Rev. Merwyn Jerome Thomas, C.S.C., 73, died Sunday (May 18, 2014) at the Center for Hospice Care, South Bend, Ind.
He was born on Aug. 21, 1940, to Joseph H. and Evelyn M. (Corbat) Thomas in Jacksonville, Fla. Fr. Thomas graduated from Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville in 1958 and attended Jacksonville University for a year before transferring to the University of Notre Dame. He was received into the Congregation of Holy Cross on Aug. 15, 1960, and professed first vows on Aug 16, 1961. Fr. Thomas graduated from Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1963. He made his final vows on Aug. 16, 1964. After four years of theology at Holy Cross College in Washington, D.C., Fr. Thomas was ordained to the priesthood on May 21, 1967, at Notre Dame.
Fr. Thomas served as a math teacher at Notre Dame High School for Boys, Niles, Ill., from 1967 to 1975. He received a Master of Science degree from Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, Texas, in May 1978. After a year as chairman of the mathematics department at Notre Dame High School for Boys in Niles, he served as rector of Fisher Hall at the University of Notre Dame from 1979 to 1986. He served as associate professor of math at Holy Cross College, Notre Dame, from 1980 to 2009. Fr. Thomas also served as an adjunct instructor in mathematics at the University of Notre Dame from 1985-1987. He moved to Holy Cross House in 2009.
Visitation will be from 3 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (May 20, 2014) at Moreau Seminary, Notre Dame, Ind., with the Wake Service at 7:30 p.m. The Funeral Mass will be at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday (May 21, 2014) at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Burial will be in the community cemetery. Kaniewski Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.
Fr. Thomas’ parents are deceased. Surviving are his sisters, Alene and Geraldine, both of Jacksonville.
Memorial contributions in support of the mission and ministries of the Congregation of Holy Cross can be made to: United States Province of Priests and Brothers, Office of Development, P.O. Box 765, Notre Dame, IN 46556-0765 or online at donate.holycrossusa.org.
Funeral Homily by Rev. Michael B. Sullivan, C.S.C.
May 21, 2014
The Holy Cross community this day extends to Fr. Merwyn’s family, his sisters Alene and Geraldine his niece Michele and her husband Casey, and his Michigan relatives, our sympathy and condolences in their grief, but most all our gratitude for sharing him with us, his brothers in religion.
The Community, too, is especially grateful to the many very generous and kind people who assisted Fr. Thomas in any way during the last five years as he dealt with his illness and convalescence, and to his many friends here with us this morning, especially those whom he knew and loved from Notre Dame High School, the University here at Notre Dame and Holy Cross College, many of whom have travelled long distances to be here with us today.
If we live long enough, all of us suffer numerous “deaths” before we die: we suffer the death of our youth, our personal health as Merwyn knew so well these last five years; over time we see the demise of relationships and the passing of family members and friends.
The choices we make in life, the “yeses” we say to one thing, close the door to other possibilities, and this too, is a kind of death.
When Merwyn said yes to religious life perpetually as he did 50 years ago in 1964, the possibility of marriage and raising his own children died, though the bonds to to his natural family remained strongly intact literally right up to the moment he drew his last breath with family members by his bedside.
While the saying of yes to one way of life entails the death to many other sets of possibilities, frequently enough as well, it opens up the potential to the abundant and life-giving enrichment of self and of others.
Surely, such was the case with Merwyn in his long and storied teaching career that extended well over 40 years, hallmarked as it was by extraordinary dedication to his commitment to the religious life he cherished, the teaching profession he embraced and the students, ever so many students, he nurtured.
