Selner, Father John Charles

1992, November 20

Date of Birth: 1904, April 18

Completed April 18, 1993
John Selner’s 89th birthday

On Friday, November 20, 1992, the community at St. Mary’s Seminary, Roland Park, had a day of recollection led by Father Jerry Brown, the U.S. Sulpician Provincial. Since Saturday the 21st was the day of much outside activity for the seminarians, it was decided to anticipate the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady and make the day of recollection a way of celebrating the feast. For many years this feast, once called “Sulpician Christmas,” has been a very special day in Sulpician houses. And it was during this early celebration of the feast that death came to one who had contributed to the dignity of the feast for more than three-quarters of his life, Father John C. Selner, S.S.

John Charles Selner was born in Chicago on April 18, 1904, the son of Henry Chesterfield Selner and Rosaline J. McKernan. Because his mother was an actress, she was frequently away from home. Hence the boy spent some time with the Franciscan Sisters in Sparta, Wisconsin, and some time with his grandmother in Detroit. After a year in public school he asked to go to a Catholic school. On the recommendation of his grandmother’s pastor, he was sent to Nazareth, Michigan, where the pastor of St. Augustine’s parish, Father F.A. O’Brien, had founded Barbour Hall, a school for boys, and put it under the charge of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Young John Selner arrived at Barbour Hall in December of 1911 and remained there from the second through the eighth grade. Ever after he would be grateful to the Sisters for their years of teaching, formation, and love. The St. Joseph Sisters would regard his time with them as a special gift of God. They prepared him for First Communion as well as for his Confirmation in 1913. They gave him also a love of music and had him playing the organ by the time he was twelve. They also developed first urgings toward a life of service as a priest.

With recommendations from priests in Michigan, John came to St. Charles College in Catonsville as a first high student in 1919. During the five years he spent at the College he was a good student, with a few “distinguished” notes in English. But true to his heritage, he became an excellent speaker and public reader; in fact, in his Poetry year, he won the James F. Nolan prize for public reading, with his classmate Cornelius M. Cuyler in second place. These too were years of close contact with Father George Gleason, who helped to develop his love of Gregorian chant, of singing, and of growing in skill with the organ. (It should be noted that the great Casavant organ that is still a feature of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels was installed just about the time of John Selner’s entrance into St. Charles.) One other aspect of his minor seminary experience was his skill at imitating and mimicking people, a skill that, in true student form, would be directed to the faculty members and those in authority, like Archbishop Curley who came to Baltimore while John was in third high. But even in the process of imitating them, he also got to know them so well that in his major seminary years he was called on to write articles for the Voice about his teachers who had died, such as Father Charles Hogue and Father Dan Duffy. John did not get a chance to experience his second College year at St. Charles because he was sent for the 1924-25 school year to Sacred Heart Seminary, the college seminary in his home diocese of Detroit.

But, thanks to Monsignor Francis J. Van Antwerp (who would die the year before John’s ordination), John Selner came back to Baltimore in 1925 to enter Old St. Mary’s on Paca Street. During his Philosophy years, he worked with Monsignor Leo Manzetti and the Philosophy choir and then with Father Joe Bruneau, when the Monsignor retired in 1926. In his first Philosophy year he translated a hymn used at St. Sulpice in Paris and put it to the music of the original. The words appeared first in the Voice in June, 1926, and then in the Seminary Hymnal he published in 1941. The Voice also had him write an article on the celebration of the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas in both 1927 and 1928.

Moving to Theology in 1927 was no major change for John because the theologians lived in the same building. After two years John Selner moved to Roland Park when that much-needed house was opened in the fall of 1929. His theology career was summed up in the Voice’s “Who’s Who in the Seminary” in February 1930, when the staff writer proclaimed about John:

This talented gentleman is a musician, a writer, a teacher, an actor and — then some. As a musician John is famous both at the piano and at the organ. He can produce effects with a piano that others could not accomplish with a nineteen-piece orchestra. He certainly makes those keys behave. But he’s even better with the organ. He cannot only play organs, but he buys them, sells them, and designs them. In this house of organs — there’s one in every nook and corner of the first floor — John naturally feels very much at home.

