Forster, Father Andrew A., S.S.
1997, September 17
Date of Birth: 1914, November 25
October 17, 1997
He was unique. While it is, of course, true that since no two human beings are identical, everyone is unique, it is also true that certain people possess a uniqueness more memorable than that of the general run of humankind. Those who knew Fr. Forster, and particularly his students over the years, would agree, I think, that uniqueness may even be the first quality that comes to mind at the mention of his name. It might be added that, also over the years, he has very often been the one first inquired for whenever old grads, particularly of our California seminaries, gather to trade news of their former teachers.
Andrew Albert Forster was born in Borgess Hospital, Nazareth Michigan, just outside Kalamazoo and lived in that city during his entire childhood except for a few years when the family lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and in Petosky, Michigan.
His father, whose surname he bore and whom Andy very much admired and loved was a physician. The doctor died prematurely when Andy, the couple’s only child, was barely ten years old.
Mrs. Forster (Helen Daley) was a tall, handsome lady with a vague physical resemblance to Eleanor Roosevelt. She was, as a matter of fact, a very ardent Democrat, so avid in her politics that regularly every four years she would buy a new television set lest the current one fail at some crucial moment during the presidential campaign, convention or election returns. As is true of many another widowed parent of a Sulpician, she possessed a kind of honorary “S.S.” as, throughout the rest of her life, she dutifully changed residence to match each one of Fr. Andrew’s new assignments. Her home often became a gathering place for her son’s friends. She would live until Christmas time of 1962.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, whose motherhouse was on the same grounds as the hospital in which Andy was born, had a rather substantial influence on him, being his teachers from kindergarten up through high school as well as being friends of his father and mother. They were to be a source of encouragement to him throughout his life. Once he arrived at Sacred Heart Seminary, he would find members of this same community staffing the seminary kitchen and infirmary. I feel sure that his loyalty to this group would prompt him to wish that they be mentioned with gratitude in this obituary.
Our friend graduated from St. Augustine High School in Kalamazoo in June 1931 and in the following September enrolled in the freshman college class at Sacred Heart Seminary, Detroit. From the start he found the seminary very much to his liking and he could later become almost painfully nostalgic about it. It was not a Sulpician-staffed seminary but apparently those who set its style had themselves been Sulpician-trained. Thus, many of the prayer formulas used there were the same as the ones he would later encounter at St. Mary’s. For a seminary of those times Sacred Heart was unusually permissive. Students, for example, rather easily received permission on free afternoons to leave the grounds and, if their homes were close enough, go home for a few hours. Also, the seminary was part of an interscholastic athletic program in basketball, though only at-home games could be scheduled by the seminary team. Yet both the academic and spiritual programs of the seminary had the reputation of being challenging enough to produce good candidates for the priesthood.
For Andrew, life in the Detroit seminary offered many advantages, but none more to his liking than the presence in the seminary chapel of a magnificent Casavant organ and the presence on the seminary faculty of an organist and choir director named Reverend Francis X. O’Riordan. Andy had been playing the organ at St. Augustine’s in Kalamazoo for several years and already had a cultivated voice and an intense love for church music, especially plain chant and polyphony. This fine priest helped Andy build on an already good musical foundation and prepare himself for a future in which good church music would play a major part.
In the spring of 1935 Andrew graduated with distinction from the philosophy department of Sacred Heart Seminary and applied, through his bishop, for entrance into St. Mary’s Seminary, Roland Park, Baltimore. Sending Mr. Forster to Baltimore was a departure from diocesan policy; the theologate in Cincinnati or, for students of Polish ancestry, Ss. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, Orchard Lake, Michigan, were the destinations of the other thirty-six members of the graduation class. Why the exception for Andrew? Fr. John Selner, S.S., who had spent much of his youth in Kalamazoo and in close association with the Sisters of St. Joseph, had already been an influence on Andy and had described the Sulpician vocation to him. Andy’s frank reason for asking to be sent to St. Mary’s was his interest in becoming a Sulpician himself.
