In 1833, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was founded as an international Catholic organization of lay persons devoted to helping those who suffer.
In 1991, the Simon House was founded in Columbus, NE, in the spirit of Brother Simon Van Ackeren O.F.M. who, with a love for his fellow man, lightened the burdens of others.
In 2003, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul/Simon House Inc., – a non-profit organization – was formed to establish the Simon House Thrift Store, a St. Vincent de Paul ministry serving persons in need, regardless of creed, opinion, sex, or race.
On Crutches to Heaven
The Life of Brother Simon, O.F.M.
by Father Philip Marquard, O.F.M.
(This account is written reserving final judgment to the Holy See in obedience to the decree of Pope Urban VIII and in conformity with the Apostolic Constitution Officiorum acmunera of Pope Leo XIII.)
Some called him Curly, others simply Van. As a Franciscan he was known as Brother Simon.
The last name really suited him best. In fact, it fitted him to a tee, for like Simon of Cyrene he helped others carry their daily cross. Perhaps he even outdid Simon of Cyrene, because it was his joy to take your cross entirely on his own already heavily laden shoulders.
The Undying Smile
His smile was everywhere, but his voice was little or nowhere. He never had much to say, yet his smile spoke volumes. One of his college classmates says of him: “He rarely spoke, even when you asked him a direct question. Instead, his answer was usually a disarming grin or a short laugh, at which it was quite impossible to take offense.”
It was his smile and genuine good nature that captivated everybody wherever this short, stocky, curly-headed, sandy-haired Nebraskan went.
Yes, he was from Nebraska – Humphrey, to be exact. He entered the world as the seventh child of Jon and Louisa Keller Van Ackeren’s twelve children. It was on February 17, 1918.
A few days later he was christened Lawrence by his pastor, Fr. Florentius Kurzer O.F.M.
Soon he sprouted into a lad full of life and ready for clean, good fun. But he often sacrificed his fun to serve the priest at Mass or Benediction. From his earliest years it was his delight to be an altar boy.
And he did the job like a champion. It was never too much for him to rise early and go to church on a cold December morning, so as to be of service to the priest.
One of his sisters writes of him at this time: “His humble, sincere, devout character is something that stands out in my mind. He was always ready to work, and he took special joy in helping our mother in her housework. I cannot remember that he ever deliberately disobeyed”.
Van’s School Days
Van attended the parish grade school and high school, taught by the Franciscan Sisters of Lafayette. Here he had a plugging time of it, for he was no brilliant scholar. In high school he was ranked as a D student, having an IQ of 83.
Nevertheless, by constant, persistent effort he maintained an average of 80 to 85 in the sciences and languages, and of 85 to 90 in religion, mathematics, and the social studies.
At school he won the respect and esteem of his teachers and fellow pupils. He had a special love for his Eucharistic King, and visited Him often.
This attracted the attention of the eighth grade children, so that one of them said to her teacher: “I do not believe that Curly Van Ackeren ever passes the church without making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.” That was saying a lot for a modem high school boy. In fact, Curly showed his deep religious spirit in many ways. For instance, he attended holy Mass and received Holy Communion every day at six o’clock. As a rule he stayed in church until after seven-thirty. Between the six and seven o’clock Masses, he made the Way of the Cross or said the Rosary.
Nor did his religion stop at the church door. He carried it into his reading and playing, for he read good Catholic papers and magazines. His favorite was the Sacred Heart Messenger. His mother said he read its pages every month from cover to cover.
As to his amusements, he avoided movies and dances, so popular with young folks. But he took great interest in sports. As a junior in high school, he was an excellent basketball player. In his senior year he did not seem to take so much interest. Perhaps he was devoting more time to his books due to thoughts of a priestly vocation.
Yes, Curly was seriously thinking of being a priest. We will let one of his teachers tell of it. “One evening towards the end of the term, Lawrence remained after school of his own accord. He cleaned the boards and busied himself about the room until every other student had gone. I was occupied grading papers.
“After a few minutes had elapsed, I asked Lawrence for whom he had been waiting. He smiled and answered: For you.
“He asked me whether I thought he was learning more easily and better than he had done at the beginning of the term. After I assured him that I was well satisfied with his efforts and that I thought he was improving, he seemed extraordinarily relieved and happy.
“Then I inquired why he asked such a question.
