Bender, Father Lawrence Anthony, S.S.
2004, February 5
Date of Birth: 1924, November 14
June 1, 2004
His name was practically synonymous with evangelization and his mind and heart held rich deposits of missionary experience. Of his fifty adult active years, twenty-five were invested in apostolic settings far from home. Early in that period he became Missionary Coordinator for the American Province of the Priests of St. Sulpice.
Granted, it was in Hawaii, on the staff of St. Stephen’s minor seminary, that he spent the earliest four of these years. But that was in the mid-1950s, when the Islands were still only a territory of the United States. As soon as he had arrived in that post, in fact, he had to be initiated into the procedure of peeling back his bed sheets every night before retiring in order to be sure that no scorpions were there ahead of him. Also, Sulpicians were appointed to Hawaii in that era only after they had volunteered to be assigned there.
Since early childhood Larry had his eyes on the priesthood and even, on occasion, spoke of being a missionary. In early summer of 1959, only eight years into the priesthood, he sent a very thoughtful letter to Fr. Lloyd McDonald, his provincial superior, advancing in some detail reasons why, in his opinion, the Province should give serious consideration to assuming responsibility for a mission seminary. Toward the end of the letter he explicitly volunteered to be part of the project himself, a declaration that would be followed up very soon with concrete steps in that direction.
In the summer of 1960, at Fordham University in New York City, he attended a summer institute on missionary work and on August 11 sent Fr. McDonald a detailed report. He was now thoroughly committed to a lifetime in the missions.
He would thus be following the inspiration of mission-minded Fr. Jean-Jacques Olier and would be emulating the spirit of the many French Sulpicians who migrated to Canada and the United States in colonial days to teach in seminaries and, in many cases, to head missionary dioceses in lands far from their homes. Most significantly, he would be playing a pioneer role in a renewed missionary thrust of the American province of the Society.
At the time that young Fr. Bender attended the summer course at Fordham he was on the staff of St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore. From there he wrote to Fr. McDonald on March 21, 1963 volunteering specifically for service in what was being proposed as the first American Sulpician seminary in South America. By January of 1965 plans for the new foundation had advanced to the point that Colombia had been designated as the site for the foundation and Fr. James Laubacher, on behalf of the Provincial Council, had visited that country and submitted his report. By April it was announced officially that the Province would open a seminary there.
Several other members of the Province had also expressed interest in the South American project and by August of 1965 four were enrolled in the Center of Intercultural Formation in Cuernavaca, Mexico to prepare for the work: Frs. Bender, Carlton Sage, Gerald Stanley and Richard Redmond. Very soon after they had arrived, Fr. Bender, as leader of the group, wrote enthusiastically to Fr. McDonald about life at the Center, which was planning to make itself international — “a place to bring people from all over the world to work in Latin America”. In October of that year, Larry, along with Jerry Stanley, had the pleasure of spending a week with another confrere and pioneer in Mexico, Fr. Lou Russell, ten years ordained, who was well along in the process of establishing a parish in Merida, Yucatan.
Larry and some of his colleagues in the Center were slated to work in a seminary to be established by four Colombian bishops in a town called Zipaquirá. Rather quickly, however, the bishops of the two largest of these dioceses withdrew from the project and the remaining two bishops then began thinking instead of establishing only a house of formation, in Bogota, Colombia to be staffed by American Sulpicians close to an existing seminary, operated by the Canadian Sulpicians, where their seminarians would take classes.
Disappointment and new plans
Even that project failed to materialize simply through a lack of candidates. Our Father Bender was deeply disappointed but showed in his correspondence that he was all the more determined to do missionary work, preferably in Latin America. Following his course at the institute in Cuernavaca he attended a pastoral institute in Panama and then received some on-the-job pastoral training in a parish in Cuernavaca City in the summer of 1966.
In the fall of that year, because of a new personnel shortage in the Province, he was asked to report for an assignment on the faculty of St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Larry’s heart was still in the missions so that shortly after joining the faculty of St. John’s he sent letters to all members of the Provincial Council in which he reflected on his experiences in South America and encouraged the Council members to maintain their enthusiasm for the involvement of the Province in missionary work.
During late 1966 and throughout 1967 there was a great flurry of mission planning and re-planning in the Society as a whole and directly involving the superior general, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Brunon, as well as a General Assembly and a Provincial Assembly. At one point thought was given to a foundation in Mexico to be staffed by three Sulpicians, one from each of the provinces. A bit later a personnel exchange between provinces was effected whereby Fr. Lowell Glendon (then a member of the Canadian province) was traded temporarily for Fr. Bender, the former being assigned to St. John’s, Plymouth and the latter to work for the Canadian province in South America.
