Reginaldus’s Milwaukee Years and Final Months: A Personal Account
[Editor’s Note: I have been collecting stories, sayings, and tributes to Fr. Reginald Foster as I compose his biography. Susan Baglien — a volunteer at St. Anne’s, the nursing home where he spent his last years — sent me an email which I found so sensitive and so true to life that I felt that it should be shared with the whole community that loved him. It has been lightly edited to remove some personal details, but it is substantially as originally written. — John Kuhner]
Rita McKillip wanted to put me in touch with you but I was pretty much one step ahead of her as I wanted to share some tidbits about Fr. Reggie — information that may round out the story of his last few years and provide a way for me to grieve. I am a volunteer/employee at his facility, a friend and student.
I read your piece on Fr. Reggie in First Things and thought it both beautiful and achingly bittersweet. I have met you twice while you were on visits to Milwaukee, although I am sure I was another face in the crowd. Both times your twins were with you, which fascinate me — I am a grandmother of identical twin girls — and Fr. Reggie would light up when talking about them. I am sure he showed me a photo of him with them — John and Mary? maybe are their names. He had said “If I weren’t a priest, I would have had hundreds of kids — all kinds — white ones and black ones and brown ones and smart ones and retarded ones…” It was just another one of those things that fell out of his mouth that made you look around the room to be sure you were hearing this correctly.
I came to St. Anne’s in early retirement — lost my job in downsizing and too old to look for a new one — there were aging parents and young grandkids to care for — St. Anne’s offered some balance. I took residents to Mass, was assigned specific lonely ones to visit, became a sacristan, helped with activities and organized and ran Vigil Keepers — volunteers who sit with a resident and family in their final hours/days as needed. I struck up a conversation with Reggie — I had seen him often sitting outside in his wheelchair — sleeping or visiting with different people. One morning I gave him a poke — he had been in the same position for 3 hours. He came to life and we introduced ourselves to each other. He had just finished summer classes, was excited about his book — all 5 of them actually — and was looking forward to October to start teaching again.
I had heard to keep one’s brain active in retirement it was a good idea to learn a new language or how to play a musical instrument. Fr. Reggie’s First Experience saved me (and my family) from the ukulele. I gathered in the lobby that October at 2 P.M, — surrounded by about 2 dozen strangers. They spoke of travels and multiple Ph.D.s and post doc work and seminars. There were pre-Vatican II looking priests. Everyone seemed to be vying for his attention, to be close to him, to soak him up. I was completely intimidated. We proceeded to the classroom, he laid out the experiences, divided us up and set up the times. I took a deep breath and handed in my signed contract. I had gone over it at least a dozen times and had less hesitation signing my marriage license. This was commitment.
It was a gift.
There is freedom in being a senior citizen with nothing to prove, no need to impress and everything to gain and that is how Fr. Reggie and I formed our friendship. My learning from him was pure. I was able to see him often — outside of learning. There was plenty of train talk. I grew up on the Chicago Northwestern — come from two generations of train workers. We went over the trips he had hopes to take — I told him about the Empire Builder and private room we had and the trip all over Alaska on the Alaska Railroad. He wanted to do the Coast Starlight and I wanted to ride the Texas Eagle.
We talked about church — how loving God and being in love with God was such a natural thing but dogma was messing it up. He had no patience for the pelvic preoccupation and infighting of the bishops. He would often point to a passage we would be translating and remark that these pagans were more Christian than Christians. God just fell all over him from the Latin and music and nature.
We spoke of politics — it was always on his television. “Can you believe this!!!”
We spoke of Rome — I am second generation Italian — my father’s side is Roman and I would tell him that somewhere buried in my D.N.A. is Latin and I should open my mouth and it should come out.
He spoke about his family — his brother and sister and a family life that sounded a bit uneven, how he took the bus to get back and forth to seminary and how he found a flyer for the Carmelites while there and that was that.
We talked about his favorite places two of which were Holy Hill and Devil’s Lake State Park. I would show him photos from our visits and camping trips. “Oh! Oh!” and he would go on about the best memories of those places. “I don’t mean to be rude but aren’t you a little old to be camping in a tent on the ground?” I would shake my head and he would follow that up with “I would sleep on the ground here if they would let me.” I receive messages of sympathy about how wonderful it that Fr. Reggie is in heaven, except one of his ideas of heaven was sitting on the Hampton Avenue overpass that overlooks the Union Pacific trainyard in Butler with a 6 pack by his side when in town to visit. More than once he needed to show the police some ID. “They think I’m a vagrant!” He got the same reaction while waiting for his van at Pick and Save. “I was waiting for my van and someone thought I was homeless and tried to give me $5. I gave them a beer.”
And we did speak of Latin. I loved it as a discipline — the architecture and structure of the language was breathtaking. But I craved the connectivity. It is the language of discovery, of medicine, of poets, of scholarship, of government. When Van Leuwenhoek looked down the barrel of a microscope for the first time, what he saw was translated into Latin to be shared with EVERYONE. It is that kind of thing for me and we would go on about how Latin had formed all of us and bound us all together and most people had no clue! He glowed around his students. I caught the classes I was able and helped out where I could with paperwork, logistics and snacks. New students would seem overjoyed and overwhelmed at the same time. “I know he labels his classes Latin Experience but I will tell you it’s more about the experience,” I would tell them.
