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Brother Fred Wells, MIC

On Bread, Salvation, and Propeller Hats

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Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015
STOCKBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — The Marian Fathers announced that Br. Fred Wells, MIC, died today in Stockbridge after a long illness. He was one-of-a-kind — beloved by his confreres and the employees here at the Marian Helpers Center, where he worked for many years. To get a sense of who Br. Fred was, we are reposting the following interview with him from 2009 by Felix Carroll:

He's been up since 3:30 a.m. making bread dough. It's 8:30 a.m. now. A few dozen buns are in the oven, and he's ready to talk.

The smell of baking bread fills the Marians' residence in Stockbridge, Mass. His fellow Marians walk through the kitchen on their way out the door, their nostrils twitching longingly. But they'll have to wait. This batch will be bagged and frozen for the Easter meal.

His name is Br. Fred Wells, MIC. He'll be turning 82 this May. Some people call him "Br. Bread." Kids in the tough neighborhoods of nearby Albany, N.Y. have a name for his bread. They call it "Fred's Bread." He frequently sends boxes of buns to them. He also donates his bread each Lent to the "Soup'er Friday" lunch at the Marian Helpers Center, proceeds of which go to Saint Joseph's Food Pantry, in Pittsfield, Mass.


When Br. Fred has been up early, you cannot miss that fact. There's typically a trail of flour in his wake. Moreover, when Br. Fred walks the grounds of Eden Hill, in Stockbridge, Mass., you also cannot miss him. He's the only religious on Eden Hill who wears a colorful brimmed cap with a propeller on top.

The following is Br. Fred in his own words.

On his propeller hat:
This is my trademark. Dick and Sylvia Decker, who used to work here, gave a propeller hat to Br. John Bryda, MIC, for Christmas one year. He hung it on a coat rack and never wore it. So I asked one time if I could borrow it. That was 1992. I never gave it back (laughs). ...

This hat makes people so happy when they see it. It lifts up their spirits. I once gave one to a woman in her early 20s who had cancer. The chemotherapy had made her bald. You never saw someone so happy as when I gave her that hat. ...

I could write a book about the comments I get. One time, at the mall in Pittsfield, a woman came up to me and asked, "What are you trying to say with that hat?" I said, "Well, if I didn't have this hat on you wouldn't be talking to me right now." The hat opens doors. ...

A man at Price Chopper [the local supermarket] said, "You know, that hat puts life into perspective" (laughs) ...

It's a happy hat. The message I am sending with this is, "Don't take yourself too seriously." ...

Not everyone can wear this hat, though. You have to have the personality. You have to be kind of coo-coo (laughs). ...

When people tell me, "I'd like to have a hat like that," I take it off my head and give it to them. I've got four or five in my closet. It's sort of like my apostolate, to give those out. ...

I tell people, "If you wear this, your life will never be the same again" (laughs).
...

On his childhood
I was born in Sheltering Arms Hospital, in Richmond, Va., where the poor people could go and it didn't cost anything. We were very poor. ...

On bread and bread making
I tell people this bread is like me: It's not pretty, but it's good. ...

My bread looks like moon rocks.

I've been making bread for 37 years. It was trial and error. My first bread came out like a brick. If you dropped it on your foot, you'd remember it. It would make an impression on you. ...

You know, making bread is therapeutic — because when I'm done, I'm so tired I can't even think about anything else. ...

You know why the guys worked at the bakery? They kneaded the dough. ...


[Scraping the dough bowl.] You know I can still see my mother doing this when she made bread. She used to scrape the bowl like this with her fingers and nails. I had no intentions of ever making bread, but I liked to watch her make it. And we had fresh-baked bread every day. And when we didn't have fresh made bread, we'd have this, like, Wonder Bread, and my father would say, "Do we have to eat this punk?" That's what he used to call white bread: "Punk." But I tell you, it's a chore to make this every day like my mother did. She'd take them right out of the oven and we'd eat them with soup for supper. We never could afford butter. We used to get this white margarine in a block. That's what we put on it. ...

I like how the smell of baking bread makes the whole house smell like home.

Over the years, I know I've touched so many lives with my bread. A couple who came to visit the Shrine last summer, I was talking to them on the porch and asked them if they would like to try some of my bread. They said yes. So I cut one in half and buttered it and brought it out to them, and they ate. Don't you know it, they sent me a Christmas card thanking me for the bread. ...

When I was living at the Marian house in Maryland, there were 24 people living in the house. When I made bread like this it would disappear. You wouldn't see it the next day. And they would come home from school and smell it. Two of the guys were from the Byzantine rite, and they went on what's called a "great fast" for Lent. And they couldn't eat eggs, cheese, milk, butter — no dairy products, and no meat, of course. So they were eating my bread, with peanut butter on it. The bread was that thick, and the peanut butter was just as thick. Both of these guys gained 20 pounds during their great fast!