The upshot was that Larry found himself in a one-year assignment (1967-1968) as director of theology in the Major Seminary in Bogota, Colombia. Thus began a series of assignments for him in Latin America: in Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina (where he was rector of the seminary in Rosario) and in Panama. These assignments totaled eighteen years, interrupted by his three-year assignment in Western Samoa. His final foreign missionary work was accomplished as faculty member and treasurer in the seminary outside Panama City, Republic of Panama operated by the Canadian province.
Call for recruits
Throughout these years the leadership of the American province continued its efforts to interest other members in joining Fr. Bender and his small band of colleagues for work in the missions, but the response was far less enthusiastic than he had hoped for. He addressed members of at least one Provincial Assembly, making an impassioned appeal for greater cooperation. He published reports on the work that was being done in an attempt to find additional recruits. He visited the Provincial Staff and the Provincial Council many times for the same reason but, in his view, to little avail.
Larry almost invariably concluded his letters with the words, “Yours in love of the Church” -— a custom of his that beautifully suggested the motivation for his own missionary enthusiasm as well as the source of his unflagging energy. As Mission Liaison for the Province he traveled widely throughout Latin America, exploring possible new sites for U.S. Sulpician missionary endeavors, gathering data on the need for missionaries and encouraging the confreres. And, of course, he did his own share of teaching and spiritual direction.
He is credited with being mainly responsible, in one assignment, for reviving a seminary that had been on the verge of collapse. His person and his work were widely admired by the hierarchy of South America and Central America. During his three-year assignment in Western Samoa he was viewed by the bishop there (himself a cardinal) as a confidant and as indispensable in several important posts. He was, in a word, a legend in much of Latin America and in Samoa and nearby South Pacific isles.
Larry was both a happy, contented priest and a disappointed missionary.
Meanwhile he suffered much more than most of us from deaths in his own family – an almost incredible series of them.
While Larry was working in Panama in 1983, he was called home for the death of his mother, Barbara Catherine Ploor Bender, in her eighty-eighth year. His father, Frederick Samuel Bender would live to the age of ninety-seven; his death occurred in 1986 while Larry was one year into his assignment as Director of St. Charles Villa.
Previously, on four occasions Fr. Bender was shocked and deeply saddened by the untimely deaths, one at a time over a stretch of thirty-two years, of all four of his brothers.
Notice of the first of these deaths, that of his youngest brother, Leonard, reached Larry while he was living in Rome and studying for his doctorate in moral theology. On December 16, 1957, at the age of twenty-two, Leonard was crushed under the overturned tractor that he was driving on the family farm. He had been married at the age of only nineteen and he and his young wife were parents of two girls, one aged two years and the other only six months.
A little over four and a half years later, on July 3, 1962, Larry’s brother Fritz and sister-in-law Arabelle were killed in an automobile accident as they were returning home from Mass. Their two children, Ralph, almost twenty, and Elaine, almost sixteen, who were riding with them, survived but were seriously injured and required extensive surgery. Fritz and Arabelle were both in their early forties. At the time of their deaths, Larry was part way through his seven-year professorship at St. Mary’s Seminary.
In the spring of 1980, while Larry was on the faculty of a major seminary in the Republic of Panama, word reached him of the death of his oldest brother, Joe, of a massive heart attack. Joe had seemingly been in excellent health when his life ended abruptly on April 20 as he was working in his garden. Even this death was premature; Joe was only sixty-two.
The fourth of his brothers died in 1989, also of a massive heart attack, at the age of 57. This was Walter, father of three and grandfather of five. By this time Larry was in his fourth year as Director of St. Charles Villa.
The Bender family was a lively, loving household into which Larry had been born on November 14, 1924 and which continued to be an unparalleled focus of his thoughts and his love every day of his life, regardless of the changing circumstances of time and place. As a seminarian and throughout much of his priesthood he would return to join the family on their farm. He used to work there every summer in which he had the freedom to do so. He would return home from the missions with great eagerness as frequently as he could. It is easy, then, to imagine how agonizing an experience it was for him to lose a member of that dear group prematurely every few years.
Down to two
Walter’s death left only two survivors of the original seven Bender siblings (one brother had died in childhood even before Larry’s birth), Larry and the youngest of his siblings, his sister Mary Barbara Bender Johnson, known to family and friends as “Susie”. During Larry’s long illness in the infirmary of St. Martin’s Home, Susie was faithfully and frequently at his side after a sixty-mile trip along crowded highways from her home in southern Maryland. Her husband, Horace, was often with her.
