A saint of their own: Cretin-Derham Hall prepares for Brother James Miller’s beatification

| Christina Capecchi | November 22, 2019 | 0 Comments

Frank Miley, president of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn., stands next to a bronze bust of Brother James Miller that sits in the courtyard of the school. Brother Miller, who taught at the school from 1966-1971 and again from 1979-1980, was officially recognized by Pope Francis as a martyr last year, clearing the way for beatification. He will be beatified Dec. 7 in Guatemala. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

A man who scrubbed toilets and shoveled sidewalks at Cretin-Derham Hall High School is on his way to becoming a saint. The school is celebrating his beatification this month by elevating his presence on campus and further connecting students to his legacy.

Christian Brother James Miller taught at then-Cretin High School in St. Paul from 1966-1971 and again from 1979-1980, teaching Spanish, founding the soccer team and serving as maintenance supervisor.

Brother James was martyred in 1982 — at age 37 — during the Guatemalan Civil War. Three hooded men found him on a ladder repairing a wall and shot him. Many assume he was killed because he fought to keep his students from being forced into the military.

Pope Francis officially recognized Brother James as a martyr last year, clearing the way for beatification. He will be beatified on Dec. 7 in Guatemala, a ceremony that four members of Cretin-Derham Hall will attend, including President Frank Miley.

Reminders of the late teacher pop up throughout the school. The chapel is being renamed in honor of Blessed Brother James; staff is working with the archdiocese to make the rededication official. The school commissioned a bronze statue of him, one of three by Twin Cities artist Alec Smith. The first was installed at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, and the third is expected to be unveiled at the beatification in Guatemala.

The courtyard in which the bust was recently installed is also being renamed after him.

Meanwhile, the original icon of Brother James painted by Nick Markell is displayed in the school’s “History Walk” alongside other noteworthy memorabilia. A reproduction hangs in the classroom where he taught.

The students’ education on Brother James Miller is enhanced spiritually. Multiple times a day they participate in a call-and-response invocation that now includes, “Blessed Brother James Miller,” “pray for us.”

“He has a big footprint here,” Miley said, “and the beatification is making that footprint even bigger.”

The administrator said he couldn’t hope for a more inspiring example to lift up to their students. “One of the things we’re in dire need of his heroes, especially heroes who point us to helping each other, loving each other and directing each other toward God.”

His courage in the face of danger is particularly appealing to young men, who are more likely to engage in service opportunities that are challenging or feel risky, Miley said. “For young men, that sense of adventure is another element that Brother James embodies.”

Brother James was a farm boy from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, whose work ethic prodded him to quietly help across campus: mopping floors, cleaning furnaces and plumbing.

Students watched him lumber down the halls in his long black robe, tools strapped to his belt, and took to calling him “Brother Fixit.” No work was beneath him.

He lived simply, wearing the same overalls every week. He coached soccer and taught Spanish. He related to his students, maintaining high standards that were softened by his ready humor and belly laugh.

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But the plight of third-world countries was no laughing matter. Brother James seized every opportunity to educate his students. They collected money for their mission schools, and Brother James spoke passionately about his dream of becoming a missionary.

He never took for granted the luxury of being an American and had no patience for what today is dubbed “first-world problems,” said Donny Geng, who taught at Cretin during the same time and is now retired. “He was tired of the American cavalier-ness about education. It’s an entitlement.”

Brother James’ knowledge of Central America expanded the teens’ horizons. “It was clear from the beginning that he was a champion of the poor and wanted desperately to serve down there,” said Christian Brother Pat Conway, a humanities professor at St. Mary’s University in Winona who was a student when Brother James began teaching.

He was alternately firm and flexible. Once, Brother Pat was given a detention for missing school. As punishment, he had to take down hockey boards after school. Brother James knew the boy had been hospitalized at the time and discretely informed the dean. A few minutes later, the dean called out: “Conway, go home.”

“It was that human side,” Brother Conway said. “He was very quiet about it.”

Brother James Miller yearbook photo

Brother James Miller yearbook photo. Courtesy Christian Brothers of the Midwest

He likewise remained relatively quiet about the danger of his mission work but confided in close friends. Once, a round of machine gun had sent him for cover, Geng recalled. “He said, ‘I never know I could pray so fervently as when under my bed.’”

Still, to teach at a Christian Brother school in Guatemala was the fulfillment of a dream. He felt purposeful and needed.

Three days after his death, a crowd gathered at the Cathedral of St. Paul for his funeral Mass celebrated by then-Archbishop John Roach. “The beauty of the life of James Miller, and those who serve God’s poorest in that part of the world, is that they serve with faith and an absolute commitment to the belief that that’s where the Lord wants them,” the archbishop said.

Service to the neighbor in need is a charism of Christian brothers that Cretin-Derham Hall tries to instill in its students, pointing to Brother James as a poignant case study.

“We are really dedicated to keeping the notion of the needy right before our students,” Miley said, “and Jim would be part and parcel in this.” Food drives throughout the year are an obvious first step, but weaving service into the curriculum sets Cretin-Derham Hall apart, he said.

Every Thursday, seniors leave for a two-hour window to serve those in need. “A requirement of that is they must be in one-on-one contact with human beings,” Miley said. “We believe that if you’re going to embrace the poor, you need to know them. I don’t know of another school that has embedded that in the program.”

Harry Olander, a senior who belongs to Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, is one of many who has benefited from this layered education, including a service trip to Guatemala. “It’s crazy to think that someone on their way to being a saint represents our school,” he said. “It’s inspiring because so many of the people we learn about in our faith are historical figures, and even though we learn about them, we don’t really connect with them. Brother James Miller is easy to relate to since he was a lot like us, walking the halls of our school.”

In that common ground, Olander said, comes a challenge: “It makes you realize that each of us also has a big responsibility to help others, like God would want and like Brother James Miller did in his life. He was similar to so many of us, but he also took it to the next level to dedicate his life, even give his life, to what he believed.”

It’s a story that will be repeated to each class at Cretin-Derham Hall. “It’s pretty cool that part of him and his way of being faithful is living on in our school today.”


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