John’s fame as a Roland Park musician should not surprise us. As a philosopher he was Father Bruneau’s able assistant in all that concerned music, and a bit more. He studied, played, taught, and wrote music there, and served a valuable apprenticeship. Yes, John has tried his hand at teaching — music, of course. Last year he was one of the Paca Street professors of plain chant. Just now he is resting from those labors·— but there is another year coming, and it will be John’s deacon year.

John is also clever with his pen, and from time to time The Voice has been privileged to publish his literary efforts. We told you, too, that John is an actor. Well, if a born mimic is an actor, John is certainly one. He is widely known for his imitations of certain celebrities.

The following Easter Sunday afternoon, Rev. Mr. Joseph Fusco, a Brooklyn deacon (who died in 1986 after many years as a pastor in South Ozone Park), retired as student choir director under Father Levatois, and John Selner succeeded to that position until the Easter of his deacon year.

On June 11, 1931, Archbishop Curley of Baltimore ordained John Selner a priest in the old Baltimore Cathedral. Though his mother was living in Brooklyn at this time, John was still ordained for the Diocese of Detroit and as a candidate for St. Sulpice. The following school year the new priest spent at St. Charles College, living in the Solitude Mansion under Father Viéban and his assistant, Father Hoey, and assisting Father Gleason with the College’s organ and choir chores.

Then a year after his own ordination he returned to St. Mary’s, Roland Park, where he would remain for twenty-six years. Those years were full of direction of choir and community, with assisting for special occasions with the music at the Cathedral of the Assumption, and with studying for his doctorate in Sacred Theology. His thesis was “The Teaching of St. Augustine on Fear as a Religious Motive,” and he obtained his S.T.D. in 1937. For most of the years he taught Homiletics and was in charge of the sermons preached in the refectory. He taught a course in Catechetics and introduced his students to experts in the field like Sister M. Rosalia Walsh of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart and a sister of Bishop James E. Walsh of Maryknoll, whom he knew personally; and he taught Moral Theology for some time. Many priests and laymen bless him for his direction as their confessor, and hardly a year went by without his preaching at one or more of his penitents’ first Masses.

Much as Father Edward R. Dyer had served as President of the St. Gregory Society (even when he couldn’t carry a tune), Father Selner became very much involved with the Society of St. Gregory of America, teaching in their summer institutes, promoting their “White List of Catholic Church Music,” and serving as their President until the position began to take him away from his seminary duties. He published several works, Chant at the Altar, Breviary; and Missal Prayers, and the Seminary Hymnal that many of us used. Through all of this he intended to promote better understanding and appreciation of Church music.

Not only did he work with his students to improve the level of preaching, but he himself became noted for his preaching. Every year he was in great demand to preach the Three Hours’ Agony on Good Friday, especially at Baltimore’s old Cathedral. He and his choir became a fixture on the “Catholic Hour” on the radio, especially during the annual Lenten series preached by Monsignor Fulton Sheen. For a number of years that program became the Sunday night spiritual reading (or rector’s conference) at St. Mary’s.

In addition to his music, Father Selner was also busy with writing. Issue after issue of the Voice would include a book review that he had written. He continued to share his insights into the lives of former teachers and friends, like Father Edward Coyle, S.S. (intended for his golden jubilee, but serving instead for the time of his death); Monsignor Leo P. Manzetti; Father Theodore Lochbihler, of St. Mary’s class of 1895, who had been chaplain at Nazareth when John Selner was a boy; and Father Gillis and the Paulist Fathers on their centennial. Of course, he preached the eulogy for Father Andrew Levatois, S.S., who had been his predecessor as organist and choir director.

These were the years, too, when the end of World War II made it possible for St. Mary’s faculty to resume planning for the permanent chapel at Roland Park which ultimately was completed twenty-five years after the building first opened for students in 1929. Father Selner was a member of some of the committees that had the responsibility for decorations, inscriptions, and other details that would contribute to the finished product. But naturally the area in which he was most involved was the organ and the music. He had been in close contact with an expert organist who had known Cardinal Gibbons and Monsignor Manzetti, a certain Archer Gibson who had his own organ in his New York apartment. Mr. Gibson left it to St. Mary’s Seminary and arranged for Casavant Freres of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, to rebuild it to suit the new Seminary chapel. Father Selner lovingly directed this process. We still have the account of the evening of October 6, 1954, when the old chapel was dismantled, and the Blessed Sacrament was brought to the new chapel. As Father Meyer brought the Lord into His new home, the choir greeted them with the sounds of the Ingrediente Domino from the liturgy of Palm Sunday. The following month saw the consecration of the altars by Bishop Sebastian and the dedication of the chapel by Cardinal Mooney on Alumni Day— both accompanied by the music of Father Selner and his choir.