At times he would seem frustrated about something but didn’t advocate for himself. There were ways to calm him down — making sure his van connection was set up, working on phone problems, getting papers organized for classes. He had the help of many people in these regards — students and Carmelites — the activity aides and volunteers at St. Anne’s and the family he assembled for himself from fellow residents. That was a hard part for him. “I came back and all my friends [here in the nursing home] have died,” he said after returning from the hospital, I think it was 2 winters ago. And Rosario and Rudy and Katina had passed but what was harder was that the families are gone, too. Katina’s daughter never failed to hug and kiss Reggie and Rudy’s sister brought home grown tomatoes and Rosario and family knew Old Milwaukee. He kept losing people.
If he saw me in hallways at an off time, he would guess I was there to vigil keep. “Oh, no. Oh, no. Well Lord, you started it and it’s up to you to finish it,” was his pronouncement on death. I would pop in if he wasn’t busy for conversation. On occasion he would be face timing and I would apologize and back out and he would be “Oh! It’s Susanna! Here meet Susanna!” and the poor soul he was engaged with would have to give up a little sliver of their precious time with him to talk to me.
Sometimes I would bring in the Pope’s tweet and we would go over that. If he was in a down mood, we would sing the Sequentiae. We had sung it in class once and I told him it was in Franco Zeffirelli’s movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” We would find variations of it on my phone. We would do the “O Antiphons” in December.
His appearance could be a little off putting. My friend dropped something off for me at St. Anne’s, and after finding me in the sanctuary, said, “There’s this old man sleeping out there in his wheelchair. He looks really rough.” “Oh, that’s Fr. Reggie.”
My twin granddaughters would accompany me to St. Anne’s when not in school. They were tasked with cleaning the holy water fountains in the chapel, sitting next to residents keeping them company during Mass and helping me transport and do visits. We always wrapped it up with a visit to Fr. Reggie if he was available. “Geminae!” he would bellow and I have told them that he is the most famous person they would ever meet. He would ask them to roll him over to the Sentry Food Store where he would purchase beer and have them pick out a treat for themselves.
Our lives are divided into pre- and post-March 13. That was the day all volunteering stopped at St. Anne’s and pretty much everywhere. Shortly before then, I had figured out how to run Netflix through my phone into his television and we watched The Two Popes together. He had heard about it and felt it was his duty to stay informed. “They didn’t talk like that to each other,” he exclaimed. No, they didn’t but it was still fun. He pointed out landmarks he knew. The next week it was played in the gathering room on the big screen for all the residents and Fr. Reggie narrated it with his red laser pointer. We had planned to watch the PBS “Inside the Vatican,” which would have been a treat for both of us.
With the pandemic, I was hired on as staff by St. Anne’s to help with employee temperature screening. As a retired pharmacist, l am part of a Wisconsin Emergency Volunteer Response team and as such have been involved in various aspects of pandemic and vaccination policies, procedures, etc. I have remained at the facility several times a week and although I am not able to see residents, I have easy access to get them things and messages. The residents who did not have the capacity for engagement or any family seemed to pass right away — from loneliness, disorientation. Keeping a full dedicated hands-on staff is difficult in good times and the pandemic has been exhausting to the mind body and soul of caregivers. The activity staff works hard to keep them engaged. Family keeps in touch with zoom sessions, phone calls, window visits (even those were not allowed at some point) and sending treats. Fr. Reggie seemed to do well. He was good on the phone and engaged and understood what was going on. I would send him (and other residents) notes and treats — for him horseradish cheese and crackers, olives, cans of Reeds German potato salad, among other things. I would print articles and memes I thought he would find interesting. I had made him two masks of fabric printed with Latin text. I hesitated calling him because I knew he was on the phone with important people. Some exceptional and generous students tried to set up zoom summer school but it was overwhelming to him. He seemed satisfied to work with them individually via Facetime. He had told me over 70 students wanted to study with him in the summer and that was so wonderful. It was one of his glowing moments. He would call me for “another installment” which meant a 30 pack of Coors Lite. And I would oblige to an extent. Sometimes he wanted two. I limited it one every two weeks — would stretch it out to three and would send food. He would also ask if I knew where Total Wine was because he wanted some Manischewitz. He told me he wasn’t drinking all that by himself but was sharing it. I would always check with the leadership and sometimes held back if someone else had sent some up to him.
This past summer, I Face-timed him from Old Faithful and lost the connection but was more successful from Devil’s Lake. “Look behind me! What do you see?” I was so loud he could probably hear me in Milwaukee. “Oh! Oh! Yes! The bluffs! Oh its gorgeous! Oh its magnificent! We would go there on trips when were at Holy Hill…some of my happiest times.”