Father Larry had moved into St. Charles Villa in the Fall of 1985, shortly before his sixty-first birthday, not as a resident but as Director of the Villa, and that was to be his address for the remaining ten years of his active life. During that period he had continued to be the fully occupied, zealous priest that he had always been. In addition to fulfilling his duties as superior of the Villa he accepted the role of coordinator of the pastoral team that ministered to the Catholics living in the recently established Charlestown Retirement Center immediately to the south of the Villa as well as the role of chaplain of St. Martin’s Home for the Aged immediately to the north. These extra responsibilities were held successively although for a short time he served both communities simultaneously.
His work at St. Martin’s had been especially dear to him. There, with typical apostolic zeal, he both cared for the needs of the Catholic residents and Catholic employees and found time to evangelize the non-Catholic ones.
A remarkable priest
Those of us who knew Larry well and have at one time or another worked side by side with him would, I think, point to his apostolic spirit as his most prominent characteristic. A close second to that would be his inexhaustible energy and capacity for work coupled with cheerful, unyielding determination. Even his stride and the set of his jaw declared to the world that he meant business.
This had been Larry’s trademark from his earliest years. Even as a young student priest his ability to stick to a task and get it done quickly and efficiently showed up on two very notable occasions. The first was when, beginning immediately after his ordination, he earned a master’s degree in economics by attending, during three hot and humid summer school sessions, graduate courses at The Catholic University of America. Here he performed so impressively that he received a bid to a national social sciences honor society and a strong invitation to continue on for a Ph.D. The other instance was his completing in a single school year all the requirements for an S.T.D. from the Angelicum University in Rome.
On the missions he needed to improvise often, and he did. He was undaunted by multiple duties; in his assignment in Rosario, Argentina he was simultaneously rector, professor and pastor of a parish. As a pioneer he ran into failure more often than most other people do but each time was able to rise above it. Inevitably, he would find himself having to disagree with those under whom, with whom and for whom he worked. Also, some of the very people who were deeply impressed by his intelligence and hard work and over-all reliability sometimes asked much more of him than he was able to give. Others, at times, seemed to take him for granted in ways that must have hurt. Throughout it all he clung tenaciously to his belief in Divine Providence.
He must have prayed often for a broadening of the missionary scope of the Province. While this did not happen to his satisfaction during his time in the missions he was consoled to see a new wave of Sulpician foreign missionary activity begin to develop in another part of the world and at a later date, as two Sulpicians, Fathers Ed Frazer and Michael Strange were assigned in 1989 to join the staff of the Emmaus Spirituality Centre in Lusaka, Zambia where priesthood aspirants received doctrinal and spiritual preparation for entrance into full seminary life. Eventually the Province would assume responsibility for Emmaus, additional American Sulpicians would work in Zambian seminaries and eventually Zambian seminarians and priests would join the Society.
Following his nine years as Director of St. Charles Villa, Larry lived in retirement there for an additional year, 1995-1996, after which he moved into the infirmary at St. Martin’s Home. He was seventy-two years of age and entering into an eight-year period of disability from Parkinson’s Disease that meant frequent and severe pain, eventual confinement to a wheelchair or bed and a decreasing ability to communicate verbally with his loved ones, care-givers, confreres and friends.
Larry died in the St. John of God unit of St. Martin’s Home, in the familiar room that witnessed his many years of patient suffering. As he was dying, he was surrounded by representatives of various families to which he had belonged. Susie was at his side and also his niece Elaine Bender Bowie. Several of his Sulpician brothers were there, including his successor as Director of St. Charles Villa, Fr. Joseph Bonadio, S.S, who led the prayers for the dying. Many of the Little Sisters of the Poor and as many of St. Martin’s care-givers as could crowd into the room were present. We spoke to him and we prayed with him and for him. Shortly after we had sung a final hymn he slipped peacefully into the waiting arms of the Master whom he had served so faithfully. It was the afternoon of Thursday, February 5, 2004.
Burial was on February 10 in the cemetery adjacent to the church in which he had been baptized, had made his First Communion, had been confirmed and had offered his First Mass, St. Mary’s, Bryantown, in southern Maryland. Quite nearby was the site of the farmhouse in which he was born and grew up. His funeral Mass was concelebrated by several of his fellow Sulpicians and by other priest-friends with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. presiding. Father Bonadio, who was once a student of Father Bender, preached the homily, ending with this tender sentence:
“I can just see that big smile on Fr. Larry’s face as he heard his Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord ....”