“The lad then told me how anxious he was to become a priest; that he wanted to go to the Franciscan preparatory seminary at Mayslake, Illinois, from grade school. But he had been told he did not have talent enough and that he should first finish high school, and probably as he grew older he would find it easier to study.
“Needless to say, I encouraged him as much as I could. I told him the story of the saintly Cure of Ars and advised him to pray much and well. Then, if God wanted him to be a priest, he would give him the talent and everything else necessary.
“From time to time afterwards, I cautioned him not to apply himself so intently to his studies. I feared he would become ill.”
Off to the Seminary
High School over, Van sought his pastor’s advice. He won the day. For his pastor thought, if he could not make the grade, perhaps he could become a brother.
Van entered the fourth year at St. Joseph’s College, Mayslake, Illinois. But he had tough sailing. Although he worked hard, things would not come. This, coupled with his shyness, made his debut a poor one.
But there was one classroom incident that did much to win for Van his classmates’ admiration. The professor called on Van to give a talk before the class in which he should stress the art of gesticulating.
This was something every student dreaded. For shy Van, it was doubly hard. His uneasiness was very evident, but his noble attempt (a rather successful one) was a real self-conquest. And his classmates, who at the start were snickering, were silent in admiration when he finished.
On the basketball floor Van was always full of pep and energy. He was the sparkplug of his team – fast and shifty. His whole heart and soul were in the game, and incidentally, never was he more talkative than during a game.
But after Christmas he failed to appear for light-weight practice periods. When questioned about it, his only answer was his customary smile.
The real reason was not far to seek. His regular little job was to sweep the basement corridor together with a few helpers. Before long Van was the only one left on the job. Yet the complete job was always done at the price of his recreation.
Early at the Task of Simon
In fact, Van took delight in doing the work of others before they had a chance to start. He would make their beds, keep the rows of beds in line, clean the sinks, wash dishes, and sweep the classrooms or corridors. Even if he had to miss the occasional movie or a basketball game, it made no difference to him.
The students knew his kindness and willingness to work, so they often asked him to take over their jobs. Sometimes the petitioner would later feel ashamed of his action and implore Van not to take his place any more.
During Christmas vacation he set pins in the bowling alley all evening. He was always there, although he was never asked and seldom thanked. If offered anything, he would give his big broad smile with a negative movement of his head.
When on occasion the boys would be asked to help the brothers on the farm, Van would be one of the first to volunteer. He was in his glory if he could aid the brothers.
In farm work he was very handy. When it came to anything like husking com, he led the way. As one of his companions put it: “Honestly, he made the ears fly off the stalks.”
When the traditional four o’clock lunch bell would ring, all would dash for the refectory but Van. Work as he did, he did not believe much in eating between meals. But he did justice at the regular time.
Van’s Spirit of Charity and Poverty
Van’s charity also extended to giving away all he could. If he had a good pencil, he would give it to someone with a poor one. Then he would use a stub. If he had fancy writing paper, note books, soap, or razor blades to spare, they all passed into other hands. He had the emptiest looking desk of his classmates.
When he received a package of sweets from home, he would put it in his desk. Then, if he saw or heard of anyone hungering for sweetmeats, he would smilingly attempt to give him the entire package.
Such charity astounded the receiver, and shame-faced he would try to refuse it. But Van’s customary smile stood in the way.
With his delicate sense of kindness Van would feel the other’s embarrassment. To relieve him, he would take a bar of candy or a handful of peanuts and walk away. Besides, the students noticed that Van was very thrifty. When he memorized Latin or Greek words, he would write them over and over again on old letters, used envelopes, blotters, and the like.
After he finished, the Latin and Greek work would cover the surface three and four layers deep, crossed and double-crossed.
When washing, Van was careful never to fill up his wash basin. An inch or two of water was all he used.
In his spiritual life at Mayslake Seminary, Van was very devout. He had the habit of rising (as he thought, unnoticed) before the others in the morning.
At first his classmates laughed at him for it, thinking he was careless about observing the regular rule. But their conduct changed when they found him attending the early conventional Mass. Thus he was able to hear an extra Mass each morning.
The Lay Brother
Since Van was having such a losing battle with his books, he finally decided the priesthood was not for him. He applied for admittance to the Franciscan lay brotherhood.
Needless to say, his superiors were glad to send him on to the Teutopolis, Illinois Seminary for a trial, because they were well aware of his sterling character.