It was the week after Thanksgiving that I laid eyes on him for the last time. I told the CEO as she came in that I had some things to send up to him — an article, a cheese and cracker package, some protein bars and stamps if he needed them. Positivity rates were down in Milwaukee County, two weeks of inhouse testing had come back negative and residents were going to be able to be out of their rooms. She said I could visit him — vested in necessary PPE — he would like a visit.
I hadn’t seen him since March. He looked amazing. He was busy with students and staying engaged. He had been sequestered once already at the Lutheran home before St. Anne’s had a COVID Unit and he told me about the friends he made there. I was impressed about how easily he seemed to go about this. He said he felt wonderful. He pointed out things around his room — treats and cards and gifts he was receiving from students. He spoke of the students he was teaching via Facetime. Politics was on the television which he turned down so we could hear each other. He was fed up with all of it. He hated Melania’s hair. “Blaaaa,” he made some guttural sound, “it just hangs there, blaaaa.” We decided August would be the best month for the Devils Lake picnic that we had to call off this past summer. We had found a van that would accommodate his wheelchair and planned a picnic with some other volunteers. We had a menu figured out — cheese, crackers, deviled eggs, figs, dates and olives and of course some wine — truly Mediterranean.
I asked him about his drinking which we never had directly mentioned before. “You drink about 2 cans a day, right?” He just scoffed. “Two cans a day. Pffft.” We were both quiet for awhile and then he simply said “It calms me.”
I told him all about the Netflix series “Barbarians” — an account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest. “Ah! Herman! Herman! ‘Varus give me back my legions!’” and he lit up like the sky on the fourth of July about the battle — he had seen the monument where the battle took place and almost propelled himself out of his chair with excitement. I told him the series was maybe a little loose with the truth but it was entirely in German and Latin — Seneca’s Latin — and I couldn’t imagine anything more glorious than watching that with him and we added that to our watch list along with “Inside the Vatican.”
We talked about death. I had just had a colonoscopy and I told him, ”You’re awake and then you are not and what if death is like that and that’s all there is?” And we decided that would be okay if your life was well lived and not wasted.
And there was Latin. He said he was doing Latin with a physician and I mentioned Celsus’s De Medicina — a volume recently translated from Latin that I had given him and that he actually kept. (I had given him Drinking with the Saints but he wouldn’t keep it. He did say it was better than the Bible because every page was happy). And of all things the Latin we talked about was the word morituri. I became a sucker for participles. Every time we came upon one, he would say “Susan, this is yours!” It is such a brilliant construct to be able to say so much in an elegant way with one word. “When I’m feeling down and I hear people talk like that about Latin, I get all jazzed up again!” with his arms waving around.
When I left, I told him I would ask to come back next week and we could do the O Antiphons. He asked me to give him a hug. I said I couldn’t get that close. I stood in his doorway. He blew some kisses. Our last words were “Love you.” At least I have that.
I could not see him after that. Positivity rates went up and tests were coming back positive. I sent some chocolate. The COVID unit was closed to everyone but the very few caregivers who entered and left by a separate entrance no one else could use. Before he was having an issue with some food, or his phone or TV, I could usually get someone in there to handle it. That became almost impossible with isolation.
I expected a 7 A.M. email on Christmas Day to be a zoom link to meet up with family and not from the CEO saying “Our Fr. Reggie has gone home to the Lord.” I look around here and see remnants of him beyond my one shelf of Latin books. There are two jars of marinated artichoke hearts that I don’t have the heart to eat and a book of stamps at the ready for when he needed it. The back up 30 cans of Coors Lite in my basement was accepted by Frank who runs the dietary department and will be used for the St. Anne’s happy hours. I have a bookmarked article to print out about the use of Latin in “Barbarians.” I know he is dead but he remains alive to me.
There is a third shift nursing assistant who would often engage Fr. Reggie on things musical. From what I can discern, she considered a career in music — played several instruments, did handbells at the Cathedral, knew her composers and I am sure it was refreshing talk for Fr. Reggie. She said she had checked on him to do his vital signs — temperature, pulse, respirations and blood pressure — and it was after midnight because midnight Mass had started. She recorded all of those statistics and repositioned him in his bed — he did not wake up during this. Some time later the nurse came in to do her check and he had no vital signs.
I find it most fitting the last hands to touch and care for him did not belong to some prince of the church…and that he took his last breaths in the television’s glow of Midnight Mass.
I have dreamt about Fr. Reggie a few times since then — he’s in the mix of wherever I am, in his wheelchair, waving and smiling. Except the night of his death. I dreamt we were in a large library — lots of dark wood and bookcases and tables and credenzas. We were WALKING through it. I have never seen him walk or even stand (except on video). I was happy. We came upon a gentleman walking towards us who was looking all around. I told Fr. Reggie that man is going to Rome. “Friend,” Reggie directed at him, “if you are going to Rome, you are taking me with you.” The man noticed us, came over and took Reggie home.
Susan Baglien is a retired pharmacist and former student of Fr. Reginald Foster.
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