Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

Belmont Abbey’s oldest monk, Father Matthew McSorley, passes away

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BELMONT—As the monks of Belmont Abbey Monastery finished Lauds on the morning of Thursday, May 24, Benedictine Father Matthew McSorley passed away peacefully. Father McSorley, was the oldest monk of the community, and had been a monk of Belmont Abbey for 68 years and a priest for 62 years. He was 91.

The day he died the monastic community celebrated the feast of Mary Help of Christians, the patronal feast of Belmont Abbey. Upon being diagnosed with cancer, Father McSorley expressed his longing to finally see his mother again. At the Funeral Mass, Abbot Placid Solari noted the beauty of his death on a Marian Feast—it was a reminder that he will not only now see his biological mother, but also our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Father McSorley taught in the English Department at Belmont Abbey College from 1945 to 1979, earning a reputation as a skilled and demanding teacher. He was a mentor to countless students, many of whom attribute their subsequent professional careers and success to his encouragement.

M.F. McCarthy, who graduated from Belmont Abbey College in 1974, was one of many students highly influenced by Father McSorley’s teaching. Among teaching and serving as dean of students at all boys’ preparatory school, he went on to be a writer. One of his novels is dedicated to his former English teacher, Father McSorley: “In token of my admiration for his remarkable genius.” McCarthy remembers his teacher and mentor as “a wonderful and wondrous man. Rare is the day when some image or notion concerning him fails to cross my mind.”

Upon retiring, Father McSorley spent most of his days inside the cloistered monastery. However, he remained influential in the lives of many people—visiting students, guests, nurses and other employees of the monastery. He regularly had visitors during his final years, and was most commonly known for his meal-time conversations. Sitting in the same seat everyday, Father McSorley always welcomed a good conversation with anyone coming through. When guests met Father McSorley, they would always meet a hospitable and kind monk. They would also meet a monk who loved to shock people. He seemed to enjoy saying things that would surprise new students and first-time guests by claiming monks practice birth control because they wear habits, or talking about how good snake tastes. A guest once asked him, “Father Matthew, are you a relativist?” He answered, with a straight face, “I’m a little bit of everything. I’m Chinese, I’m communist, I’m Indian, I’m African…look at my hair. It’s curly and it used to be dark.”

Father McSorley also had a reputation as a formidable competitor on the handball and tennis courts, and was a great chess player. Though he spent his life reading and teaching higher works of literature (like Shakespeare and Melville’s Moby Dick), he spent the last years of his life exclusively reading murder mysteries. After a life of hard work, he deserved to take it easy and, as he said, “read what I want to read.”

Father McSorley was once told this: “If you don’t do what people tell you to do, they’ll stop telling you what to do.” And he lived up to this advice by doing whatever he wanted to do. He also had high taste, only eating a steak, for example, if it was a good cut and perfectly cooked (rare was perfect for him). But he was not lazy and he was not unappreciative. He regularly told people how grateful he was for all he had. “I have my own nurse,” he would say, “and look at this food! I eat better than most people in Belmont.”

Father McSorley was a man of God, a man of love. For a reading at his funeral, he pre-chose Paul’s praise of love (from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians). He believed in love and he lived a life of love. He would remind people, “Jesus said to love one another. He didn’t say anything about sex or birth control or going to Mass every Sunday. He said to love one another.” This is not to say that he neglected to attend Mass on Sundays or that he lived a life with disregard to Catholic teaching. It simply meant he placed love as a very important part of his life. He was empathetic to anyone who was neglected, anyone who was hurt and anyone who suffered.

It was this love that kept him working with the neglected and poor African American community in Gaston County for so many years.

For more than 40 years Father McSorley served at St. Helen, a small Catholic mission in Spencer Mountain, located outside of Gastonia. Sallie Rollinson, a long-time parishioner of St. Helen, began attending Mass there when a neighbor offered to give her a ride to the black Catholic church. Although she was not Catholic, Rollinson took advantage of the transportation offered to her and her five children. In an interview with the Catholic News Herald last year, she reflected on how she came into the Catholic Church. At St. Helen Mission, she said, she was welcomed by a congregation of “down-home people filled with the Spirit” and a caring priest from Belmont Abbey.

That priest was Father McSorley. Rollinson says he played a vital role in her continuing to attend St. Helen. She praised him as “one of the greatest priest I ever met.” When she went to her first Mass 45 years ago, she found that “everyone in the church was welcoming when I came; Father Matthew followed up on it and came out to my house to visit me and my kids. He was good to the whole congregation and treated us like we were white; people are people, just different colors.”

In 1991, Father McSorley retired from active ministry, and the Benedictines completed their service at St. Helen. The church was transferred to Saint Michael the Archangel Church in Gastonia as a mission, and in 1995 St. Helen became a mission of Queen of the Apostles in Belmont. Father McSorley is remembered with affection and gratitude by the African American communities at St. Helen and in Belmont for his solicitude and his promotion of civil rights and integration. At Belmont’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in 2008, he received the Humanitarian Award for his outstanding service.

Father McSorley requested, and the monastic community agreed, that after his death his body be donated to Duke University Medical School. It is, Ab. Placid said, his last act of service.

He is survived by the monks of Belmont Abbey, by his sister, Sister Ellen McSorley, R.S.M., and by his niece, Charlene Curry.

Christopher Lux

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  1. Abbey luminaries, Father Matthew McSorley, and Father John Oetgen, are the two people who've influenced me most in my writing ... and my reading.
    At the end of our freshman year at The Abbey, all students in Matthew's Rhetoric class received gifts from him; some got religious medals, others books, many were given handsome bookmarks. I was somewhat bewildered to open my large, brown, gift envelope and find a well-thumbed copy of that week's New York Times Book Review. I had never seen the publication, but I read every word, and I absorb it regularly to this day.
    I've often wondered if Father Matthew had some inkling that fifty years later I would retire to a life of writing the sort of novels that he considered entertaining. I never shared any of my dozen thrillers with Matthew ... perhaps I feared his evaluation ... but the more I look back on his mesmerizing classes, the more convinced I become that he might have known something about my destiny that even I couldn't have guessed in those days.
    Matthew McSorley was a truly inspiring teacher, and we all loved him.

    Jeb Ladouceur, class of '59