Born to Be a Priest
Abbot Emeritus E. Thomas De Wane, O. Praem., made sports headlines in 1970 when he shot a hole-in-one on the number four hole at North Brook Country Club—the second in the club’s history. While hardly the highlight of his vocational religious life, to an avid golfer it counts as one of his more exciting moments. Nevertheless, the accomplishment pales alongside his many other achievements since priestly ordination in 1958.
Except for nine years as abbot (1992-2003), his ministry was almost exclusively in education. He graduated from St. Norbert College (SNC), De Pere, in 1955, then taught at Abbot Pennings (formerly St. Norbert) High School. After ordination he served Prémontré High School as teacher, then as registrar for five years. Next came a two-year stint as superior at Holy Spirit Priory, Chicago. He returned to De Pere and St. Norbert College to be dean of students (1968-72) and for two years also taught part-time in education.
After a sabbatical year at UCLA, it was back to Prémontré to serve as principal for nine years. During this time he was named to the SNC Board of Trustees, held leadership positions on several state education committees, and was active in various professional organizations.
Nine years later, SNC reclaimed him—this time as director of teacher education. He administered programs leading to the certification of nursery-kindergarten, elementary, and secondary educators for nine years until his confreres elected him abbot of St. Norbert Abbey in 1992.
“I was abbot for nine years; I was principal of Prémontré for nine; I was director of teacher education for nine; and dean of students for five,” he recalls. “After retiring as abbot I lived for a few years at the abbey. I then decided that I might be of some help at our priory in Mississippi. My tenure there continues to this day and thus I have finally occupied a position for more than nine years.
“During this time I have been a chaplain at two Federal prisons and a VA hospital. I have also assisted at various parishes when called upon, however this past year I became the sacramental minister at St. Stephen Parish in the small town of Magee, Mississippi. Also during most of this time I have had the privilege of serving as superior (prior) of our Priory of St. Moses the Black in Raymond, Mississippi.”
During and between assignments, Abbot De Wane achieved graduate and post-graduate degrees in education administration from Marquette University and the University of Chicago, respectively.
He enjoyed everything he did, but liked being principal most; dean of students was “the most challenging.” His ministries were fulfilling and kept him “quite busy.” These experiences of satisfying, fulfilling apostolates contributed to Abbot De Wane’s unwavering commitment to religious life. His work was satisfying, he was doing what he wanted to do, and he made a lot of friends along the way.
“I really never look back at a point in my life and say, ‘Oh, I wish I would have done this or that or done something different,’” says Abbot De Wane. “When I entered the order, I did so because I wanted to and I love it. I was blessed by having this journey.”
The Norbertines have been part of his life since he attended St. Willebrord grade school in his hometown, Green Bay. “Every priest I knew was a Norbertine,” he says.
As far back as he can remember, he wanted to be a priest and was encouraged in his vocation by some of the sisters who taught at St. Willebrord. One in particular suggested, “‘You were born to be a priest, weren’t you?’ I can remember her saying that, and it came out that she was right. I don’t think that I ever felt seriously about doing anything else. And my parents hadn’t ever encouraged me to go in that direction; I got it all from either the Spirit or the sisters.”
He remembers the Norbertines at St. Willebrord and at Central Catholic High School as very friendly. “There was a constant interface with them—not necessarily for the purposes of vocation, but because I saw them all the time. I did become good friends with some of them. We played sports and tennis; we played in the school yard.”
Abbot De Wane took classes with Norbertines at Central Catholic. He liked high school; his desire to be a priest solidified there. When he told his dad that he was thinking about becoming a priest, “He said to me, ‘Don’t you think you should go to college first?’ and I said ‘No, I’m going straight to seminary,’ and that was the end of that. It’s always been a mystery to me because I was always kind of a homebody.” He left home for seminary and never looked back.
Abbot De Wane entered the Norbertine Order in August 1950 after graduating from Catholic Central as salutatorian (second in his class). In the half-century since, he has witnessed a dramatic decline in religious vocations. He also experienced major cultural and liturgical changes brought about by Vatican II, especially many affecting religious orders. Among these, a more relaxed structure has made for a better community.
“It is definitely not as strict as it was; it has made for a greater freedom,” he says. What members do now they do from choice.
“It hasn’t always been like that. I think it makes for happier members of the community. I think that people are doing what they want to do, and what they feel best equipped to do.” Rewarding as this aspect of community is, “The problem is, that doesn’t always fit into the chess match. Sometimes things get stretched; when you have a job that needs to be done, there is not always someone readily available to do it. Right now I am sure that we can do it all, but there may be a day when we can’t.”
The struggle to maintain community while engaging in active ministry is ongoing; balancing action and contemplation, the same. “Like everybody, it all goes into the nature of community. No one escapes it. Everybody does the best they can. On the apostolate side you are quite busy, you do the best you can. I can hope now that when I am finished (with my term as abbot) I will have more time to devote to contemplation,” he explains.
With any discussion of change within the order, Norbertines invariably define some aspects of the life as “the untouchables”: contemplation, ministry, and a community bonded by common prayer, common table, and common recreation.
In the words of Abbot De Wane, “our apostolates can change,” but how much change is needed so the community is healthier, holier, and happier is debatable. “My view of improving things is not to zero in on changing things, so much as doing what we are doing better. We can always do things better.”
There is much about Norbertine life to attract young people, says Abbot De Wane. “Part of canonical life is the mixture of contemplative community and apostolate. The right person for here has to be prepared for all three parts of our traditions (community, contemplation, and ministry). I think canonical life is part of a special blend of life.” Typically, the blend calls for the desire to be a priest. And, although historically the order is predominantly priests, “We also have a place for brothers.”
Life is good; the abbot feels blessed.
“I have been told that in my life I have a gentle wind behind me. In a certain sense, I have had an easy way of life. I haven’t had many tragedies. I never had any deep depressions, and I’m not quite sure that I have ever been depressed. I have had a fairly steady life. I have done what I have had to do. Others have had great family problems and difficult times, but it hasn’t been the story of my life,” he reflects.
Though never a great athlete, he loves sports (especially golf), enjoys spectator sports, and swims often. And he has the kind of personality that adjusts well to community living.
“I think I am a friendly person, and I am not a judgmental person. This helps in friendships, and I have a good sense of humor; I can laugh about jokes, so I think I am a good community member, and I enjoy community.”
A fulfilling life as priest and administrator has taken him to worlds never dreamed of as a novice back in 1950—India, South America, Australia, and most of Europe.
“I never would have had the occasions to travel as I have if not a Norbertine. All I can say is that I’m grateful to the Lord, and blessed. His will has brought me into this whole thing, with a wonderful family, and a great community. We are still some to some extent capable of going farther, but we will continue to do great things.”