One can often tell a lot about another person by knowing the kinds of things they really love: Merwyn’s yes to a life of dedicated service took different forms reflected in the many things he dearly loved:
- He loved the teaching profession: Teaching was his passion, it showed and he was highly regarded by colleagues and students alike;
- He loved educating students: Students flocked to his classes, not because he was easy, but because with him it was easy to learn;
- He loved interacting with students and so he lived with them for over 30 years as rector of Fisher and Cavanaugh halls and as assistant rector of Carroll;
- He loved helping students the hours he spent personally inside and outside of his office tutoring them was unbelievable and even more unbelievable was the number of students who got into Notre Dame or survived ND’s math requirements because of that help;
- He loved his family and they loved him in sickness and in health five years ago Merwyn suffered a major stroke that should have killed him, but he survived and flourished afterwards mostly because of the unrelenting care of his sisters;
- He loved his friends: they were many and he was loyal to them all it was his trademark;
- He loved to laugh: He did it all the time and from the belly; he could see humor in almost everything and no one laughed at my jokes more than he which is one of the reasons he stayed with me at Carroll Hall for the 10 years he was there;
- He loved music his tastes were as broad as they were diverse and typically he was wired up to his iPod almost everywhere he went;
- He loved fun and having a good time, especially with his family and the many close friends he had accumulated over his long career, be it at the card table, a pub, the racquetball court, the movies, playing “Trivial Pursuit” at Between the Buns, at an ancient monument or over a bowl of pasta and wine in Rome;
- He loved God and religious life: No one at Carroll Hall (and there were always three priests residing there back in the day) preached better than he and with such clarity, conviction, humor and substance;
You can tell a lot about a person by what and whom they love: Merwyn loved many things, diverse and interesting, and the many people he befriended whom he cherished with all his heart.
If we live long enough, all of us suffer numerous deaths before we die.
Hans Von Balthasar once wrote: “If we are really loved by the eternal Father, then the hairs of our heads are numbered by Him, our needs are really known, our mistakes regarded with kindness and through this tireless love which makes up God’s essence compensated for.”
Nothing could be more reassuring to us on this day that we commit Merwyn’s remains to the earth from which he came, than Christ’s own words, clear and emphatic as they are: “I am the resurrection and the life: whoever believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” (Jn.11:25)
As all of us hope and pray for ourselves: May Merwyn, our brother and dear friend, now see God face-to-face and come to share fully in the glorious freedom of the children of God; may he know “that day that never ends;” may he rest forever in the peace of Christ.
1 Cor.15: 51-57
John 12: 23-28
Wake Eulogy by Rev. Tom King, C.S.C.
May 20, 2014
Being able to “connect with people is sometimes tough. People who we live with, see on a day-to-day basis or communicate with on a very deep level are sometimes the people with whom we miss the boat most often. It’s that way sometimes in religious life; it was that way with Jesus and the apostles, especially Thomas and Philip; and it is certainly that way when you teach high schoolers and college people. You must be structured, firm, knowledgeable, patient, a motivator, a friend, but not a buddy. It’s quite a task to be a good teacher. In short, you have to “connect” with your students.
How often do parents and teens fail to connect on an issue that they have discussed and talked about at length? How often do faculty members seem to miss each other’s points completely, not understanding a basic truth about each other? Being in relationship with people, coming to know another person in deep and personal ways, is no easy task. It takes time, patience, occasionally conflict and confusion. In the passage from John’s Gospel delivered tonight, despite their close association with one another, the Lord became frustrated with and misunderstood by his disciples on more than one occasion. The relationship takes trust. Indeed, it is a quest, the quest of empathy, to be “where another is,” to paraphrase Jesus.
I have known Merwyn Thomas for 52 years and I have shared a particular apostolate with him for 43 of those years: first, at Notre Dame High School in Niles for 10 years, then at Notre Dame where we both served as rectors for more than 16 years each and finally at Holy Cross College where we shared faculty positions he for 30 years; I for a few less.
Fifty-two years is a long time to “connect” with a person. It’s a long time to relate to another and come to know another person in both simple and profound ways. We shared similar viewpoints and opinions and occasionally moments of conflict and confusion. In all that, there was trust. There was a relationship of “transparency.” If there was a buzz word, that’s it. In short, he was authentic, reliable, trustworthy, dependable. He was a friend. I trusted his judgment: It was clear, uncomplicated, reasonable and logical. A summation always began with his favorite introduction: “Evidently.”
