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Photo: Felix Carroll
Brother Fred Wells, MIC, speaks with the soft, rounded drawl of a Richmond, Va., native, as if an artisan filed the edges off his words and smoothed them into curves. To a northerner's ear, it sounds tranquil, a sans serif redolence that calls to mind — what? — something akin to water trickling from a cavern roof into a pool of still water during moonlight. You could listen to it all night, and it might becalm the most restless of souls.
You almost become hypnotized by the Song-of-the-South rhythm and have to force yourself to stop listening to his cadence and concentrate of what he's saying. When you do, you realize Br. Fred is a proverbial wise man. He's learned a thing or two in his eight-plus decades of life.
A Lot of Marian Living
Brother Fred took his first vows as a Marian brother on Feb. 2, 1957. That's a lot of Marian living. In those 53 years of religious life, a man like Br. Fred accumulates lots of common sense and spiritual savvy. He is that happy man referred to in the Psalms, the one "who gains discernment" by the way he lives (Ps 3:13).
He speaks plainly, laughs frequently, and listens carefully. He's a man who does his own bidding yet puts others' needs before his own. When you're with him, you come first. Brother Fred's "default position" is kindness. He's what happens to a person who appreciates beauty and begins to internalize goodness. In the eye of such a beholder, beauty becomes beautiful.
"When I first arrived on Eden Hill, in 1955, it was so beautiful," Br. Fred says. "Father Richard met me at the Stockbridge train station and drove me to the Hill by the back road. I remember being filled with the sheer beauty of the landscapes. When we arrived on Eden Hill, he brought me to the Marian house. I felt so at home. I never had a moment of homesickness or doubt. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. My mom and sister were not happy about me leaving home, but they were happy I became a brother."
Caged, Waged, and Engaged
But before he joined the Marians, Fred Wells served in the military, then used the GI Bill to enroll at Smithfield-Massey Business College in Richmond. By that time, he had stopped going to church. After graduation, Fred found work as a clerk at the Richmond Dairy Company.
"I worked as a cashier in what we called 'the cage,'" Br. Fred says. "That's where the milkmen came in at the end of the day to turn in their reports with customers' money. I verified the record and made the deposits at the bank."
His office and business background proved precipitous to his conversion. A local priest had asked him to help out in the office at St. Mary's Mission Church in Richmond, where he had gotten friendly with the priests.
Like St. Augustine, Fred Wells had a "secret weapon" — a mother who was praying for him ... and a sister as well. The prayers of these resolute women were answered one day when the St. Mary's pastor dropped by the Wells home.
"In the living room, he gave me an invitation. 'Why not come back to church?' the pastor asked. 'Why not give it a try?' I told him I didn't feel worthy enough to come back. He invited me to attend a novena. I did that, and the Blessed Mother went to work. She slowly got me back into the Church. When I returned, I felt so happy and elated.
A Priest who Made the Difference
Brother Fred also discovered a role model.
"My confessor, Fr. Farley, was a late vocation. He was ordained a priest when he was 42 years old. When he told me that, he planted the seed of my vocation. I had been thinking about religious life, but I had no idea how to go about it. No problem — the Blessed Mother took care of that, too."
One day, he found a pamphlet in St. Mary's Missionary Church.
"The pamphlet wasn't fancy," Br. Fred says. "It was printed in a brown tone. One the priests explained to me about the rays coming from the heart of Jesus, who was pictured as The Divine Mercy. The image fascinated me. I then wrote to Stockbridge and ordered prayercards with the image. Shortly after the prayercards arrived, I received a copy of Marian Helper Bulletin (now Marian Helper magazine). There was information about becoming a Marian."
He paused and shook his head in wonder.
"Well," Br. Fred says with a hearty laugh, "53 years later, and here I am!"
Snowflakes 'Big as Quarters'
On that early February day of first vows, two carloads of family and loved ones — including mother Mariah, sister Mary, sister Ellen, Ellen's husband, and their two girls — made the trip north from Virginia. Brother Fred remembers, "It was snowing big that day, huge flakes big as quarters. There wasn't much wind. They floated down, the way it snows in the movies. It looked so beautiful."
The Marians put up all of Fred's guests, and the next day, a pure, pristine, picture-postcard snow blanketed Eden Hill. His guests were enthralled at the fantasy-like landscape.
"My mother even said, 'Say, I'd like to live up here myself!' The snow was beautiful. A thick, fluffy coating on the limbs of the bare trees, a sky the color of a robin's egg, snow in the fields and woods — to me, I'm thinking, 'It's a living prayer.' I still feel that way about beauty. If I look at something and say, 'It's beautiful,' that's a prayer, because the heavenly Father knows I'm congratulating Him."
Lessons of and from a Lifetime
Brother Fred has served the Marians in a number of roles — from accountant to doing pastoral work among the poor. What has Br. Fred learned over the years? That's when he started to riff.
"Time is very mysterious," he says. "There is no time after we die. Time in this life is not measurable. You just cannot measure time. What I appreciate now, at my age of 82, are the wonderful recollections of past friends, pasts Christmases, past moments of happiness. It's all been so beautiful.
"I recall them with thanks, because I've had so many friends. So many people have come into my life, gone out, and come again. It's enriching. I look at you and Felix and say how blessed we, the Marians, are to have men of your talent and goodness connected with us. It reinforces our faith in the providence of God. God provides for us in ways that we never dreamed would happen."
These days, Br. Fred lives as a hermit. He resides at the Marian monastery known at the White House, a part of the Eden Hill campus that borders Prospect Hill and a great wilderness quilt of field, woods, and fen.
"I live alone most of the time in my room," he says. "I am so contented to be in my room and soak up the quiet. I don't need to put the TV on, or music. Nothing. The Lord is giving me this opportunity. I've been through a lot of things in my life that I thought at the time were catastrophic. I look now. They made me who I am and gave me so many blessings."
The Secret of Effective Prayer
One final piece of wisdom came regarding the topic of prayer.
"When Jesus taught us to pray, He basically told us not to use a lot of fancy words, like the Pharisees. He said go to your room, shut the door, and talk to the Father. Words mess it up. When you use too many words, it's like you're telling God, like you're making a shopping list and reading off that list. It's so silly.
"My salvation doesn't depend on me or any fancy words. I value spiritual poverty. That's when you are aware that you can do nothing to save yourself. You're a dependent. You're like a child. And don't you know, the Lord said He didn't want our sacrifices. The only thing He wants is our trust."
Trust: This is a man who lives that five-letter word.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of Dan Valenti's Mercy Journal.