The following article was written by Nat Worman, a very talented elderly St. Albans Messenger Staff Writer and was published in the November 23, 2011 Edition of The St. Albans Messenger - I have sent a note to Nat asking for his permission to post this article and also see if he can send me an original photo of the Meisenzahls to go with this article.Meisenzahls recall good times & bad
By Nat Worman - Messenger Correspondent
ST. ALBANS - William Vincent Meisenzahl, 85, thinks about the question a bit before he replies. Just why had taken off from St. Michael's College and hitchhiked to a monastery in Rhode Island 200 miles away that day in 1951.
When the former monk speaks again it is in his leisurely soft tenor voice.
"I felt like I had a vocation but I didn't know where ... and I thought I would go see if I would join a monastic order," he says, adding that his spiritual mentor, Monsignor Dwyer Rtd encouraged him to do so.
The monsignor had watched Bill and his brother George while they were growing up and saw greater potential in them. It was he who sent them to st. Michael's College in Vermont from their former home in New York State.
Meisenzahl was taking theological philosophy courses at the time of his departure from St. Mike's, but if that conjures up images of a purely bookish sort, think again.
There's strength in this five-foot 10 inch, 165-pound man, too.
In the past 65 years, as a mason and builder, Bill Meisenzahl has left behind a phalanx of brickwork and an array of fireplaces whose plumb and level lines prove the presence of a workman of will, and skill.
Meisenzahl's strength, however, is deeper still. There is a certain resolve, hewn from the tough days of a tough childhood.
"Going back to our early years in the Bronx, my father had a problem with alcohol and so after a while he wasn't bringing
home any paycheck to my mother and we didn't have much to eat. We'd get 15 cents worth of stale buns and that was what we ate for many days," he says during an interview in a rented apartment on Upper Newton Street.
"My sister Winifred died of rheumatic fever in 1938," he adds, "and my father died of tuberculosis the next year. My sisters
Florence and Ruth were in the hospital with it, and because my mother got sick also, my brother and I had to go to St. Agnes Catholic Boys Home in Sparkill, N.Y.
"We never went to church when we were growing up. The nuns made sure I was baptized," Bill says, with a laugh, adding, "My mother sent me once with my father to be baptized and what ever happened we never got to the church. Maybe he baptized me with beer, I don't know"
Bill's wife, Dorothy (known affectionately as Dot), up until this point has listened with her eyes closed. Now she opens her
eyes and laughter fills the sunny kitchen.
During World War II, Bill, having a heart murmur, had tried every branch of the service, but had been rejected. His brother, George, served in the Army; in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, returning lame from feet frozen in snow and cold.
The surviving members of the family met after the war at Cardinal McClusky Home for Children In White Plains, N. Y. Here, they spent time together in the Catholic school recommended by Monsignor Dwyer. Bill's brother George was a chauffeur; Bill worked on the grounds and at a cemetery. But Msgr. Dwyer seeing their potential sent them to St. Michael's College in Burlington and so it was that Bill was led to take that trip to the monastery.
When Bill returned to St. Michael's after visiting the Trappists in Rhode Island, he read in the newspaper that the monastery had burned to the ground. His studies and soul searching-continued. But within the year, he had joined the order and took part in the construction of the new monastery; near Spencer, Mass.
Bill walked into that sacred space in 1951. He joined silent men in work shoes and brown robes who lived by the Rules of St. Benedict -- self-support, meditation, and the constant glorification of God. They lived according to an unbroken rhythm, rising at 3 a.m. to prayers, a silent breakfast of water and monk's bread, then chanting and song; and a 11 a.m. lunch of vegetables (picked from the garden and served by monks to monks)
For the rest of the day, Bill, now Brother George, fitted 50 pounds of masonry in a wood shoulder hob to serve the monks whose trowels flashed as they fitted brick to brick or stone to stone. Beneath monastery rules and silence, friendships grew. Brother George and a half dozen others became masons themselves. They teamed up to work on the new Mother House and then were sent to build monasteries from the mountains of Colorado at Boulder to the grass-covered plains of Argentina at Azul, west of Buenos Aries.
In the shadow, beneath his hood, Brother George's loss of weight went unseen. Work in Azul ground on under the burden, first of the flies and then of snakes. "We were eating and you would have to brush away the flies, ... And the snakes, Oh my. To put the foundation, we were blasting and all the snakes were coming out - all different kinds - dangerous snakes."
The work went on, under clouds of insects and the sudden sleek wiggle of snakes. Once under roof, the local masons who had worked with the monks, now covered the monastery ceiling with a mosaic of varied colored stone chips. But Brother George was ill. His plea to return to the Mother House was granted and eventually he recovered.
Now the bright kitchen, a life's way station for the Meisenzahls, fills with other memories, of how Bill left the life of a monk in 1963, on the day President Kennedy was shot and how confused and sick, he met with Monsignor Dwyer.
It was Dwyer, his longtime spiritual rock, who advised him to go to the Papal Peace Group in White Plains, N.Y.. There, as fate would have it, he met a graduate of Trinity College in Washington D.C .. Dorothy O'Brien from New Rochelle, N.Y. Two years later, Monsignor Dwyer officiated at their marriage, beginning a new life for both.
Their first child, Dorothy Ellen, "was taken up by the angels," Dorothy says softly. She was only 3.
"The wonderful thing was that Dot was pregnant with Mary at the time so it wasn't long before we had another little girl - but no one could replace ... "
Dorothy completes Bill's sentence, "Our first little girl. No."
She goes on, "We had Billy at the time and we had Brian in 1973. So we had two boys and a girl. ... That first little girl was special. Like an Angel. God took her away because she was an angel."
The couple has lived together in Vermont for almost 50 years. He has been a contractor, mason, and teacher (for 12 years at Richford High School). They had spent their last 35 years in a home made from a remodeled barn in Fairfax. It originally was the work of Bill and Dorothy's father, Bill O'Brien.
During this recent visit at their transitional home in St. Albans City; Bill and Dorothy were in the process of moving to a senior housing facility in South Burlington. Yet again a new chapter.
They greet the future much as they have their pasts, with a gracious acceptance and with faith.
As Dorothy says, "We were very lucky to have a good life.”