For decades, at a Catholic monastery tucked into the hilly northwest corner of New Jersey, the first monk to arise each day was Brother Marinus La Rue. He walked the dark and silent halls with a handbell, rousing his fellow monks for morning prayer in the chapel, the start of another day whose rhythms and rituals have changed little in the 1,500 years since the founding of the Benedictine order.
“He rang with such vigor that he kept breaking them,” recalls Father Justin Dzikowicz, the former abbot of St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, who finally ordered a sturdier bell from a company that made them for handbell choirs. “I wanted something professionally made that wouldn’t break.”
As he rang, Brother Marinus also loudly called out a Latin phrase: Benedicamus Domino (“Let us bless the Lord”). Brother Marinus died in 2001 at age 87, but Father Justin can still hear the distinctive voice that awakened him for so many years.
Brother Marinus had other jobs at the monastery, too. He was the night porter, answering the door and the telephone after hours. He ran the gift shop on Route 206 for so many years—tending a coffee bar and selling religious articles, plus fruit and honey from the monks’ 430 acres—that he wore a long path through the grass from his room to the shop.
He also helped prune the Christmas trees the monks have been growing and selling since soon after the monastery opened in 1924. With 90 acres of their land planted in orderly ranks of evergreens, Christmas is an unmistakable presence at the monastery, as it was in the life of Brother Marinus. He was admitted to St. Paul’s as a novice, the first formal step in joining the monastery, on Christmas Eve in 1955, at 41 years old. He took his simple vows—his first vows as a monk—on Christmas Day in 1956. He took his solemn perpetual vows on Christmas in 1959, committing himself to spend the rest of his life in this secluded community of Bendictine priests and brothers devoted to prayer and work.
But what Brother Marinus rarely told anyone was what he had done at Christmastime in 1950, during some of the darkest days of the Korean War. He was Captain Leonard P. La Rue back then, at the helm of the Meredith Victory, a U.S. Merchant Marine cargo ship that had been shuttling military supplies from Japan to Korea. Somehow, it managed to cram into its holds and onto its decks an estimated 14,000 refugees fleeing the advancing North Korean and Chinese forces and then deliver them safely to South Korea. “The greatest rescue by a single ship in the annals of the sea,” the U.S. Maritime Administration called it. “The miracle of Christmas,” those of a more spiritual bent have said.
Brother Marinus was often called a hero after that, but this year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops formally approved an effort to determine whether he was something more. A long quest is now underway to decide if he should also be called—literally, canonically, eternally—a saint.
Leonard La Rue had sailed some harsh seas after joining the Merchant Marines upon graduating from the Pennsylvania Nautical School in his native Philadelphia in 1934. He had dodged German U-boats in the frigid and perilous North Atlantic during World War II, but he had never seen anything like what he saw when he guided his ship into Hungnam harbor on the eastern coast of North Korea three days before Christmas in 1950.
“It was like a scene of Dante’s Inferno,” he said in 1955 when receiving a medal in Washington. China had entered the war weeks earlier, overwhelming the United Nations forces in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and the city was frantic with the chaos of retreat. The 190 ships in the harbor were there to evacuate 100,000 troops and war material, but their mission soon expanded. “Refugees thronged the docks,” La Rue once wrote. “With them was everything they could wheel, carry or drag. Beside them, like frightened chicks, were their children.”
North Korean civilians desperate to escape the onslaught of Communist forces flocked to the harbor the way Afghans flocked to the airport at Kabul last summer. There was no way out by land; the sea was their only hope. Five Army colonels came aboard La Rue’s ship and asked if he would take on refugees. The Meredith Victory was a 455-foot-long floating warehouse, built to carry tanks, trucks and barrels of fuel, with enough accommodations only for its crew and a handful of passengers. “No hesitation,” Bob Lunney, the then 22-year-old purser who was standing beside La Rue that day, once recalled of La Rue’s actions.
For more than 12 hours, guided by a crew that spoke no Korean, refugees who spoke no English were loaded onto the ship. “Finally, as the sun rode high the next morning, we had 14,000 human beings jammed aboard,” La Rue wrote later. “It was impossible, and yet they were there. There couldn’t be that much room—yet there was.”
With little food and water and no heat or sanitation, they sailed 450 miles to Pusan in South Korea. They arrived on Christmas Eve, but there was no room for them there. “The nearness of Christmas carried my thoughts to the Holy Family—how they, too, were cold and without shelter,” La Rue wrote that evening.
The ship was detoured to an island 40 miles away, where finally, on December 26, all 14,000 of them, plus the five babies born during the three days at sea, disembarked. No one had died. A total of 91,000 Koreans were evacuated by sea from Hungnam in what was considered, until the recent exodus from Afghanistan, the largest rescue of wartime refugees in U.S. history. The Meredith Victory had been the last to leave and carried the largest load. “I think often of that voyage,” La Rue later wrote. “The clear, unmistakable message comes to me that on that Christmastide, in the bleak and bitter waters off the shores of Korea, God’s own hand was on the helm of my ship.”
