“A boy’s will is the wind’s will,” the poet reminds us, but rare is the boy whose wind blows him at a very young age into a career he will profess for life. Joseph Jude Clark was that rare boy.
Born in Cullman County in 1930, Joseph grew up, as he would later say, in the “shadow of St. Bernard,” a Benedictine monastery established, not so long before his birth, in 1891.
Benedictine monks take a vow of stability, a promise to remain attached to one monastery for life, and the shadow of St. Bernard would reveal itself early as Joseph’s stable home. For nearly 76 years, Joseph, who after professing vows would be bestowed the name Victor, would live, work and pray at the abbey until his death at age 94 on Jan. 27, 2024.
And it all began with a “chance” meeting.
The foundation of every Benedictine monastery is “ora et labora,” translated from the Latin as the balancing of prayer and work in monastic settings, and it is certain that Victor was laying that foundation even before his teen years, his confreres say.
After graduating from grammar school in 1943, the young boy took a summer job delivering groceries at White Star Market in Cullman. During that summer, then-Joseph was called into the rectory of Sacred Heart Parish Church by Father Philip Niedermeier. The priest advised the 13-year-old to enter the seminary at St. Bernard.
“We don’t know if he was delivering groceries to the rectory when he was called by Father Niedermeier, but … ,” said Father Paschal, a Birmingham native who came to St. Bernard as a boy to study at St. Bernard Preparatory School. Today, Paschal is a monk and priest working not only in the St. Bernard Development Office but, as of late, also as chronicler of Victor’s long life.
Joseph took the priest’s advice and entered the seminary at age 13 in September 1943. Five years later he entered the novitiate at St. Bernard Abbey. He professed simple, or initial vows in 1949, and solemn, or final vows in 1952. Continuing his studies, Brother Victor would become Father Victor after being ordained to the priesthood on June 5, 1954. He was 24-years-old.
“Almost immediately upon entering the monastery they began giving him increasing responsibilities,” Paschal said.
Those responsibilities didn’t end with the abbey. Earning a master’s degree in botany, Victor would serve throughout the years as prefect in the high school seminary, the major seminary and in many of the campus dormitories. He taught biology from 1952 to 1979 even as he was appointed dean of students in 1965. During summer breaks he offered pastoral service to parishes in the south. In 1976, Victor was appointed procurator of the abbey, a position he held until he was named pastor in 1982 of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Elberta. Four years later, he was recalled to St. Bernard to serve as prior of the monastery. On Sept. 29, 1987, Victor would be blessed as the eighth abbot, the lead administrator and spiritual father, of St. Bernard Abbey.
Victor’s tenure as abbot was marked by a “quiet strength,” say those who lived and worked with him, including one monk who would follow Victor’s example by entering the monastery, becoming a monk, a priest and finally, the current and 10th abbot of St. Bernard.
“He was strong, quiet and focused,” said the Right Rev. Marcus Voss.
Of all of Victor’s brothers at the monastery, it is likely that Abbot Marcus knew him the best. Victor was not only Marcus’s spiritual father, he was a blood relative. Indeed, Marcus served as a 10-year-old altar boy at his uncle’s first Mass in 1954.
“He was a very quiet man, a very focused man, a man of his word,” Marcus said in describing the qualities that helped draw himself to Victor’s way of life. “He was always answering the needs of the people.”
Which included answering Marcus’s own needs and questions, and often with a father’s wisdom.
During the homily for the Mass of Christian Burial Feb. 1, Marcus recalled a time when, as a young monk, he had been confronted with some problems. He approached the abbot for guidance.
“I don’t remember what the troubles were, but I went to Victor and said, ‘I’m thinking about leaving the monastery,’” Marcus said. “And he said, ‘I think you should.’”
Taken aback by this counsel, Marcus said, “Victor, I came to you so that you could talk me into staying.”
To which the abbot replied, “We’re always going to have some difficulties, problems, and if I told you to stay, the next time those arose you would blame me for making you stay, instead of tackling the troubles.”
“He was very responsive, like that,” Marcus said.
Victor would stay that responsive even after he resigned from the office of abbot at age 65, having by that time helped the monastery weather extensive renovations following a devastating spate of tornadoes and seeding the foundation for a new gymnasium.
Continuing his work, he served as pastor animarum at St. Michael Catholic Church in Florian for the next 13 years. Returning to the abbey at age 78 — beginning to note even at that time the dementia that would increasingly attack his mind and body until, at age 90, he entered the monastic infirmary — the former abbot showed himself to be a “man of deep prayer and profound quiet,” Paschal said. Even as his mind deteriorated, and even to his deathbed, he would be heard repeating over and over, “Hear my voice. Hear my prayer. Save my soul.”
Always a man of physical strength and athletic prowess — “He could have been a professional athlete if he hadn’t become a monk,” Marcus said, noting that many alumni still remember a particular faculty-student baseball game at which Victor hit a home run so far it’s talked about today. — Victor continued his labora into his older age and would often be seen mowing the grass and working on outdoor projects until his body would no longer allow him to do so, Paschal said.
Marcus recounted during his homily Feb. 1, that exhibit of strength and athleticism during the many family reunions they would attend as youths and young men. Looking at Victor’s family — and his own relations — in the pews, he noted that this final Mass was also a family reunion.
And a “last farewell,” he said.
Abbot Victor was interred in the Abbey Cemetery immediately following Mass.