The spring of 1956 found John Selner celebrating the 25th anniversary of his ordination, Two years later saw a new rector at Roland Park (Father Van Antwerp in place of Father Laubacher) and Father Selner transferred to Theological College after 26 years on Roland Avenue. His reaction was expressed in what he wrote one time: “I was never sent where I did not want to go, never given a job I did not want to do. Lucky me! ...I never had a chance to wilt from boredom. I loved teaching and training young men for the priesthood.”

For another eleven years he served in Washington, directing the music at Theological College, serving also at the National Shrine, and holding an associate professorship of Homiletics, Speech, and Ecclesiastical Latin at The Catholic University of America. For his last six years in Washington he was vice rector of Theological College, assisting Father McCormick during and after Vatican II and remaining on during the first year of Father Eugene Walsh’s rectorship.

By 1969 Father Selner was ready for retirement after thirty-eight years of dedication to priestly formation. It seems that the Sisters of St. Joseph in Nazareth, Michigan, were looking for a chaplain for their retirement home, Fontbonne Manor, in the same complex where John had spent his grade school days. It was an arrangement that was to last for his final twenty-three years. He could repay the Sisters’ long-remembered goodness to him by his service as their chaplain and by his continued musical efforts for them and with them. He could confirm his attachment to the area by being incardinated into the new Diocese of Kalamazoo in 1972. He could maintain his work for priests by the great number of retreats he gave them all over the country— at least one hundred of them while he was in Baltimore, Washington, and Nazareth. He was free to indulge in his love of travel, trips that took him back to Baltimore from time to time, especially to celebrate major anniversaries with his brethren in St. Charles Villa. He also came for the funeral of John McCormick, when his homily capped long years of their association. He was prevailed on during this period to make an hour-long videotape in which he lovingly recalled the many old Sulpicians, French and American, whom he had known. We used to say that, as long as John Selner was alive, those priests would never die. Now we have to depend on our memories and his tape.

Another feature of those years was the constant stream of notes and longer letters that came to his old friends at the Villa, the Provincial House, the Archives, and many other places. In them he revealed such things as his involvement with Father Gleason in the music of the “Iste Confessor” that was always a feature of St. Charles Days; his willingness (even though it was not acted upon) to go to St. Patrick’s in Menlo Park to assist Father Laubacher in his difficult days as rector there; his enormous gratitude to all who wrote him or visited him or provided him with information or a place to stay in his travels. He might have been far removed from most of his confreres and friends, but he never let us forget his interest, his concern, and his desire to keep close to us.

Finally, and almost unbelievably, he passed his golden jubilee and then his sixtieth anniversary of ordination. He helped the Sisters celebrate in 1989 one hundred years in Michigan, even as he had been in the house for their 25th and had returned for their 50th and 75th. Then cancer and the burden of nearly 88 years took their toll, and Father Selner had to give up his chaplaincy. He continued to live at Fontbonne Manor for the last months of his life before death came for him on November 20, 1992.

His funeral took place the following Tuesday, November 24, in the Holy Family Chapel in Nazareth. Before that was the chanting of the Office of the Dead on Sunday night and a wake service on Monday, at which the reflections of Father Melvin Blanchette, S.S., a fellow Michigan Sulpician, spoke for all John’s confreres. On the funeral day itself, Bishop Paul V. Donovan of Kalamazoo, Father Selner’s ordinary, was both main celebrant and homilist.

Burial took place in the DeBever Chapel at Gate of Heaven Cemetery. John left no blood relatives, only those bound to him by longtime spiritual ties, especially his fellow Sulpicians and the Sisters of St. Joseph he had known for eighty years.

John W. Bowen, S.S.