By Joseph Berment-McDowald
Fr Cuthbert van de Sande OSB was a man who became a mountain, an irrepressible spirit who dwelled amongst us. He was loved by many and used that influence to reconcile and bring together different interests – the great integrator.
We the old boys of the former abbey school remember him as a great encourager, a people builder, a life coach. If he thought that you had the potential, it wasn’t unusual for him to give you a job that you were certain that you weren’t ready for and couldn’t do, mirroring his own experience of being given various appointments at the abbey over the years and being equally ready. He had a favourite refrain: “Try again: don’t give up”.
We remember him for his many acts of service, his countless considerations, and acts of charity and love. Indeed, for some at that time he was the only father that they had. We remain to this day (as much as 60 years later in some cases) a community. “Stay together,” he urged us (as he would families), “Do not let differences divide you.”
As Group Scout Leader, he was a phenomenon. He fused the scout programme (as far as was practical) into the school programme, believing that even if a boy was unable to gain a single pass in any examination subject that fact should not prevent him from becoming an upright citizen, capable of being a good father and husband, earning a decent living and contributing to society.
Long before the UTT was launched, he advocated for practical universities and skills training programmes. In this respect, he was Professor Ken Julien’s predecessor. I remember him explaining how necessary practical training, certification, regulation, inspection and oversight was in several occupations which we assume anyone should be able to do.
Liberal and theologian
This was a totemic man of many deeds and works. On my way to his funeral (September 2), I passed homes belonging to humble labourers which his credit union funded and/or built at a time when many in the middle-income groups were unable to afford a home: the majority still aren’t. I remember also his optimism, enterprise and industry which are celebrated today by the yogurt shop.
Forty-five years ago (at least) he created opportunity for those like myself by having us sell honey, Mount bread, handmade greeting cards, miniature steel pans, grass brooms and pastelle presses, the last four of which we made ourselves. He infused a culture of success (so necessary for facing life’s challenges) into us.
When credit union members lagged behind in payments, he employed innovative financing solutions that were way ahead of what is commonplace even now in local mortgage lending.
Both in bread and butter and doctrinal matters, he was a compassionate liberal conservative who understood the passion in the lives of ordinary people and frequently commiserated their defence. Long before I heard the words ‘liberal’ and ‘theologian’ joined together so comfortably as they are now, he demonstrated how both could be carefully married in a way that respected the rules yet encouraged the separated, despondent and alienated. In this respect, he was Pope Francis’ predecessor.
His personal habits should not be forgotten. He was frugal with himself to the point of austerity. He disliked waste and pretentiousness intensely; kept regular habits; didn’t smoke; whenever possible, woke and slept at the same times; ate the same small portions daily; and was unostentatious in dress and possessions.
He demonstrated an outstanding, morally upright character and was careful to set the best example for us to follow. He had a passion for avoiding waste to the extent that the boys who ate together in the refractory knew better than to ask for more food when there were scraps of food or drink in the serving ware, on their plate or in their cups. When the unsuspecting made the mistake, they were so humbled by his uncharacteristic belligerence that they seldom asked again before making sure that the last morsel was eaten.
He could be deeply subversive and totally irreverent toward those who used office for the sake of hubris or imposed authority where there seemed no need to. From him, I learned how to hide in plain sight and that sometimes it was necessary to bend or ignore the rules to serve a greater good – a useful ability when trying to evade the Gestapo.
The fact that he, a White Dutchman, dared to teach West Indian history immediately after the Black Power Revolution and deal with the interrogations that followed from us without losing his credibility, should sufficiently demonstrate that he was no coward: but again, it was a measure of the man.
He had an extraordinary insight into the lives of working people, I suppose gleaned in part from his life “underground” in his native Holland as a young man hiding from the Gestapo, helping on the family farm, studying, possibly surreptitiously, for his religious vocation. As the monastery’s Works and Estate Manager, he listened in the parlour to the experiences of those who struggle to maintain their dignity, feed themselves and/or families, put a shelter over their heads and pay the bills.
He listened equally to the comfortable and well-to-do, “broken” by life’s experiences, including many who may have felt unloved and unwanted. He chose to understand people as normal mortals with weaknesses, responding to their circumstances, judging their intents and motives, generously encouraging them to dream of being better, rather than condemning them for their failures and shortcomings.
Fr Cuthbert, yours is truly a “holy priesthood, a royal priesthood”. Until we all rise and be together again, once more.