Merwyn never authored a book, never chaired a symposium, never was credited with accolades for leadership or recognized for a lofty position, never delivered a position paper or made a presentation at a community assembly or a communitywide event. In fact, he never was the principal celebrant at Eucharist in Sacred Heart Basilica! He was one of those many, less-remembered members of our Congregation who was called “a dutiful religious.” In Verdi’s opera “Aida,” he would have been in the back row as pharaoh came marching grandly by! He was simply a dedicated teacher who pushed himself to excel as a communicator who wanted to meet and motivate his students in the context of his area of expertise mathematics.
Despite the abstract nature of math, he led his students in an exploration of seemingly improbable discoveries in geometric theorems, deferential equations, algebraic summations. Yet, you could hear laughter emitting from his classroom and you could see the excitement of raised hands and open discussion about mathematics. His office at Holy Cross was a few doors down from mine and it was a rare night that some confused sophomore wasn’t struggling to discover the truth of why some equation must make sense and was laboring at the small blackboard in Merwyn’s office. You could hear him: “Now, you’ve got it. Now you’re beginning to see.” Always encouraging, always hopeful and positive. But always prodding and pushing him to go further: “Now, why did you do that?” “Do you see why this is done this way?” And, rarely in final frustration: “Are you gonna get better or is this it?” But always a teacher who delighted in the spark of understanding.
Mathematical discoveries led to other issues. In the context of mathematics, he was priest and consular to many who asked the big questions: How do you acquire your faith? What made you become a teacher? And then bigger questions: Why did you become a priest? How do you know that God exists? I would hear his conversations at the close of an evening session of math as they walked past my office. I can remember instructions like: “The choices we make dictate the lives we lead.” Or, “The Gospel of Jesus is only the product (all else is byproduct).” Or, “What predicts what a person will be like is values and morals.” It was differential equations with a definite theological twist!
And, when the math classes and private nighttime tutoring sessions could not continue due to a series of strokes, the students would show up at Holy Cross House for a quick refresher course before an exam, some others just pursuing a reputation: “Can you take me to the priest who helps with math?”
But the other side of Merwyn was recognized (by a few), for he was a private person who had great compassion and faith. His compassion was not some squishy sentimentality; it was a solid, dependable and reliable assistance (a “looking out for the other guy”) a student afraid of a math exam who needed reinforcement, a fellow religious, sometimes a seminarian, who sought his advice or just someone who would push a wheelchair day-in and day-out for another religious in Holy Cross House. Whether it was an academic issue or a pastoral problem, he was always accommodating and helpful, willing to give of his time.
Cards “Hearts,” in particular, but occasionally “Pinochle” brought out the humor and sparkle in Merwyn. You could call him “ruthless” at “Hearts;” hell, he was vindictive and merciless. George Rozum, Jerry Knoll, Merwyn and I spent a remarkable number of Friday nights in George’s room in Alumni trying to unseat Merwyn as champion. He didn’t like “Bridge” because conversation and laughter was lost in the serious thinking at the “Bridge” table and the camaraderie, the bantering and the jockeying for insults would never due at the sophisticated “Bridge” table. That’s why our game became known as “Dirty Hearts.”
His faith carried him, supported him, motivated him to face retirement before he wanted it. It was a faith that propelled him to see the Father. He often told his twin sisters “the girls” as he called them (Alene and Geraldine) that he did not want to be hooked up to some machine, to be handicapped and incapacitated for some extended time. “I want to be with the Lord as soon as I can.” Jesus was his way to the Father, because Jesus alone, of all people who ever lived, came from the Father. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus was truth for him truth about the Father. In this day and age, when there is so much confusion about God, what an incredible blessing it is to be able to turn to Jesus and learn the truth about God. God was never some uncaring force, but a loving, merciful Father.
His spiritual journey is not just another routine journey. It was the most important journey that he ever made. It was the journey that we were all created to make. It is the journey to eternal life, where there will be no more death, no more grief, no more tears, no more pain. We could never make that journey were it not for Jesus who knows the way, shows us the way and goes the way with us.
Merwyn was a man of many sides, much depth, filled with self-giving, a very accommodating person. When you felt lonely in this world, there was always Merwyn. For his friends, noting was too much trouble at any time for him. I called him my friend for over a half a century, for surely he was. Rest now in peace of the Lord, my friend.