Although he is turning 80 on August 16, Fr. Albert Holtz, O.S.B. ’60, remains a very busy man. It’s just a different kind of busyness requiring a different kind of energy, he said. No longer needing to do the four preps a day he did during his religion and French teaching days, he says he still uses “the gifts I have.” And those gifts are many – spiritual, linguistic, organizational, musical and literary to name a few. He also describes himself as a “world class schmoozer.” His gifts have long enhanced the monastic community, the School, local parishes and the larger community.
Recently, newly elected Abbot Augustine Curley, O.S.B. ’74, asked Fr. Albert to take over his position as Prior of Newark Abbey. He currently serves as the Director of Formation and Oblate Director for the Abbey; as Prior he takes care of the Abbey’s day to day administrative tasks, an assignment he’s happy to take on. “It’ll keep me from, oh, sitting around in my bathrobe,” he laughed. Like he ever would.
Fr. Al’s remarkable contributions to the monastery began not long after he completed his novitiate (which he began at the age of 19, 60 years ago). An avid and talented singer since his childhood, he approached Abbot Martin Burne to complain that the new English translations of the Latin Vespers hymns they were using were mediocre at best. The Abbot invited him to do his own translations, which he did. They are still used occasionally for Vespers at Newark Abbey. That particular attention to detail and ceremony, with deference to the culture and needs of a community, has marked Fr. Al’s service all these years.
Born in Newark, Fr. Al and his three siblings were raised in East Orange. He followed his one- year older brother to St. Benedict’s in 1956. On his application, Fr. Al answered a question about his future life saying he wanted to be a “religious.” “Why not a priest,” asked Fr. Benedict Tyler, O.S.B., who followed up with young men who displayed interest in a religious vocation. Although he had nurtured dreams of becoming a priest since early childhood, the then Tom Holtz said he wasn’t sure he could handle the Latin. Fr. Benedict knew better and suggested he join the Benedictines. “The Lord must have known that I was too weak to put up with a long, painful discernment process, so I took Fr. Benedict’s suggestion on the spot, and I’m still here,” Fr. Albert said. About his vocation, he added, “I’ve never had any doubts.”
With a dozen members of the Benedict’s Class of 1960, all expressly interested in the Benedictine religious life, he headed to St. John’s College in Minnesota. But, Fr. Albert said, “I’m the last one standing.”
When Newark Abbey became independent from St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, the newly ordained Fr. Albert, along with Edwin Leahy, O.S.B., and Philip Waters, O.S.B., chose to come to Newark. He was home.
But by February 1972, it was clear that things in the monastery were not alright. Several monks argued that the lowering enrollment meant that the School was no longer financially viable and should be closed, while others had serious reservations about the School’s ability to deal with the increasing number of African-American students.
“I could see we were in deep trouble,” Fr. Albert recalled. A journal keeper since his youth, he said, “I went to Plates Stationery on Market Street and bought a journal.” And he began to write.
That journal vividly records the events and emotions of those turbulent years when the School closed, a dozen monks left for Morristown and the School reopened. Its five volumes are in the monastery archives.
The events of those days overwhelmed the young priest. “Kids that came as freshmen the year I arrived never graduated – that’s how fast it all happened,” Fr. Al remembered. After the departure of so many monks the day after what felt like the final graduation, “a bunch of us were sitting here in the ashes. It was like driving into a fog bank. We had no idea where we were going.”
By now the story is familiar. The monks took various jobs. Fr. Al rode his bike up West Market Street to St. Vincent Academy where he taught French and Religion. Committees of monks came up with ideas about how to move forward; the one that stuck was from 28-year-old Fr. Edwin’s committee. “He began his committee’s report with ‘We’re going to run a school here next year,’” Fr. Al remembered. “Then we had to choose who to run it.” Always more comfortable behind the scene, Fr. Albert did not want that job. “But,” he said, “Edwin did.” They became the odd couple. “Edwin would announce we were going to do something, then ask me to figure out how.”
And he has been figuring out how to get things done ever since. A gifted tenor who plays guitar, he responded to a fellow Benedictine’s request for a Gospel choir to sing at a special event in the early 70s. “Sure, we have a gospel choir,” Fr. Al answered. It wasn’t true – but he started one. They sang at various Newark churches, and traveled as far as Washington and Boston. In 1976, they made an album. “We didn’t sing Palestrina,” he said. “It was a bunch of kids singing Gospel music from their hearts.”
In 1973, he assisted former Benedictine brother, Michael Waldron, putting together the now traditional Christmas Program. As the School grew, the program soon became too big for St. Mary’s Church where it was first held. Fr. Albert has been directing it ever since, except for 1994.
In June 1994, the Abbot suggested Fr. Albert take a sabbatical, and until the beginning of the academic year in 1995, he traveled to 15 countries in Europe and South America, an experience he calls one of the greatest of his life. He was away for 11 months, except for a few weeks in the summer of 1994 when he, the School’s organizational guru, returned to Newark to do the Master Schedule for the year.
The sabbatical, like the closing and reopening of St. Benedict’s, provided inspiration for more writing. Fr. Albert’s reflections on his travels were first offered as Sunday sermons to the parishioners at St. Joseph’s Church in Maplewood where he celebrated Mass regularly. They loved the homilies and encouraged Fr. Al to publish them. A publisher friend suggested he needed a theme to tie them together into a book; he settled on “saints.” A Saint on Every Corner was the first of five books of reflections on finding the sacred in the ordinary.“I can look at a situation and see a lesson in it,” he said. “I think that’s a gift.”
That would be one more gift among so many. An artist, a writer, a musician, a linguist, an educator (he has a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Education from Columbia Teachers College), a listener and a mentor, Fr. Albert has been sharing his gifts with Newark Abbey and St. Benedict’s Prep for more than five decades. And he still is. Saying Mass in Spanish for the Missionaries of Charity and the parishioners of St. Augustine’s church a few blocks away or schmoozing with Benedict’s kids in the cafeteria or keeping the monastery organized, his gifts are as valuable as they have ever been. He calls himself a “recovering perfectionist” and notes when you get older, you are supposed to get wiser. However, about himself he said, “I’ve learned this much: I don’t worry about what I don’t have.”
And how will this gifted man celebrate 80 years on this earth?
“I want to celebrate with the kids,” Fr.A l said. “And I would like to celebrate the Lord’s faithfulness and goodness allowing me to do this all these years.”
— Noreen Connolly H '11