James A. McLean was born to Catherine Grady McLean and Alexander W. McLean on 8 April, 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. James had two brothers and a younger sister; Francis McLean would become a Christian Brother. James had already graduated from St. Joseph’s College (Philadelphia) with a Bachelor’s Degree when he entered the novitiate of Our Lady of the Valley in Valley Falls, Rhode Island in 1944. There he was given the religious name Edward. As Br. Ed readily told anyone, given his college education and knowledge of Latin, he had entered the novitiate for the Choir Monks. But it didn’t take him long to realize that the regimen of the Latin office and the track to priestly ordination were not for him. So he switched over to the Lay Brothers and never regretted it. The simpler liturgical life, the wide scope of manual work and the brothers’ esprit de corps all fed his interest and convictions. He entered in the days of strict fasts, rigidly defined enclosure, a weekly change of clothing and showers under lock and key; far into old age he would regale listeners with colorful tales of novitiate rigors and anecdotes about his equally colorful (and feisty) Novice Master, Columban Hawkins.
He survived those rigors and the famous fire that destroyed that monastery; only four weeks after the catastrophe, he professed his solemn vows on 17 April, 1950. So it was not in the once solid stone church of Gothic arches and vaulting that Br. Edward made his final profession but in the temporary chapel of a Civilian Conservation Corps barrack that had been opened to the refugee monks by the Governor of Rhode Island. The home-made crucifix painted to hang over the altar in that chapel now hangs in the refectory of Holy Cross Abbey where Brother would spend the last phase of his monastic life. Interestingly enough, that temporary monastery, dubbed Our Lady of Refuge, seemed to presage the peripatetic vocation of Br. Ed.
He was one of the monks who helped construct St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The community at Valley Falls Rhode Island had already purchased the property at Spencer before the fire, and had even begun some of the work to convert a dairy farm into a Trappist monastery. But the project was not complete when Our Lady of the Valley was destroyed. A barn had been converted into the Barn Chapel (which, in truncated form, still exists at Spencer today) but the great Abbey church, with its brick interior and beamed ceiling, evoking a 12th century Cistercian tithe barn, it’s arched cloister, chapter house, library, calefactory and abbatial still awaited construction. During those years, the monastic population at Spencer peaked and Br. Edward was appointed Submaster of the brothers; as with his own celebrated Novice Master (who became the Abbot of Guadalupe Abbey) colorful stories of that phase of Br. Edward’s life still circulate at Spencer. Brother also worked in the infirmary there where he established a working acquaintance with Fr. Mark Delery.
With building experience behind him, Br. Edward was sent to Spencer’s next foundation, St. Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass Colorado, to work on the new construction. That was in 1956. In 1960, he found himself in La Dehesa, Chile, to help construct another Spencer foundation there. Fr. Edward McCorkell was his superior; in just a few years, Fr. Edward would be elected Abbot of Holy Cross in Berryville. In the mean time, Br. Edward remained in Chile, Spanish becoming his second language–if remaining Spanish with a slightly Philly inflection. By 1985, our foundations were encouraging inculturation of monastic observances and the return of the “first-world” founding monks to their original monasteries. Also, the community in Chile was changing its “patrimony” from Spencer to Gethsemani Abbey. Br. Edward returned to ‘States and Fr. Mark Delery, now Abbot of Holy Cross, invited him to visit. Br. Edward liked what he found here and changed his stability to Holy Cross. He remained a member of our community for thirty years, the longest he had stayed in any community.
Most of us were surprised by his vigor, jogging daily, in all sorts of weather till only a decade ago. Despite macular degeneration, ever limiting his eyesight, he had the entire monastery paced out and could count his steps, negotiating corridors and stairwells. He helped out at the Retreat House washing up the supper dishes, and managed the fruit cake storage in the shipping department. Br. Ed definitely had a head for numbers and could instantly calculate fruitcake totals into number of stacks for transporting or floor space for storage. I don’t believe I ever knew him to be wrong. He certainly had no doubts about his calculations! He could recall birthdays, not only of monks in any community he’d been in, but of employees and their children. His mind was still sharp when Abbot Robert visited him the last morning of his life. Br. Ed definitely liked to stay busy and was not too impressed by our sung liturgies, but he was also a consistent presence in church. As old age drained his strength, in fact, he was more and more a quiet presence there, though usually leaving as others settled in.
When both his health and eyesight failed him, and he spent more time in bed, his brothers helped him with his meals and his special needs. More than anything, he wanted to remain on familiar turf, within the community. However, this past year he began to need more care than we could provide and his preferred menu of jello and ice cream was not giving him the nourishment he needed. First he was in a nursing home in near-by Front Royal, then to Carroll Manor in Washington, DC, where he died Monday, 27 April.
At a community meeting this week, Fr. Joseph reminded us that some months ago we had identified some of the strong points of this community and that Br. Ed personally shared in those values: prayerful, informal, persevering, among others. I don’t know whether he took God to task for not dying at Holy Cross (I recall a signature phrase of Br. Ed which he’d pronounce forcefully: “I’m not angry, I’m concerned!”) but I hope he’ll remember us before God, nagging God’s Spirit till other men are inspired to take Ed’s place.