The late Benedictine monk Father Matthew McSorley remembered
BELMONT — As the monks of Belmont Abbey Monastery finished praying Lauds (morning prayer) on May 24, Benedictine Father Matthew McSorley passed away peacefully. Father McSorley was the oldest at Belmont Abbey, living there for 68 years and serving as a priest for 62 years. He was 91.
The day Father McSorley died happened to be the feast of Mary Help of Christians, the patronal feast of Belmont Abbey.
Upon being diagnosed with cancer a couple of months ago, Father McSorley expressed his longing to finally see his mother again. At a funeral Mass celebrated later that same day, Abbot Placid Solari noted the beauty of his death on a Marian feast – it was a reminder that he will not only now see his biological mother, but also our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Father McSorley taught in the English Department at Belmont Abbey College from 1945 to 1979, earning a reputation as a skilled and demanding teacher. He was a mentor to countless students, many of whom attribute their subsequent professional careers and success to his encouragement.
M.F. McCarthy, who graduated from Belmont Abbey College in 1974, was one of many students influenced by Father McSorley's teaching. Among teaching and serving as dean of students at all boys' preparatory school, McCarthy went on to be a writer. One of his novels is dedicated to his former English teacher, Father McSorley: "In token of my admiration for his remarkable genius." McCarthy remembers his teacher and mentor as "a wonderful and wondrous man. Rare is the day when some image or notion concerning him fails to cross my mind."
Upon retiring, Father McSorley spent most of his days inside the cloistered monastery. However, he remained influential in the lives of many people – visiting students, guests, nurses and other employees of the monastery. He regularly welcomed visitors during his final years in the monastery's infirmary, and he was most commonly known for his meal-time conversations. Sitting in the same seat at the monastery's refectory every day, Father McSorley always welcomed a good conversation with anyone who was there.
When guests met Father McSorley, they would always meet a hospitable and kind monk. They would also meet a monk who loved to shock people. He seemed to enjoy saying things that would surprise new students and first-time guests by claiming monks practice birth control because they wear habits, or talking about how good snake meat tastes. A guest once asked him, "Father Matthew, are you a relativist?" He answered, with a straight face, "I'm a little bit of everything. I'm Chinese, I'm communist, I'm Indian, I'm African...look at my hair. It's curly and it used to be dark."
Father McSorley also had a reputation as a formidable competitor on the handball and tennis courts, and he was a great chess player. Though he spent his life reading and teaching about higher works of literature (like Shakespeare or Melville's "Moby Dick"), he spent the last years of his life exclusively reading murder mysteries. After a life of hard work, he deserved to take it easy and, as he said, "read what I want to read."
Father McSorley was once told this: "If you don't do what people tell you to do, they'll stop telling you what to do." And he lived up to this advice by doing whatever he wanted to do. He also had high taste, only eating a steak, for example, if it was a good cut and perfectly cooked (rare was perfect for him). But he was not lazy and he was not unappreciative. He regularly told people how grateful he was for all he had. "I have my own nurse," he would say, "and look at this food! I eat better than most people in Belmont."
Father McSorley was a man of God, a man of love. For the Scripture reading at his funeral, he pre-selected St. Paul's praise of love (from the Letter to the Corinthians). He believed in love and he lived a life of love. He would remind people, "Jesus said to love one another. He didn't say anything about sex or birth control or going to Mass every Sunday. He said to love one another." This is not to say that he neglected to attend Mass on Sundays or that he lived a life with disregard to Catholic teaching. It simply meant he placed love as a very important part of his life. He was empathetic to anyone who was neglected, anyone who was hurt and anyone who suffered.
It was this love that kept him working with the neglected and poor African-American community in Gaston County for so many years.
For more than 40 years Father McSorley served at St. Helen, a small Catholic mission in Spencer Mountain, located near Gastonia. Sallie Rollinson, a long-time parishioner of St. Helen Mission, began attending Mass there when a neighbor offered to give her a ride to the black Catholic church. Although she was not Catholic, Rollinson took advantage of the transportation offered to her and her five children. In an interview with the Catholic News Herald last year, she reflected on how she converted to the Catholic faith. At St. Helen Mission, Rollinson explained, she was welcomed by a congregation of "down-home people filled with the Spirit" and led by a caring priest from Belmont Abbey.
That priest was Father McSorley.
Rollinson says he played a vital role in her continuing to attend St. Helen Mission. She praised him as "one of the greatest priests I ever met." When she attended her first Mass 45 years ago, she found that "everyone in the church was welcoming when I came; Father Matthew followed up on it and came out to my house to visit me and my kids. He was good to the whole congregation and treated us like we were white: people are people, just different colors."
In 1991, Father McSorley retired from active ministry, and the Benedictines completed their service at St. Helen Mission. The church was transferred to St. Michael the Archangel Church in Gastonia as a mission, and in 1995 St. Helen became a mission of Queen of the Apostles in Belmont.
Father McSorley is remembered with affection and gratitude by the African-American communities at St. Helen Mission and in Belmont for his solicitude and his promotion of civil rights and integration. At Belmont's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in 2008, he received the Humanitarian Award for his outstanding service.
Father McSorley requested, and the monastic community agreed, that after his death his body be donated to Duke University Medical School. It was, Abbot Placid said at his funeral, his last act of service.
Father McSorley is survived by the monks of Belmont Abbey, by his sister, Sister Ellen McSorley, R.S.M., and by his niece, Charlene Curry.
A public Memorial Mass was celebrated in the Belmont Abbey Basilica on Saturday, June 2, at 2:30 p.m.
— Christopher Lux, correspondent
Christopher Lux, who works as a correspondent for the Catholic News Herald, knew Father Matthew McSorley and remembers him on his blog: Lux writes, in part, that Father Matthew once said, “We’re monks. We share everything. We’re like communists.” And he accepted sharing both ways; it’s a two-way road, and it works with all people, not just his fellow cloistered men. If his car was stolen, he didn’t see it as stolen -- it was just shared. This is completely, authentically true. In fact, it even happened to him once…at least that’s what he told me. ..."
Father Matthew McSorley served at St. Helen Mission in Spencer Mountain for a number of years. Read more about this unique parish.
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FROM THE PASTORS
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- Fr. Frank Cancro at Queen of the Apostles
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