At St. Mary’s he took eagerly to the formational and educational program of the seminary, was as happy as he had been at Sacred Heart, and again was deeply involved in church music.
One afternoon in June of 1939, having completed his theological formation, he left for Detroit and ordination. As the taxi cab carrying him and a fellow Detroiter pulled away from the curb in front of St. Mary’s while the gathered seminarians sang Ecce Guam Bonum, Andrew wept a few tears of mixed sorrow and joy. He was leaving a place he had learned to love deeply and was about to begin a new chapter in his life.
Ordination and early assignments
It was Archbishop (later to be Cardinal) Edward Mooney of Detroit who ordained Andrew on June 3, 1939 in Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Detroit. After ordination the young priest spent his first summer assisting the pastor of a Detroit city parish.
His first faculty assignment that autumn was to the philosophy house of St. Mary’s located on Paca Street, Baltimore. This assignment would last through the school year 1941-1942 but with time out for the nine-month Sulpician novitiate program (“Solitude”).
It used to be almost axiomatic in Sulpician circles while the Paca Street seminary was extant that “everyone who has ever lived at 600 North Paca Street has loved the experience.” That certainly was true of the young Fr. Forster. He enjoyed the teaching, the formational duties and his involvement with the music life of the seminary and of the nearby Baltimore Cathedral, but even more than that he reveled in what seemed to be the special charm of the old building itself. He would later look back with great fondness on his Paca Street years.
Following his Solitude, Father Forster earned his master’s degree in philosophy from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
Most of Andy’s Sulpician life was spent in California, mainly at St. Joseph’s, Mountain View, for fewer years at St. Patrick’s, Menlo Park, for another relatively brief period as a commuting professor between the two locations and for five years in parish work in Marin County.
The arrival of the Forsters (son and mother) for Andy’s initial California assignment, at St. Joseph’s College, occurred in the autumn of 1943. They had driven across the country in their little Buick Special and, arriving near the College one afternoon, they drove into a filling station to ask for directions to St. Joseph’s. The attendant told them that they were indeed fortunate because, as it happened, someone from the College was seated nearby. The “someone” then approached, a tall, very gaunt figure in clerical attire.
At the head of this obituary the word “unique” received special attention. It is time to use the term again. The figure approaching the Forsters was the totally unique Fr. Royal B. Webster, S.S.
It was the beginning of a long and close association, for Fr. Webster was organist at St. Joseph’s where Fr. Forster would become director of liturgical music. Father Webster’s unique style of accompanying the choir was to so position himself behind an opaque screen that he could neither see or be seen by the choir director. Of such stuff are legends made!
Despite this handicap, Fr. Forster and his choir as well as the seminary community as a whole produced wonderful music.
590 to 604 etc.
The above dates describe the span of years during which St. Gregory the Great, the patron of ecclesiastical music, reigned as pope. It is a set of dates so indelibly burnt into the memory of every student at St. Joseph’s or St. Patrick’s seminaries during the Forster years that alumni from that era, even if they are now in their dotage and can recall little else, can still smartly shout out the magic numbers on demand.
The insistence on knowledge of Gregory’s dates was one of Andy’s legacies. He left many more. For example, he engendered so much enthusiasm for Shakespeare that the ruins of St. Joseph’s College, devastated by the earthquake of October 17, 1989 probably still house a few scale models of the Globe Theater built by class after class of Fr. Forster’s students.
Fr. Forster spoke and wrote the English language with grace and clarity and also taught others how to write well and to love doing so. In addition to work in the classroom he encouraged the seminarians at St. Joseph’s to publish a student newspaper bearing the strange name, The Blow, and helped them to maintain in it the best standards of English usage but at the same time to use lively, interesting prose.
The span of our friend’s years in California was 1943 to 1986, interrupted by a four-year assignment in Seattle, Washington. Fifteen of the thirty-nine years he lived and worked in California were spent on the faculty of St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park (1950-1965), where, besides directing the choir and community music, he taught philosophy and both dogmatic and moral theology. Another six years (1978-1982) were given to parochial ministry at St. Rita’s parish, Fairfax. The remaining years, a total of eighteen, were spent at St. Joseph’s College and St. Joseph’s High School where he taught a variety of subjects but mostly English, religion and Latin.
