Return to Rome

Dawn Mitchell |

Dawn Mitchell Revisits The Reginaldus Experience Almost Thirty Years Later.

Reginald Foster out in the field, teaching Latin at Arpinum.
Reginald Foster out in the field, teaching Latin at Arpinum.

“You are absolutely taking a taxi,” my husband said. The summer was, after all, shaping up to be one of the hottest in Italy’s history; I didn’t take much convincing. We agreed that I would forgo the cheaper, well-known, planes-trains-and-automobiles route to traverse the space between Rome’s airport and the convent where I would stay for a week and a half.

Earlier this year when temperatures were cooler, a friend messaged me, “Have you seen this new event Paideia is advertising?” As it turned out, I was looking for something, a treat of sorts. I was soon going to finish thirty years teaching Latin in the same classroom. I wanted a way to celebrate my otherwise unheralded milestone, and my friend’s message that day piqued my interest. Soon, we proceeded with plans to be part of the experience that Paideia would facilitate in Rome this summer, an event eventually dubbed “Reggiefest.” We called it that, knowing full well that our dear Fr. Reginald Foster, O.C.D. (1939–2020), would never have allowed such this eponymous shortcut.

Thirty years previously, I was a first-timer at Fr. Reginald Foster’s summer school for Latin teachers. It was 1995 and I’d just finished my third year of teaching. My hardbound Lewis & Short accompanied me to class during those summer weeks as my understanding of the language expanded exponentially. Mirabile! I had both a B.A. and an M.A. in classics and was an experienced teacher. Yet, what I learned in Reggie’s six-week summer school enhanced my awareness of what Latin could do, adding breadth (Latina aeterna), immediacy (itinera), and intricacy (sub arboribus).

That 1995 summer school with Reginaldus had hinged on those three themes. I learned that Latin has been used in every decade, every century since Caesar walked this earth. Then, as we traced the footsteps of authors who had populated the collegiate syllabi we all knew so well, I experienced Latin in situ: as if the words of the ancients were etched on the walls of Rome like a giant inscription. And for the first time, I began to think in Latin, since sub arboribus gave us a taste of conversing tantum Latine. Of course, through it all, we wrangled our Reggie Sheets that resisted our desperate manipulations with their crinkly protests!

At the end of the course, I went back to my Latin classroom transformed, more in love with the language than ever. In the teaching decades that followed, I participated in various Latin adventures from coast to coast. Additionally, I facilitated a half dozen student expeditions to Latin’s birthplace, guiding my young scholars in their own discoveries. It has been and continues to be a full, rewarding, beautiful life. But, after two years in pandemic public ed, I was tired. A Reginaldian reunion sounded rejuvenating and restorative.

Paideia’s “Memorial and Reunion Event for Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD,” held June 6–July 3, 2022 was both nostalgically familiar and refreshingly updated. The event recalled each of the components that defined my initial experience.

We translated Latin from Cicero and from St. Benedict, reminding us that Latin spans the ages. Our Reggie Sheets, now optimized for readability, were produced on the gigantic paper he always preferred so that they were still endearingly irritating to manage.

We read Latin at its locus operandi and the words invisibly projected onto the buildings they designated–a true Reggie-style iter! This time, our itinera centered on specifically assigned readings. We read a Reggie favorite in Subiaco, when St. Scholastica asks her brother St. Benedict to stay a while longer with her. Benedict refuses, but as he steps outside, the heavens open, dumping buckets of rain on him. Parcat tibi omnipotens Deus, soror; quid est quod fecisti? “May Almighty God spare you, sister, what is this which you’ve done?” It sounded almost like a Reggie-ism: Quid est quod fecisti? She responds: Ecce te rogavi, et audiri me noluisti; rogavi Dominum meum, et audivit me. “Look, I asked you, and you didn’t want to let me be heard; I asked my Lord, and He heard me.”

We dove into the details in the classroom. There was a lengthy classroom debate on the word “specus” in the Benedict reading. “Specus,” it turns out, is masculine in Cicero; feminine in Aulus Gellius; neuter ending in -us in Vergil; sometimes second declension, usually fourth. Utterly intriguing. Likewise, these itinera included the Italian Paideia representative ready to help at every turn; a local expert was our guide at the locus; substantial lunch options fortified us for the way back. Taxis stood available for any takers.

In the sub arboribus circles that happened after class, the academic collaboration I’d noticed in the classroom morphed into social collaboration outside. Conversations sprung up all around the circle; instead of one guiding speaker, participants spoke tantum Latine to those sitting close. Further, we got snacks! We got wine! Ice-cold water choices lined up on the table! We had a table! We even moved the entire proceedings when the sun didn’t angle itself properly through those arbores.

Back in 1995, we had to present a final project at the end of our experience. For my contribution I translated a poem written by my sister to our mother. The exquisite care she gave our grandmother as she descended into dementia was a thing of ineffable beauty. I translated the poem, combed through it for errors and consistency of style, memorized it, and made copies for my classmates in preparation for my presentation. With the copies distributed, I made my start. Very quickly I became unable to continue, as the enormity of what I was speaking washed over me. Reginaldus immediately came to my side. “Your Latin is excellent! Don’t be afraid!” he said. “It’s not that,” I managed to say, “it’s what it says.” He turned on a dime. “Then we’ll all read it with you.” And then my classmates and teacher read aloud with me my translation of “To My Grandmother’s Keeper.” I felt drenched in blessing.

The 2022 Reggiefest opened with a pizza party on the Janiculum. Introductions and instructions and toasts punctuated the little event, but one directive summed it all up. “I hope that this week we can sort of be Reggie to each other,” said Jason Pedicone. And just like that a clear throughline took me right back to 1995.


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