You should knead the dough for 10 minutes. It takes a lot out of you. It's like folding a Sunday paper. ...

You know, you can't mess up bread too bad, because God puts the flavor in the wheat, and it's hard to take it out. I mean, it always comes through. ...

You know, I consider it an act of cruelty to make this bread in this house and not give the other Marians any. That is a cruel thing to do. ...

Why make bread? Because, first of all, I like it and the guys I live with like it, and I give it to people who like it. It's like a ministry of sorts. ...

Making bread gives me a sense of accomplishment and a sense of worth, but I'm also very good at doing nothing. I tell people if they want to learn how to do nothing, I can give them some lessons. ...


Why the Marians?
I was in my 20s, and I had been away from the sacraments for five years. My sister, Mary — God bless her — and my mother were praying for me all the time because I was not going to church. And sure enough, they got me back — through the Blessed Mother. ...

A few years later, I was volunteering at St. Mary's Parish in Richmond. I ran their mimeograph machine and sang in their choir. One day, in the vestibule, I found this brown-toned picture of the image of The Divine Mercy. It was in 1954. I was 27. I liked it. It was beautiful. It was the face and the eyes. The mercy, the expression of love and mercy was overwhelming. I figured they must have this image in color. The Marians' address was on the back. I wrote in, and I ordered some of those pictures, and I began giving them to my friends. Protestant, Catholic, everybody loved it. I remember I had two aunts who were not Catholic. They put the picture of Jesus in their sitting room, and they would go in and talk to Him like He was present. So that picture was very blessed. So then the Marians started sending me the magazine, the
Bulletin [now called Marian Helper]. It was as if God had talked to me. I saw a vocation appeal for priests and brothers. My brother advised me to try it out for one year. That one year expanded to 52 (laughs). ...

Also, I came because of Mary and the Marian name. I had come back to the Church through Mary, and I was grateful to her. So I figured any community with a name like this, I want to be in it. ...


On Divine Mercy and the call to trust
It's a message for people who have fallen away — sinners, for people who feel they have gone too far, they've committed too many sins, they can't get back into the good graces of God, or for people insecure with their religion. This is the perfect thing for them. The message is that God loves you no matter what — no matter what you've done, where you've been. God loves you anyway. I think it's good for people who are laboring under the imprisonment of being cast out. ...

On the Marians work spreading the message of Divine Mercy
Now the image of The Divine Mercy is so well known. It's hard to imagine how important this early work was. We're such a small community, comparatively. It is astounding to see how much it all grew and took off. ...

On first arriving on Eden Hill
I arrived here July 15, 1955. My first thoughts when I came up here were like "God put me in heaven." This was like heaven on earth. This place was so beautiful when I came up that back road. I was welcomed and greeted and treated very nicely. The shrine was not finished yet. The church was a shell. I took my first vows in that room right there.

On his own salvation
At my age, I'm not afraid of death anymore. I used to ponder it and sometimes be fearful of it. Now I feel my ransom has been paid, and I just have to keep saying "Jesus, I trust in You!" because that's the key to heaven. But it took me a long time to come to this point. ...

Everyday I thank the Lord for my peace, because I've been without it, years ago. That peace is beyond understanding. You don't know how long you're going to have it. There is a Psalm that speaks about how the Lord "metes out" peace to His people. That means that a lot of times He gives you just enough. ...

The Lord is taking care of everything, and I don't have to worry about anything because — well — He likes me (laughs). It's a mystery. I don't know why. ...

When you begin to come back to God and get a ray of hope that comes into your life, and then you get little insights from Scripture, from the readings at Mass, you start to become enlightened by what's really important. Slowly, your values change. What you once thought you wanted, you don't want anymore. I came to the point where I didn't want anything; I just wanted to be grateful that the Lord brought me back. And that's when I started thinking about the brotherhood. It's a slow process. ...

Sometimes I feel I'm in a bubble, immune to all the petty things that used to bother me. The bubble is the Lord protecting me from all sides. ...

But the truth is, you are never absolutely certain. There's always a longing to get it perfect, the relationship with Jesus. ...

I talk to Jesus like I talk to you. ...


On being diagnosed with cancer in 1998
I look upon my illness as a blessing in a way. For me, cancer is not about death; it's about life. ...

I've changed. When you are diagnosed with a serious illness, you begin to enjoy your life more. Your life becomes more focused. Your faith and trust in Jesus grows stronger. ...

Suffering is a form of Christ's Passion. People are privileged to share in that passion. If you fight it, you don't gain from it. God doesn't impose adversity, but when it happens, He lets you think. Now, I'm much more tolerant of others and myself. ...


On his fellow Marians
We're a family. We love each other and find ways to minister to each others' needs. ...

On accidentally abandoning Br. Leonard Kunda, MIC, recently at the lake
I dropped him off at the lake so he could go fishing. I told him I'd come back for him. So 5:30 p.m. came, and I ate supper. I enjoyed myself. I went up to my room. I watched some TV. Then, there's this knock on my door at 8:30 or 9 p.m.

