growing in love.

Other religions have monks. Around 300 AD Christians began to seek solitude as a means of drawing closer to God and coming to love their neighbor. Some lived by themselves, hermits. Some lived in communities where silence and a simple lifestyle helped them focus on God.

Shortly after 500 AD in central Italy, St. Benedict wrote a rule for monks living in community. St. Benedict led his monks to God by a searching obedience, fraternal charity and a balanced way of life that, while exacting, remained within the reach of the average Christian. Eventually, this rule came to be followed by most of the monasteries of the western Church. Those who live according to the rule of St. Benedict are called Benedictines.

As the rule of St. Benedict spread to different times, places and situations, it gave rise to different interpretations and adaptations, to different observances. In Burgundy, France, just before 1100, the Cistercians accented poverty, work to support themselves, separation from worldly affairs, a measure of common prayer that left ample time for individual prayer and reading.

The 17th century reform spearheaded by the monastery of la Trappe (hence the name "Trappist") aimed at recovering the austerity of the early Cistercians and their interpretation of the rule of St. Benedict. Mitigations in the areas of silence, diet, manual labor, recreation, contact with the outside world were rejected.

One of the communities following the Trappist reform was Melleray in western France. By 1848, Melleray was so flourishing that overpopulation made a foundation necessary. Friendship with the aged Bishop Flaget drew them to Kentucky. On December 21, 1848, 45 founders from Melleray settled at Gethsemani, into buildings and property purchased from the Sisters of Loretto.

William also believed that the monistary offered hope of his becoming a priest. However, when it became clear that this was not to be the case, after three years as a monk (he had taken the religous name of Brother Andrew), William left in 1899 to study for the Priesthood at the Collegio Brignole-Sale, in Genoa, Italy where he majored in Philosophy. He was ordained on March 31, 1905 and literally set sail to join his younger, brother Msgr. John Fraser as a missionary in Ichi Kiang, China until 1909. However, he did not have the same linguistic skill as his brother and could never master the Chinese dialect. He returned to Toronto as Associate Pastor of St. Ann's Parish until 1913, then was named Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Grimsby Ontario. 1915 found him serving as Associate pastor at St. Michael's Cathedral and associate pastor of St. John's. In January of 1917 he served as associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi (later St. Agnes) at 15 Grace Street in Toronto, just a block away from his parents home at 41 Grace St. He was joined there for the summer of 1917 by his nephew, the future Bishop Francis Carrol, just prior to Francis Carrol's first appoinment as pastor of his own church. William was still at St. Agnes when his parents died, within six months of each other, in 1920.

New St. Francis

Father William was an easy going man who enjoyed a cigar and a ocassional drink. When in the wake of a scandal involving a young priest, the church, in Toronto, decided no priest would be permitted to drive within twelve hours of consuming alcohol or ever ride in the same car with a woman, Father William, one of the oldest men present at the meeting called to announce the new rules, publicly challenged the Cardinal's decrees, saying they went too far. The Cardinal was not amused.

After a brief stint as administrator of St. John the Evangelist Parish he returned to China with his brother from 1926 until 1929. Finally returning to Toronto in 1929 at 52 years of age, he was appointed Champlain of Loretto Abbey and Loretto College School, an exclusive Catholic Womens College in Toronto. According to Sister Juliana Dusel, General Archivist of Loretto Abbey, William went blind in the latter years of his time at the Abbey, however he had memorized two forms of the Mass (The Mass of the Blessed Virgin and the Mass of the Dead) so that he could continue to serve. However, blind and now old, his saying of the Mass began to take so long that the Sisters, required to be at their various schools to teach, were frequently made late. Sister Juliana also notes that, "he is remembered fondly by all who knew him, and who describe him as having been always kind and gently--an excellent chaplain to the Sisters and our boarders."

Notes from the handwritten annals of the Abbey track his decline:
"April 16, 1950 - Father Fraser has not been able for some time to say mass. He is not able to walk and comes to the second Mass on Sundays in a wheel chair. Msgr. Fraser is soon to leave for Japan and the parting will be hard.

"June 5, 1950 - Bishop Carroll said Mass at 8 a. m. He is to give the priests' retreats at St. Augustine's Seminary in the next three weeks. He spoke of Father Fraser and intends to speak to the Cardinal, he thinks Mercy Hospital would be the best place for him now that he is no longer able to say Mass.

"Sept. 22, 1950 - Our dear Fr. Fraser whose strength has not returned enough to enable him to say Mass at all since last March had finally become reconciled to moving to Mercy Hospital and was ready when a room was announced for him for today. Mother General and a number of the community were at the door to see him into the car with Mr. Smith (driver for the sisters), his radio and other things occupying the other seat. M.M. Dionysia had done much, and Mrs. Ralston his neice the rest, in sorting and packing everything. He was very lonely leaving but cheered up somewhat when Mother General (Victorine O'Meara) held out the hope that he would come back to say Mass in the new chapel."

Father Fraser lived out the last years of his life at his nephew, Bishop Carroll's beloved St. Agustine's Seminary until his death on November 24, 1952 at age 85. He is buried in the Regina Cleri Cemetery in Scarborough Ontario. Bill and Rosanna Fraser, attended his funeral where they met several relatives (Father's Frank and Gerald Fraser) who were Catholic priests from Chicago, Illinois, son's of William's brother Alexander, from the Chicago branch of the family. Father William was well known to them and had visited them in Chicago many times.