Rex, Father Charles Bernard

1897, February 22

Date of Birth:  1856, July 9

May 1, 1897

Fathers and Very Dear in Our Lord:

It has pleased God once more to remind us that He is the sole author and support of our work. We presumed that this dear confrere was destined to render special service to our houses in America. With that in view many of us continued up to the end to pray that he would be spared us; but it was not as we hoped that our pray was heard by God.

Father Charles Bernard Rex was born at Baltimore on July 9, 1856 of a Protestant family of modest means. From his earliest years he was an ideal son; as he grew older, adherence to all the duties corresponding to his years was mated with a very pleasing openness of character. He succeeded brilliantly in his early studies; nevertheless, from the age of twelve on, through love of his family, he begged for and obtained permission to go to earn his own living in the countryside by working for an uncle who had a small business there. He spent three years in that occupation which readied him to take at Baltimore itself a more advantageous one in an important firm.

It was in the course of these three years that the mother of the young man, along with her younger children, had the good fortune of conversion to the true faith. To see her dearly loved Charles partake of this happiness was, from then on, her dearest wish, but she believed it her duty to speak of this only to God. Imagine her surprise and joy when less than a month after his return to Baltimore, Charles came one day to ask her to bring him to a priest; for he wanted to become a Catholic.

That surprise and joy were equaled only by the amazement of the priest when he ascertained that the young man – without letting on to anyone around him – had learned to the letter his whole catechism and understood it so well that here remained hardly anything to be done to prepare him for Baptism and his First Communion. He received these two sacraments two days apart on September 2nd and 4th, 1870. Not long after, the desire of giving himself completely to God and to serve Him in the priesthood took hold of his mind; but to follow that vocation he had for a whole year to go through a strenuous struggle with his father, who was opposed. The latter was not yet a Catholic, and his ear was attuned to the shining promises of the head of the firm where his son was working and was regarded as having a rosy future.

The young man’s firmness, always calm, respectful, filial in the end carried the day; and in September 1871, he entered St. Charles College to begin his classical course. He finished five years later with the highest honors, his uncommon talent permitting him in his first year to complete two years’ work.

At the closing exercises of that scholastic year, 1876, a wealthy friend of the College, struck by the poise of the young graduate, offered to send him to Rome, all expenses paid, until he became a priest. To the great dismay of his father, [young] Mr. Rex – without hesitation – declined the generous offer. His reason (which he did not talk about at all) was the attraction he had already conceived for the Sulpician vocation.

He entered the Baltimore seminary, spent two years there from 1876 to 1878, then was sent to Paris as an aspirant for the Society. When in 1880 he had finished his Theology course, he received the priesthood on September 26th of that year in the chapel of the Foreign Missions [Organization], left for the Procure in Rome (at which he was the first American to live), worked there another two years at higher studies, and finally entered the Solitude in October, 1882. When his novitiate was over, he left for America, where his twelve years of active ministry were spent – the first and the last at St. Charles and the other ten at Boston.

At St. Charles in 1883 he taught first year high and, though maintaining an orderly class, made himself well-liked by the students, who felt themselves – as they themselves said – drawn to him as were the most senior students. In the vacation period of 1884, he left for the Boston seminary, which was about to open; he was to be its first treasurer. He oversaw the last of the construction work and checked out the installation of all the fixtures and furnishings with an uncommon comprehension of the needs of such an institution. Two years later he gave up the treasurer’s job for the Chair of Dogma, and he kept that for three years; order, clarity, sureness of delivery in that teaching assignment were his most striking qualities.

When the first Superior of the Boston seminary was meanwhile appointed to a new institution, no one seemed more qualified to succeed him than Father Rex, even though he was still only thirty-three years old. That trust was fully justified by the unanimous opinion of the students and directors of the seminary, of the diocesan clergy, and of the venerable archbishop. During his five years as superior, Father Rex seemed to be especially preoccupied with three things:

  1. the systematization of studies, involving a very carefully worked out method of the means of encouragement
  2. the health of the students; and
  3. the necessity of bringing into harmony the traditions and methods of St. Sulpice and the American outlook and character.

Under the last heading, some of those who watched him at work wondered if that preoccupation was not pushed too far with him. But his rare prudence and his common sense, as well as his sincere respect for rules and authority, would never have left off prompting him to a careful caution. Attachment to the Society, attachment of which he gave so many proofs, would have been enough to keep him on guard against tendencies too self-rooted or of a nature to change the spirit of our work and to compromise its stability.

