Father Alfred Hulscher, former prior of Saint Martin’s Abbey in Lacey, has been moved to hospice care.
“He doesn’t seem to be terribly distraught about it or anything,” said Saint Martin’s Abbot Neal Roth. “And an expression he uses often is, ‘Well, it is what it is.’ He’s always been kind of a realist that way.”
The decision to transition to hospice care last week came as Saint Martin’s monks prepare funeral arrangements for another confrere, a term that translates to “fellow worker for God,” according to Brother Mark Bonneville.
Brother Theodore Vavrek died Wednesday after a long illness at Providence Mother Joseph Care Center in Olympia. He was 73.
Roth described Vavrek as “rather quiet and gentle.”
“In his early years, before his many illnesses, he was faithful to his duties, prayerful and peaceful,” Roth said.
Vavrek grew up in Tacoma and was a graduate of Saint Martin’s high school and college. During his 50-plus years in the monastic community, he worked in the school library, with the abbey fleet, and purchased supplies for its commissary. He went into early retirement because of health issues and was in an assisted living facility for several years. A vigil for Vavrek will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, and funeral mass is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Abbey Church.
Hulscher, 82, was one of eight monks profiled last spring in “Behind the Cloister,” a special section that ran on Easter in The Olympian and The News Tribune. For more than a year, a reporter and photographer were able to witness the monks’ lifestyle firsthand, more than any other outsiders have been allowed to do in the monastery’s 121-year history, according to Roth.
The monastery’s ranks once swelled to nearly 100 men, but now it has about 25 members, and the average monk is in his 60s.
“We call it the vocation crisis,” Roth said. “We have some younger men right now, and I put them on what I call a vocation team. They’re doing a lot of our outreach right now for young men who might just think about vocation or just service to the church.”
For Hulscher, joining the monastery was a calling that fit his personality.
“There’s a certain consistency of being a monk — in other words, a certain stability,” Hulscher said. “I’m not a person who likes a lot of changes going on all the time.”
Hulscher was born in Tacoma, and attended Visitation Catholic School. He applied to join the monastery in the mid-1950s, after attending four years at Saint Martin’s now-defunct high school and two years at its college.
“In those days, it was a rather stark introduction into being in a monastery,” Hulscher told The Olympian in 2015. “…We were told we weren’t allowed to talk to students, and not to talk to the priests.”
During his first year, he said he wasn’t allowed to look at newspapers or have visitors, except for his parents, who were allowed to visit for an hour on one Sunday a month.
“In those days, the habits were wool,” he recalled. “And I entered the monastery in July.”
Over the years, Hulscher was trained to take on numerous roles at the school, amassing five college degrees including library science, German and counseling psychology.
He worked in several positions at Saint Martin’s High School, including chaplain, student counselor, librarian and principal. After the school closed its doors in 1974, Hulscher began managing the abbey’s finances. He also taught German at the college.
“I’ve seen him in so many of these roles, it’s just unbelievable,” said Andrew Moyer, a former Saint Martin’s monk who now works as the abbey’s associate treasurer. “He set the groundwork for the abbey and the university to be successful in financials. He was instrumental in the land sales that led the abbey to be able to be of help to the university.”
Hulscher moved into Mother Joseph a little more than a year ago, following complications of heart surgery. At one point, he was close to returning to the monastery, but then, other health issues arose, Roth said.
Bonneville, 33, who has been at Saint Martin’s for eight years, said Hulscher has a knack of knowing what people are saying, even when they can’t find the words to express it. He said he’s wise and a natural counselor.
“He was scary when I first met him,” Bonneville said. “He was a tall guy, with a long beard, and he reminded me of the character in ‘Harry Potter.’ I knew he was of some importance.”
He said the biggest lesson he’s learned from Hulscher is to be patient and let something develop before rushing in to fix it.
Moyer described Hulscher as “personable, reserved, with a quick sense of humor.”
“When I was a young monk, I once said about a situation, ‘This is driving me crazy,’ and he looked up at me and said, ‘It’s a short drive,’ ” Moyer recalled. “That was the kind of humor he had.’”
Sonja Handstad, the abbey’s accountant, described Hulscher as affirming and gracious.
“He tells it like it is,” she said. “And he has worked incredibly hard all of his life.”
Moyer said the nursing staff has kept Hulscher out of pain and that he’s had visitors every day.
He said he knows Hulscher is not afraid of what’s next.
“Keep death daily before your eyes is part of the Benedictine rule,” Moyer said.
Roth invited people to send Hulscher cards through Providence Mother Joseph Care Center, 3333 Ensign Road NE, Olympia, WA, 98506. Saint Martin’s monks also are asking people to keep Hulscher in their thoughts and prayers.
How does one pray for a loved one who is in their final chapter of life?
“We pray that that person will receive whatever he or she needs the most and that they will be at peace with it,” Roth said. “Sometimes we’ll say, ‘for their needs and intentions.’ ”