["Nine thirty," clarifies Br. Leonard.]

When I heard the knocking, I thought, "Now who could be bothering me at this hour?" Then, I saw Br. Leonard, and the lights went on in my mind. (laughs). I said, "What happened to you?"

[Brother Leonard was forced to walk back, a long walk, maybe four or five miles. "It was very dark out," reports Br. Leonard.]

He'll never let me forget that.

["I forgive, but I don't forget," reports Br. Leonard.]

I think that's why he's living to this day. He got that cardiovascular workout — and it saved his life (laughs). ...

On the miracle of yeast
It rises twice. That's a miracle. Yeast. You put it into this very simple mixture, and it rises. It's astounding. The ordinary things of life teach us so much about God. They reveal His presence. God takes care of us. ...

On his biggest culinary critic, Fr. Martin Rzeszutek, MIC
One week, Fr. Martin will taste it and say, "Not enough salt. It's too bland." Then, the next week he'll say, "This isn't like you made it last time." He'll get nostalgic about the last batch that he didn't like either! If he doesn't say anything about the bread, that means it was good (laughs). ...

On music
I had three sisters and one brother. My sisters liked to sing together and have sing-alongs. We always had music in the house. When I went to work at the Richmond Dairy, I eventually bought a record player and played records in the living room. When my cousins or someone would come over I'd entrap them and make them listen to a certain song. I wanted them to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed it. Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, all the greats. And right now, I know so many songs by heart that are in my head like a tape. Songs from the 1940s. I got a great memory for that — and for numbers, telephone numbers. ...

On age
It's nice to realize the Lord gave you all those years. It's a gift. ...

I don't mind being 82, but your body really tells you you're 82. ...


On what makes him happiest
My relationship with the Lord makes me happiest, because He brings me peace. Friends, they contribute to my happiness. ...

On our fragile nature
Even in peace, I am aware of fragile nature, that the dark side does not go away. Living with it and being aware of it is a great gift. ...

We were born with the propensity to do the wrong things, and it's a lifetime's work to combat that. ...


On Lenny, the butcher at Price Chopper
He once said to me, "Brother Fred, I don't know where I'm going after I die." I told him, "I don't know either, but I refuse to go any place else but heaven. I just refuse" (laughs). He liked that policy. Lenny's birthday is coming up. I'm going to make him some bread for his birthday. ...

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TONY - Sep 9, 2015

Just prying for the soul of Brother Fred; because I know I need his prayers and yours to save my soul. I believe and desire that I am doing the will of the " Lord ", but not sure sometimes. I loved his story because I relate to being away from the church and the " LORD " , for to many long years; eg. over 25; and it is a long process to combat old habits and ways; but I believe that way to peace is through " Our Lord JEsus and His Divine Mercy ".

Fr. Joe Roesch, MIC - Sep 10, 2015

Br. Fred was one of a kind! May he rest in peace and intercede for us!

Fr. John Larson, MIC - Sep 10, 2015

I experienced Br. Fred as a kind of "grandfather" figure. He liked to sing the song "Accentuate the positive," among others. I especially remember him singing hymns to Mary at Masses. He was a great singer.

Dave & Helen Came - Sep 10, 2015

When we first moved to Stockbridge & Dave began work at the Marian Helpers Center, Br. Fred was so kind & welcoming to us and the children! He took time to talk & share & let the kids play with the propeller on his beanie. We loved his gentle ways & southern accent and of course his sense of humor! When we drove past Richmond, Virginia, recently on our move to Florida, we said out loud, "Richmond, the hometown of Br. Fred." Now, we pray with gratitude for his life & witness. We know he'll reach the pearly gates, the "heavenly Richmond!"

Fr. David R. Lord, MIC - Sep 11, 2015

Bro. Fred was a great man& cook WOW!
I remember him with love &devotion &tenderness of God &our Lady and special Saint Joseph he love Saint Joseph!
Eternal of rest grant O Lord!!!
Bro. Fred is intercede for US!!!

Fr. David R. Lord, MIC - Sep 11, 2015

and sing! the a voice!!!!

Karen P W - Sep 12, 2015

I am sure the choir in heaven is happy to have a new member and Br. Fred is happy to be one of them and I am sure he is keeping them well fed with his bread.
Rest in Peace Br. Fred

Sonia Lemke - Sep 12, 2015

What a dear man! I've learned some wonderful things from Brother Fred tonight. Rest in peace, Brother Fred! I will say a Divine Mercy in your honour. Please continue praying for all of us here!

Maureen Digan - Sep 19, 2015

You were a wonderful, Religious Brother Fred, not eveyone understood you. Those that did take the time to understand Brother were Blessed.
Thank you Br. Fred for being so kind and gentle to my Special Needs Little boy who loved you very much. You showed such kindness to him. in DC and Stockbridge. God Bless you.