During Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. in September, he praised the late Thomas Merton as one of four great Americans. Merton, one of the most influential Catholic writers of the 20th century, spent 27 years, exactly half his life, as a Trappist monk in a monastery called the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
After his death, his manuscripts and papers remained in the public sphere at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, and his books remain in print, but it seemed that little else was left from the man who inspired so many. That is, until the summer of 2015, when dozens of his personal artifacts reappeared in Missouri.
John Smelcer, an author who lives in Kirksville, Mo., was writing a book inspired by the writings of Thomas Merton when an acquaintance told him about a woman living in Kansas City who owned a large collection of Merton’s personal belongings. “So some little old lady somewhere in Missouri has all of Thomas Merton’s personal possessions? I have never heard of that,” Mr. Smelcer said. “No one’s ever heard of that. So for weeks and weeks I wouldn’t let it go. Who is this person?”
He managed to arrange a meeting with the woman, and at the end of their conversation, Mr. Smelcer asked her about the rumor. After a little hesitation, she took him to her garage and showed him two large trunks. “And she opens them up, and they’re just full, just cram-packed” with items that Thomas Merton owned at the time of his death.
The woman’s name was Helen Marie [her last name was excluded to protect her identity from potential relic hunters], and the story of how she came to have these things begins in the 1960s.
Helen Marie was a nun in Brooklyn, and by this time Merton was already world famous through his writings. All the nuns in her abbey were reading him. One day, Helen Marie decided she’d like to meet the man that she and all her friends admired so much, so she told her superior.
“And she gave her the money for a round-trip ticket on a Greyhound, and said, ‘Just go,’” Mr. Smelcer said. “‘Don’t write to him. Don’t call. Cause they might say no. Just show up.’”
She went in the dead of winter, arriving in Kentucky during a snowstorm. And even though Merton refused to see her at first, a monastery couldn’t turn away a nun to the cold. So they put her up in the guest house, and she waited. “And I finally was allowed to see him, and I thought, How am I going to approach this wonderful, famous mystic with my lack of expertise and knowledge that most people have?” Helen Marie said. But “he was so simple, so wonderful to talk to, I felt terribly at ease and he was just most marvelous.”
Helen Marie said that was the beginning of a friendship that would last until Merton’s death. Helen Marie moved to the Sisters of Loretto at Nerinx, Kentucky, just down the road from Gethsemani, and Merton became her spiritual mentor.
Every Sunday, she’d visit him at the monastery for guidance. Sometimes another monk would come with them. His name was Brother Irenaeus. Over time, Brother Irenaeus and Helen Marie fell in love. But they were conflicted, as monastic vows prevented them from being married. So they asked Merton for his advice.
“He said, ‘You’ve gotten everything there is to get out of your monastic life,’” Helen Marie said. “He said, ‘Grow in new areas. Grow beyond that.’ And I never forgot that.”
Shortly after Merton’s death on Dec. 10, 1968, in Bangkok, Thailand, Helen Marie and Brother Irenaeus left their respective communities, taking with them Merton’s belongings. At the time of Merton’s death, his abbot, Flavian Burns, had instructed Brother Irenaeus, who was the tailor at the monastery, to get rid of Merton’s personal belongings so as to discourage the potential for relic hunters. They were married and eventually moved to Kansas City for work. And for 50 years, Merton’s things stayed hidden in two large trunks in the clutter of Helen Marie’s garage. After her husband died in 2009, she didn’t know what to do with them. So she prayed.
“I felt that I should share this, not keep it for myself,” Helen Marie said. “And then when John [Smelcer] came, I was so happy. Because I knew it was an answer to prayer.”
Helen Marie gave him the belongings she had been keeping, trusting him to deliver them to the right places. Mr. Smelcer spent the rest of the summer researching the items and figuring out where they should go next. Finally, he found the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine, of which Dr. Paul Pearson is the director, and drove from Kirksville to Kentucky in late July 2015 to show Dr. Pearson pictures of what he had.
“I was just amazed that this collection had survived, and it was really quite fortuitous the events that had brought it to his attention and then John getting in touch with us,” Dr. Pearson said.
Mr. Smelcer had clothes, letters and photographs. He even had underwear. Merton’s things weren’t in pristine condition. They were ripped, covered in dirt and paint, and threadbare. But that wasn’t the result of not being stored properly; the items seem so poor because Merton spent his days at the abbey doing manual labor.
“One of the things I’ve noticed from looking at these clothes especially,” Dr. Pearson said, “is they prove that Merton walked the walk. He lived the poor monk.”
Like any object said to have belonged to a famous person, these objects had to be vetted, but Merton’s clothes came with an easy identifier. “Every single piece of clothing of Thomas Merton has this on it, someplace,” Mr. Smelcer said. “It’s a little tag with the number 127. And here’s what it is: It’s his laundry number.”
The number 127 is written in ink on the collar of his T-shirts or in Sharpie on patches that had been sewn in. Some of the items have one or two numbers crossed out before Merton’s, meaning they were hand-me-downs from monks who had left or died.
Mr. Smelcer donated most of the items to the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine. “It seems to be kind of coming full circle in a way,” Dr. Pearson said. “These materials that had been Merton’s at the time of his death were coming back to their rightful home.”
By Emerald O’Brien
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar
Emerald O’Brien is a senior at the University of Missouri and reporter for KBIA, a university-licensed public radio station broadcasting from Columbia, Mo., where a version of this story first appeared. It is reprinted with permission.