Van’s first introduction to the seminary community was at the breakfast table on January 26, 1937. He introduced himself with a winning smile, and then a puzzled look as to where he might take his place at the table. Soon that was taken care of, and he felt at ease.
He started his life as a candidate in the capacity of assistant refectorian. Besides, he swept the corridors and the chapel. His smile helped to brighten the seminary and all who chanced to meet him while at work.
Although it was a rule that candidates were exempt from five o’clock morning meditation, Van was there.
The fact of his vocation was readily recognized, and he was invested with the Tertiary habit on March 2, 1937.
On the occasion Brother Simon was kidding about his name, since it was the name of the Father Guardian who had given him the habit. But Brother Simon only answered the joking with his usual smile.
In the Best Traditions
It had always been a mooted question among the Friars whether young American brothers could reach the same spirit of prayer for which our Old World Franciscan brothers are known. Brother Simon proved the affirmative in a very short time.
He became a familiar figure in the chapel. At times he would kneel hidden away in the former choir at the rear of the chapel, where he thought he was unobserved. Then when the bell rang summoning the community for spiritual exercises, he would take his accustomed place in the front of the chapel.
It must have been a joy for him to make the Stations, for he was at them again and again. At each station he would linger, spending much time on his knees.
It made little difference to him where he worked. He passed from the first duties he had in the community to the kitchen. And from there he went to assist in the shoe shop.
At his work he was always quiet and never expressed any likes or dislikes. But he worked like a beaver, smiling all the day long.
The other brothers were always glad to have him help them; he was so willing and happy.
His assigned tasks were not enough for him. He went out of his way to be of assistance to others. During his one summer in the convent he sacrificed the community picnic to help with extra work in the shoe shop.
The Shadow of the Cross
But trouble clouded the sky when his ankle started to bother him just about a year after he arrived at the Teutopolis seminary. It was believed he had torn a ligament in a basketball game years before.
This now brought on a slight limp. Others noticed it, but he himself said nothing about it. He still drew drinking water from the well for the community and carried a bucket of water in each hand to the refectory, limping and smiling as he went – and it was no mean distance.
Soon after, the limb became too painful and he could scarcely walk. So off he went to St. Anthony’s Hospital, Effingham, Illinois, and his smile went with him.
For a good month he took treatments at the hospital. But his ankle failed to respond.
He returned to the seminary on crutches. And the same hearty smile went swinging through the corridors on crutches.
Two days after his return, he made his profession as a probational Tertiary brother in the seminary chapel. He attended Mass in the sanctuary with his crutches and appeared as happy as a lark. That was March 4, 1938.
It Refuses to Lift
The next day he left for St. Louis via auto to consult a specialist about his ankle. He was gone three weeks. When he returned, his ankle was in a cast and he had the bitter news that he was suffering from tuberculosis of the bone.
Downhearted? No, not on that score. Yet there was something troubling him. All could sense it, although he tried to cover it with his smile. Soon many knew. There was talk of his being dismissed on account of his handicap.
But his superiors decided in his favor, and he could hardly contain himself for joy. No doubt his deeply religious character had swung the sentiment in his favor.
In spite of his handicap, he still tried to make himself useful. He went to the kitchen and not only wiped dishes but actually washed them. To perform this operation he would hold up his foot behind him in its heavy cast and lean forward on the sink for support. Stop him? It could not be done.
Still Brother Simon
Nor did he forget to make his beloved Way of the Cross. He even went through the torture of kneeling on two knees at each station despite his cast and his crutches. It was painful enough to watch him. His joy and love, however, seemed to make all things possible.
When asked by a priest of the community whether he suffered, he replied: “Yes, Father, sometimes the pain is pretty bad.” But, he still insisted on climbing the steps to his room on the second floor. Someone offered to make arrangements to get him a room on the first floor, but he begged him not to. He did not want to be a bother to others, nor be deprived of his little cross of climbing the steps.
His general health, however, began to fail. At table he ate very little. In consequence, he commenced losing weight and to grow pale. His smile could not hide those things.
Back to the hospital at Effingham he went. That was the last day of April.
Upon examination, it was found that he had galloping consumption. The doctor gave him only a short time to live.
His smile? Still with him.
On the Cross with His Christ
The sisters at the hospital declared he was one of their best patients. A Protestant gentleman recuperating at the hospital, was in admiration at Br. Simon’s happy disposition despite his serious illness.
He said to one of the fathers visiting Br. Simon: “There you have a good boy.” He went so far as to put his radio at Br. Simon’s disposal. But Brother never used it.
