During Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. last month, he praised the late Thomas Merton as one of four great Americans. Merton was one of the most influential Catholic writers of the 20th century. He spent the last twenty years of his life as a Trappist Monk in a monastery called the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. After his death, his writings remained in the public sphere, but it seemed that little else was left from the man who inspired so many. But this summer, hundreds of his items reappeared in Missouri.
John Smelcer is an author who lives in Kirksville. He is also the man who helped to bring all of these items into the public sphere. He 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 all of Merton's belongings.
“So some little old lady, somewhere in Missouri has all of Thomas Merton's personal possessions, I have never heard of that," Smelcer said. "No one's ever heard of that. So for weeks and weeks I wouldn't let it go. Who is this person, can you set me up with her.”
He managed to arrange a meeting with the woman, and at the end, he asked her about the rumor. He says there was a little hesitation, but then she brought him to her garage and showed him two large trunks.
“And she opens them up, and they’re just full, just cram packed with every single thing that Thomas Merton owned at the time of his death. Everything. Everything. Right down to like his toothbrush.”
The woman’s name is Helen Marie. We’re excluding her last name to protect her identity from potential relic hunters. The story of how she came to have these things begins the 1960s.
Helen Marie was a nun in Brooklyn, and by this time Merton’s writing was already famous. 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 abbot.
“And he personally reached in his wallet, gave her the money for a round trip ticket on a Greyhound, and said, just go," 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 he at first, being a monastery, they couldn’t turn away a nun to the cold. So they put her up in a cottage, 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. "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 Kentucky, to the abbey just down the road, and Merton became her spiritual mentor.
Every Sunday, she’d join him at the monastery for guidance. Sometimes another monk would come with them. His name was Brother Irenaeus. Over time, Irenaeus and Helen Marie fell in love. But they were conflicted, as Monastic vows prevented them from being married. So, they asked Merton.
“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 his death, Helen Marie and Brother Irenaeus left the convent, taking with them Merton’s belongings that Irenaeus had been charged with. They married and eventually moved to Kansas City for work. And for 50 years, all of Merton’s things stayed hidden in two large trunks under 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 to keep it for myself," Helen Marie said. "And then when John came, I was so happy. Because I knew it was an answer to prayer.”
Helen Marie gave John Smelcer the belongings she had been keeping, trusting him to deliver them to the right places.
Smelcer spent the rest of the summer researching the items, where they came from and who they should go to next. Finally, he found the Dr. Paul Pearson, and the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky, of which Pearson is the executive director.
Smelcer drove from Kirksville to Kentucky in late July to show 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," Pearson said.
Smelcer had clothes, letters and photographs. He even had underwear. Merton’s things weren’t in pristine condition. They were ripped up, covered in dirt and paint, and threadbare. But not because they hadn’t been 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, is they prove that Merton walked the walk. He lived the poor monk.”
Like any object claimed to be from 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," Smelcer said. "It's a little tag with the number 127. And here's what it is. It's a laundry tag”
The number is scribbled in pen on the collar of his T-shirts or in Sharpie on patches that had been sewn in. Some of them even have one or two numbers crossed out before Merton’s, meaning they were hand-me-downs from monks who had died.
Smelcer donated most of the items to the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, but he also has items that he is working to send to places like the Thomas Merton Center for Social Justice in Pittsburgh and Columbia University, where Merton studied. He is even working to send one of Merton's work shirts to Pope Francis.
“It seems to be kind of coming full circle in a way, and these materials that had been Merton's at the time of his death were coming home to roost," Pearson said.