The rare worth of the young Superior of Boston was so taken for granted that at the beginning of 1894 the General Assembly, meeting in Paris to select a successor to Father Icard, chose Father Rex to fill up the number of Assistants. He accepted such a mark of trust with his usual modesty, attributing it solely to the Society’s intention of conferring it on an American confrere. At that time his health had already undergone for a year or so some serious setbacks, and the necessity of being concerned about it seemed evident when he came to Paris the following July to take part in the Assembly’s work. It was thought, however, after a stay at Mont Doré that if he spent a year or two in jobs less taxing he would completely recuperate and get ready for important work at the New York seminary, whose opening was coming up. It was with that in mind that, after a ten years’ absence, St. Charles – the scene of his first priestly work – with joy saw him come back as President. That joy was too short lived; but although Father Rex’s last stay at St. Charles was hardly more than a scholastic year, no doubt he left there some lasting and fruitful traces. Procedures, customs, studies especially, have felt the effects of his zeal and of his love of progress, joined with the attentive care for details of every kind, concern which was especially characteristic of his type of approach to things. 

This is not the place to dwell on the series of incidents which brought about the final ruin of a health so precarious. Let it suffice to say that the last burden under which it collapsed was one that Father Rex thought it a duty to impose on himself, namely, to follow close-up in the autumn of 1895 the work of redecorating the St. Charles’ chapel. The doctors (into whose hands he was finally obliged to commit himself) thought that a prolonged stay in the high region of Colorado would – considering the particular nature of his disease – offer the best remaining chance of a cure. A sanatorium run by the Sisters of Charity was chosen as his rest home. It was there that he passed the last fifteen months of his life, attentively looked after by these good religious, who considered it one of their prime works to prolong, for the service of the Church, the productive years of a priest so accomplished.

But God decided otherwise. Father Rex piously ended his days at Colorado Springs last February 22nd. For a long time, and nearly up to the end, he had some illusions about the fatal progress of his disease. When he foresaw his death, however, he prepared himself for it with great calm and with perfect abandonment to Divine Providence. His mortal remains were brought back to Baltimore and in the end to St. Charles, where his confreres regarded it as a blessing to have him near them in their own little cemetery. A good number of Catholic papers in the United States carried the story of his burial and of the solemn service which preceded it in the Baltimore Cathedral, where Cardinal Gibbons himself deigned to give the absolution.

No doubt the deepest and most edifying memento which our very beloved confrere will leave in the memory of those who knew him well will be that of his rare qualities of heart, of mind, of character. They were already noticeable in germ in some traits of his young manhood: the unconsciousness of self which brought a boy of twelve, eager for studies and crowned with success at school, to give them up out of love for his own; that innate piety through which he secretly worked out his own conversion; those generous inclinations – first for the priesthood, then for the life and work of St. Sulpice – which made him turn down attractive offers and (a harder sacrifice!) resist sweetly but without weakening the views of a father he loved tenderly.

To these deep-seated qualities Father Rex joined a very open mind, a calm spirit, a rare natural poise, the gift of interesting himself in a lively and sincere manner in things and persons, all the while keeping his self-possession. From the time of his entry as a student at St. Charles those who were his closest friends there noticed that he gladly participated in all the games and little projects of his fellow pupils, demonstrated a great deal of ability in them, and kept at the same time a dignity of attitude which everyone respected.

Matured by the years and graces of the priesthood, his talents – so varied and so well-balanced – acquired for him in the seminary, the diocese, and the province of Boston considerable influence. Priests, even bishops, sought out his counsel. His confreres found in him in all their problems a touching sympathy. The seminarians knew that it was very hard to fool him, and they liked him nonetheless for that, recognizing his utter devotion, his broad outlook, his high character, his toleration for faults of simple oversight. He was truly a Superior: always mindful of progress; having clear ideas well thought out, ideas whose realization he followed through on without haste, with tact, with patience, prudence and perfect good grace, but without overlooking any opportunity, without sparing himself any effort, without promoting himself in any way, without going too far nor holding back.

Those in America who have felt close up the great gap that he has left in our work hope mightily that by his intercession at God’s right, he will work efficaciously to fill that gap and to rouse for us the special vocations it cries out for.

It is with the same trust that I renew to you, Fathers and dear Confreres, the expression of my very devoted regards in Our Lord.

A. Captier

Superior of St. Sulpice