Becker, Father Charles Joseph, S.S.

2000, May 18

Date of Birth: 1924, September 28

May 30, 2003

50th ordination anniversary of Father Becker

Some days before his death, Father Charles J. Becker, S.S., wrote a letter to the staff of the St. John of God Unit at St. Martin’s Home in Baltimore where he had lived for the past three years. His message reads in part: “I now realize that I lost my composure at times within the last two years after contracting shortness of breath (which he regularly referred to by its initials). Before I became sick, I was generally regarded by most people as a gentle, kind, quiet, and understanding person. If by my words or actions I have ever offended anyone, I beg your forgiveness…. I’m sorry that this happened, and I hope to be able with the grace of God to control myself…. I appreciate and thank you for your exceptional work and kindness to me.”

This was the confrere who had spent his time with the Little Sisters of the Poor since 1997 and who was faithful and regular at the daily concelebrated Mass whenever he was able. On May 12, 2000, he had a fall that resulted in a broken hip. This necessitated a six-day stay at nearby St. Agnes Hospital, where he was operated on but succumbed to his respiratory problems on May 18. His death reminds us of some of the details of his early life that we may have forgotten or never knew.

Born September 28, 1924, in Egg Harbor City, NJ, he was the son of Charles Louis Becker and Rose Wennemer. He had two sisters who became Franciscan Sisters, Sister Catherine St. Anne and Sister Rose Constance, both of whom predeceased him. In addition, he had three other sisters, Mathilda B. Kapsner, Marie B. Ganiel, and Bernadette B. Ganiel, plus a younger brother, now Deacon Joseph Becker of Mays Landing, NJ. Grade school was at the parish of St. Nicholas in Egg Harbor City, and for high school he attended Egg Harbor Public High School. Feeling the first yearnings of a priestly vocation, he studied for a year at the Benedictine Mission Seminary in Newton, NJ, and spent a few months in the Benedictine novitiate there. He left before Christmas and took a year off to study Latin before entering the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, in 1945. In the following eight years he finished college and philosophy and made his theology course. He received all his orders in the Josephinum chapel, and he was ordained priest there on May 30, 1953, by Archbishop Amleto G. Ciccognani, Apostolic Delegate to the United States and Chancellor of the Pontifical College. The new priest, almost 28 years old, reported to the Diocese of Camden for his first assignment. This would be as assistant pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Ephraim, NJ, where his pastor was Father M. Augustine Crine, an alumnus of St. Charles College, who had been Father Becker’s boyhood pastor at St. Nicholas, Egg Harbor.

During the four years he served at Sacred Heart, Father Becker had the joy of seeing his younger brother enter St. Charles College. He began coming to Catonsville to visit his brother from time to time, and he seems to have liked what he saw at the College. This made it much less difficult when Joseph had a seizure and was forced to withdraw from the minor seminary. Through these encounters, Charlie came to know the Sulpicians for the first time and to admire their work and their kindness to his brother in his difficulties. This prompted Father Charles to seek to join the Sulpicians. The Vicar General of Camden, Monsignor Augustine T. Mozier, another alumnus of St. Charles, joined with Father Crine in asking Bishop Justin J. McCarthy to release Father Becker. The Bishop gave his assent in 1957.

His first Sulpician assignment was to St. Charles College, where he taught Latin, English, and history in the high school department, like many another beginning Sulpician candidate. Because of his background at the Josephinum it took him awhile to get the feel for the Sulpician approach. But at the end of the year he was assigned to the Solitude program on the grounds of St. Mary’s Seminary and University at Roland Park.

Father James Laubacher was the Director of the Solitude and also enabled the Sulpician candidate to do the work for the Licentiate in Sacred Theology from St. Mary’s. For the next two years the new member of the Society went to the Catholic University of America for graduate studies in theology, and there he received the doctorate in theology in 1961.

Because there were no immediate openings in theology at that time, Charlie returned to St. Charles for another year before being assigned to St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, MI, to work under Father Edward Hogan for two years. By 1964 he was needed for courses at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA, where he would serve for five years until 1969. Then it seemed that his field of specialization fitted him less and less for the post-Vatican II seminary. Even though he assumed a number of duties like Coordinator of Canonical and Sacramental Documents and Faculty Secretary, he felt that he needed a new outlet. There was a possible assignment as chaplain to the nearby O’Connor Clinic, but that did not prove feasible. Besides he found the ties of family and his native place too strong to be satisfied by annual visits.

In 1969 he returned to the Diocese of Camden as a hospital chaplain at West Jersey Hospital in Camden, with residence at St. Joseph’s parish in the see city. But this did not mean a severing of membership in the Society, for he continued as a Sulpician for all the years of his hospital work. He remained in his chaplaincy and his residency at St. Joseph’s for twenty years, building up a reputation for his quiet gentle service, his long hours of work, and his being “available” at all times until he retired in 1989. He still continued to live at St. Joseph’s, but by 1997 it was obvious that emphysema (brought on by years of smoking) was making it increasingly difficult to live in a rectory with stairs to contend with. In addition, he had to make several trips to the emergency room because of breathing difficulties.

So on June 13, 1997, with encouragement and help from his brother, now a permanent deacon, he came from Camden to enter St. Charles Villa. He came there, as required, “under his own power”, but by evening of that day it was obvious that he could not be cared for adequately at the Villa. He moved into the St. John of God Unit at St. Martin’s Home that very night.

The three years with the Little Sisters of the Poor were quiet, with very little contact with others because the almost constant use of oxygen made it hard for him to do much conversing. He also had to take frequent naps. All of this is reflected in his note to the staff at the Home, referred to at the beginning of this obituary.

After his death there was a viewing at St. Martin’s Home, followed by a Memorial Mass at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at the former St. Charles College, now the Charlestown Retirement Community. This was celebrated by Father Philip Keane, S.S., in the absence of the Provincial, with the homily by his brother, Deacon Joseph Becker. Much of what was said had to do with the family’s great gratitude for the care that had been provided by the Sulpicians through the years of Father Becker’s Sulpician career as student, teacher, hospital chaplain, and patient.

The following day, the body was taken to St. Joseph’s in Camden where he had lived for 28 years. That evening, May 23, there was a Mass offered by a nephew, with the homily again by his brother, Joe. The next day the funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Nicholas in Egg Harbor City by Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Camden, with Joe once more preaching. Burial was in the family plot in Egg Harbor City Cemetery.

The remembrance of Charlie Becker is not of a great scholar and an inspiring teacher but of a priest who was faithful in all the charges he was called on to fill. He was truly a “faithful servant” of the gospel message.

John W. Bowen, S.S.