La Rue—a slender, quiet, unmarried man who prayed daily and went to Mass, not taverns, when in port; who pointedly did not swear like a sailor; who was described by one crewman as both a “born seaman and a saint”; who had had been impressed by some Benedictines he met and moved by Thomas Merton’s book about becoming a monk, The Seven Storey Mountain—left the sea at the age of 40 and joined the monastery, where he took the name Brother Marinus and stayed for the next 47 years.
One of the few times Brother Marinus left St. Paul’s—reluctantly, and only on the orders of the abbot—was to receive the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal, its highest honor. The Meredith Victory was also awarded by Congress the rare designation of Gallant Ship. But for decades, the story of the Christmas rescue was far better known in Korea than in the United States. A memorial was built in Korea, and commemorations were staged; Bob Lunney, who went on to Cornell Law School and was an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York before entering private practice, went to Korea several times. But not Brother Marinus. “Everybody else knew about it, but he never spoke about it,” Father Justin says.
A 2000 book, Bill Gilbert’s Ship of Miracles, told the story at length for the first time and eventually caught the attention of a priest in Texas, Father Sinclair Oubre, who has the sea in his blood. (A more recent book, Philip Lacovara’s The Mariner and the Monk, tells the story in more detail.) “I’m reading it, and I’m going, Why don’t I know this?” says Father Sinclair, who worked as a merchant seaman during summers while in seminary and on vacations as a priest, and who serves in his diocese as director of Stella Maris, the Catholic ministry to mariners. (“If it’s wet, I deal with it,” he says.)
“Here’s a guy who rescued 14,000 people who would have died if they weren’t taken from there, and then he turns around and chooses to be literally the servant of his brother monks so that he can live in a house of prayer for the rest of his life,” Father Sinclair says. “If this was on a ship, he went from the master of the ship to being the steward’s assistant.”
Some monks are ordained as priests after completing several years of theological studies; Brother Marinus chose to remain a brother monk, without the sacramental powers a monk who is an ordained priest would have.
In 2017, Father Sinclair wrote to Bishop Arthur Serratelli of the Diocese of Paterson, which includes St. Paul’s, suggesting Brother Marinus as a candidate for sainthood. In 2019, Bishop Serratelli formally opened the cause and appointed Father Pawel Tomczyk as the postulator to oversee it, the first step in a long and complex process that could take decades.
Last June, the rest of the nation’s bishops endorsed the cause. “In these days, when a lot of people are fighting for position and power and authority, here we have a man of simplicity who, when God called him to do this heroic thing, he did, and then when God called him to this humble service as a monk, he accepted that, too,” Father Pawel says. “That’s what inspires me the most.”
There are only a handful of American-born saints in the Catholic church, and no New Jerseyans. One other New Jerseyean—Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, a Bayonne-born Sister of Charity who was beatified in 2014—is one step closer to sainthood than Brother Marinus. If the Vatican attributes one more miracle to her, she will be canonized as a saint.
While Lunney, who often attended Mass with Captain La Rue and later visited Brother Marinus at St. Paul’s, thinks the honor is deserved, he knows his friend would have said, “‘Maybe we were trying to do some good things, but we were not saints.’ …He certainly wasn’t looking for sainthood.”
When Brother Marinus came to St. Paul’s, it was bursting out of its granite home, filled with so many monks that it built a new complex across the road. By the time he was too infirm to ring the morning bell, there were so few monks that it was about to close. But a few days before his death, a Benedictine abbey in South Korea agreed to take it over. Two months after he died, the first six monks arrived to save it. “I do not think it is a coincidence that Captain La Rue saved 14,000 Korean refugees and, decades later, Brother Marinus’s abbey is saved from closing by the arrival of Korean monks,” Bishop Serratelli wrote when supporting the cause for sainthood.
The prior of St. Paul’s now is Father Samuel Kim, whose father was among those rescued from Hungnam. “He died when I was 15, and he never told me what ship he was on,” he says. “Maybe it was Brother Marinus’s ship, I don’t know.”
Ten monks live at St. Paul’s now, most of them from Korea; the only one who knew Brother Marinus is Father Justin, who joined in 1966. Before Covid-19, the monastery hosted retreats that were popular with Korean Catholics from Queens and Bergen County, and plans to do so again.
In 2018, the Korean ambassador to the United States came to St. Paul’s to plant a hawthorn tree and dedicate a small monument to Brother Marinus beside the chapel on behalf of South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-In, whose parents were on the Meredith Victory. Brother Marinus’s old friend Bob Lunney was there, too. Then Father Samuel led them back to the small cemetery where Brother Marinus is buried, his marker flanked by American and Korean flags. The cemetery was once overgrown with scraggly blue spruce and old yew hedges, but Father Samuel, who has been at St. Paul’s since 2003, cleared it out.
“This area was so dark and wet, people didn’t want to come here,” he says. “It was kind of scary. I wanted to open it up and make it lighter, so people will come.”
Kevin Coyne, a longtime contributor to New Jersey Monthly, teaches at Columbia Journalism School.Click here to leave a comment