ATCHISON — Could the airplane have been invented without Wilbur working with Orville?
Probably. But by working together, the Wright Brothers got their crate in the air first.
The relationship between brothers can be a wonderful thing — especially when they share more than genes.
Two monks at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison share a brotherhood twice over. Not only are they both monks, they’re brothers by blood.
On June 1, Abbot Emeritus Barnabas Senecal and Father Gerard Senecal celebrated their 50th and 60th ordination anniversaries, respectively, together, at St. Benedict Parish in Atchison.
But it wasn’t until a month or so later, when Father Gerard finished up his assignment in St. Marys, that the brothers were, at long last, back home — or at least in the same town — again.
More than most of the monks, these two men’s studies and ministries have led them far afield.
But even when they haven’t occupied the same row in the abbey choir, they’ve nevertheless been a constant source of support and example to each other.
Right from the beginning
The two Senecals were born and raised in Atwood, in the far northwest corner of Kansas.
Father Gerard (born John Carl) is the elder brother, and he was eight years old when the abbot was born in the family home.
“I remember Dr. C.E. Henneberger coming into the bedroom I shared with my brother Bill,” said Father Gerard. “He had a twin in each arm, at 7 a.m. That’s my memory.”
It was a double surprise to the family. Not only did their mother have twins, but they were both boys.
“The fact is, [my parents] had three boys and they really wanted a girl,” said Abbot Barnabas. “Dad said to Mom, ‘Was it a girl?’
“‘No, Dad — it was two boys [she told him].’”
Those twins — Albert Timothy and Gilbert Thomas (the abbot) — rounded out the XY chromosome contingent of the Atwood Senecals. After that, Lionel John and Clara Josephine Senecal finally had three girls.
All the children attended the local public grade school. Father Gerard, ever the good big brother, shepherded the twins — who went by their middle names — to school.
“All of us had the same second- grade teacher, Emma Jean Howland,” said Father Gerard. “[Barnabas] explained to her, ‘Don’t worry about Tim — he cries all the time at home, too.’”
The family lived very close to the church, which had Capuchin Franciscans as pastors. The parents of the Senecal boys put a high value on Catholic education, so they decided to send them off to Catholic boarding school.
They might have chosen the Capuchin Franciscan-operated St. Joseph Military Academy in Hays, but instead they sent them to Maur Hill Prep in Atchison. The choice was probably due to the fact that the children’s uncle, Father Lucien Senecal, OSB, was a monk of St. Benedict’s Abbey. Father Lucien taught at St. Benedict’s College and died in 1972.
Two ships passing
Both Abbot Barnabas and Father Gerard attended Maur Hill and then St. Benedict’s College, now Benedictine College.
In those days, boys entered the priesthood track in high school and the novitiate after their sophomore year in college. For the two Senecals, their vocations seemed to grow on them as they progressed.
“Wherever I was in school, I had a brother or an older brother in school with me,” said Abbot Barnabas. “We never talked that much about: ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ We all liked the sense of community in high school, and it was all Benedictine monks who taught.”
Father Gerard, naturally, led the way. He became a novice in 1948, professed his first vows in 1949, and final vows in 1952. Abbot Barnabas entered the novitiate in 1957, professed first vows in 1958, and final vows in 1961.
Father Gerard was ordained a priest in 1954; Abbot Barnabas was ordained 10 years later.
By the time Abbot Barnabas was entering the novitiate and making his vows, Father Gerard was well on his way to earning a master’s and a doctorate in physics at the University of Michigan and Kansas State University.
Throughout the 1960s, Father Gerard taught physics at St. Benedict’s College and did research for agencies ranging from NASA to the Atomic Energy Commission. He also did pastoral work on weekends.
Abbot Barnabas, in the meantime, taught at Maur Hill and did graduate work in history and education. Later, he did pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
While Father Gerard was leading St. Benedict’s through the merger with Mount St. Scholastica and setting the course for the combined Benedictine College (1972-1987), Abbot Barnabas was a teacher and headmaster at Maur Hill (1966 to 1990), where he lived with a small community of monks.
Consequently, they shared only briefly the common life of the monastery. But they had their moments.
“I was a barber for six years [in the monastery], and I cut other guys’ hair,” said Father Gerard. “I cut [Tim and the abbot’s] hair a lot.”
“You know, I don’t remember that,” said Abbot Barnabas. “But we did cut each other’s hair, until you did a really bad job.”
They had more opportunities to spend time together when their parents moved to Atchison in 1972. Their father died in 1976, and their mother died in 1992.
“A memorable time was when our mother lived across the street [from St. Benedict Church],” said Abbot Barnabas. “Father Gerard was president of the college and I was in charge at Maur Hill. He’d cook supper at the house for my mother, for himself and me. And we’d talk about school work then.”
A good message sent
Back in the days when they made their vows, it wasn’t unusual to have brother-pairs in monasteries. Just reminiscing together, the two Senecals could think of at least 10 at St. Benedict’s Abbey.
“It’s unusual today for several reasons,” said Abbot Barnabas. “Families are smaller and there aren’t the same programs of common preparation. Guys who come to the monastery today come from very different geographical and educational experiences. Today, it doesn’t happen.”
Having a brother monk who was also a brother had some advantages. A big one was inspiration.
Father Gerard admires his little brother’s leadership abilities.
“He’s a good man,” he said. “People respect him for his leadership qualities and what he has done for the community.”
Among other things, Abbot Barnabas admires his big brother’s achievements in science and high education.
“Father Gerard speaks with a clear voice,” said Abbot Barnabas. “He made a lot of friends in Atchison from his years of pastoral work, at the abbey and college, and at Maur Hill.”
Abbot Barnabas being elected and leading the community from 1994 to 2012 did not change their relationship, but they did collaborate.
“It was my task to give [Father Gerard] a significant appointment,” said Abbot Barnabas. “He helped start our [abbey] development office. I wrote most of the thank-you letters, and he did the contacts and the record- keeping.”
This past summer, Father Gerard concluded a stint as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in St. Marys and St. Stanislaus Parish in Rossville. Now, he assists in the abbey development office and lives in the abbey.
For the past year, Abbot Barnabas has served as associate pastor at St. Benedict Parish in Atchison and lives in the rectory.
In some ways, nothing has changed. They are brothers still — twice over — among many brothers. They share a common blood, vocation and purpose. It’s even in their name.
“Senecal is a French-Canadian name,” said Abbot Barnabas.
“It means ‘messenger,’” said Father Gerard. “We hope we bring a good message.”