“Why don’t you use the radio?” one of the sisters asked him. “Oh, I prefer to say my rosary,” he replied with his usual smile.
In fact he was continually praying. Any time of the day on entering his room you would find him happily rapt in prayer.
His condition quickly grew worse, and he was anointed on the sixth day after his arrival at the hospital. When his Father Confessor returned to the seminary, he remarked: “If Br. Simon is not ready for Heaven, few of us are.”
His sister Agnes (now Sister Eileen) saw him shortly after this. She writes:
“I had the pleasure of being with him a short time before his death. About the first thing he said to me when we met, was ‘Father has anointed me already.’ He seemed so happy to die and so resigned to God’s will. I mention this because I have never seen a young person more resigned to death than he was.”
The next few days his strength failed rapidly. He was awaiting death at any moment. At each visit of his Father Confessor he listened with marked attention to his admonition, received absolution, and repeated with him the prayers for the dying. At last God came to call him.
Just a Disposition or True Virtue?
It was about ten o’clock on the night of May 10. The sister on night duty was passing by and stepped in to greet her youthful charge. She immediately sensed the struggle of death.
Here it became evident that Brother Simon, with all his virtuous assent to the cross, was not without his interior struggles. For as the sister came closer, Br. Simon seized her arm: “Oh Sister, don’t let me die, don’t let me die. I want to go back to the monastery.”
But Jesus, Mary, and the holy angels loved him more and came to take him home. — His head sank back on his pillow and his innocent soul winged its way to Heaven.
The Requiem Mass for this young (he was but twenty) soldier of Christ was held in the seminary chapel. Then his remains were laid away in the novitiate vault.
There they rest amid the brethren he loved so much. In fact, the sisters of the hospital had said, he seemed to get more joy out of a visit from one of his confreres than from his immediate family.
Under date of May 13, Br. Simon’s burial day, we find this entry in the seminary chronicle:
“Brother Simon was a cheerful and willing worker, always at the service of his confreres. During his illness and suffering no one heard an impatient word escape his lips. His smile never wore off, and his hours of prayer never relaxed. Resigned to God’s holy will, he passed to his eternal reward the night of May 10, 1938.”
Must It Be With Great Things?
When the idea was mentioned of writing a little account of Br. Simon’s life, it met with the immediate approval of everybody. Fathers, clerics and brothers felt that his life had been more than ordinary. This is in itself a good testimony of his holiness, because religious and especially priests are, as a rule, slow to admit the extraordinary.
But when it came to gathering a little material, trouble arose. What great things had he done? None.
His greatness was in doing the little things well. He was a follower of the “little way” made famous by the Little Flower. After her death some of the sisters likewise wondered what they could say for her.
In reality they did not have to say a word. God took care of it all.
To sum up Br. Simon’s life we can well say: “Being made perfect in a short space, he fulfilled a long time.” (Wisdom 4:13).
Aptly enough, that is the inscription on his tomb.
Still Doing Good
Remarkable answers to prayers addressed to Brother Simon are mounting. He has been styled the missionaries’ broker. From his office in Heaven he is making it a specialty to look after the Negro missions.
A Franciscan mission-minded priest in Cleveland experienced a real thrill when within one year his urgent request for $2,000.00, $2,500.00, and $1,000.00 were answered practically on call. He had been asked by his confreres in the Negro Missions of Louisiana to try to raise this money. Accordingly, he had recourse to Brother Simon and had others do the same. And there it was, each time in a lump.
The second instance was especially striking as the donor remained unknown and the sum was $250.00 short of the specified $2,500.00. Brother Simon’s good broker mind evidently felt that on recalculation $2,250.00 would amply supply the need. And sure enough it did. The little church built with this money totaled that exact sum.
Brother Simon is also active in healing the sick. In the summer of 1944 an American soldier was in the hospital at Baltimore. For several months he had been suffering from a bad running ear.
The army hospital did all it could for him. No sulfa-drug, or any amount of penicillin, could halt the drainage. The hospital authorities did not think it wise to operate. They were puzzled.
A priest in Quincy, Illinois, suggested to the soldier’s wife that she make a novena to Brother Simon. She did. The morning following the close of the novena her husband called her from the hospital and said that his ear had suddenly stopped draining. There has been no recurrence of the trouble.
In these ways and many others Brother Simon is still busy helping others.