Father spent the years 1972 to 1976 on the faculty of St. Edward’s Seminary, Seattle, Washington. For the last two of these years he was also vice rector. Here again, he elicited from the students a love for music, particularly Gregorian chant, and may again have left a trail of Globe theater models behind him at the end of his assignment there.
In all three locations, St. Joseph’s, St. Patrick’s and St. Edward’s Fr. Forster left another legacy, that of kindness and generosity. He was adept at choosing gifts exactly suited to the person and the occasion. Many a colleague and student has been touched by his quiet kindness, including Fr. Webster (he of the opaque screen) for whom he performed almost countless errands. In his later years Fr. Webster grew a long beard and started a garden where, clad in cassock with a pith helmet on his head and a long mosquito net fringing the helmet, he would cultivate large chrysanthemums each fall. Andy’s frequent chore was to drive Fr. Webster to a florist shop in Palo Alto where he sold the blooms to be resold at Stanford football games.
Over his fifty-eight years of priesthood, Fr. Forster was involved in ministry in parochial settings in many locations beginning in Michigan and including Maryland, California and Washington State. The three parishes with which he had the most sustained association were St. Nicholas in Los Altos and Holy Spirit, San Jose, California, to both of which he rendered faithful weekend service for many years, and St. Rita’s in Fairfax, California where he lived and worked as associate pastor for five years (1976-1981).
When Andy was about to move from California in July of 1986, the parish bulletin of Holy Spirit church published a letter of farewell to him. In part, this is what one reads there:
Someone once said that a good homilist holds Scripture in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. You go one step further—you include a dictionary and Church history text. We appreciate your scholar’s care in preparing your Sunday sermons. Like the master teacher that you are, you fashion your homilies so they flow from one point to another ensuring we grasp the richness of the day’s readings .... You tell jokes on yourself and take a humorous approach to life’s ironies .... All these character traits have endeared you to us. We will miss you deeply.
Mention has been made several times in this obituary of Andrew Forster’s passion for good church music. This passion, in turn, was part of a more general love for the church’s liturgy and, indeed, for the church herself. He acquainted himself thoroughly with the documents of the Second Vatican Council pertaining to the liturgy and eagerly consumed all the reading matter that he could find about the liturgy. There were some who found his zeal for carrying out the mandates of the Council too strong for their taste, particularly some parishioners who considered music at the parish Mass an intrusion on their personal piety. It had been a struggle for Andy himself to turn from the kind of church music to which he had devoted so much talent and effort for a quarter of a century to an often-ungainly new type of vernacular song at Mass, but his sense of obedience to the church prevailed over his personal preferences. He soon learned how to accept and even to champion the use of guitars and other non-traditional instruments in the liturgy. More than ever, he insisted on the important place of song in the Eucharist.
The good Father’s health began to fail notably at about the time he went into semi- retirement in 1981. By the time he entered the Villa in July of 1986 it had deteriorated to the point that from then on he went through a series of health crises, with occasional stays in the hospital and in the infirmary at St. Martin’s Home. After returning for what turned out to be his final trip to St. Martin’s, he soon found it difficult to get around without help, became confined to a wheel chair and then, without exhibiting any special sign of being close to death, he passed away in his sleep early in the morning of September 17, 1997. Those who discovered his body said that he apparently had died without a struggle.
In the chapel of St. Martin’s Home, the funeral was celebrated on September 20, presided over by the Very Reverend Ronald Witherup, S.S. the recently installed Provincial Superior of the Sulpicians. As Fr. Forster’s classmate and longtime friend, I had the privilege of preaching the homily at the Mass. Andy was buried in our Sulpician cemetery on the grounds of the former St. Charles College, now the Charlestown Retirement Community.
Andrew, may you rest in peace.