Jewish-Catholic relations have been an interest of mine for decades. As a seminarian, I was the first graduate of a home study program called “The Jewish Academy without Walls.” I am also happy to serve on the advisory board of the Association for Hebrew Catholics. Reading their latest newsletter, I was intrigued by the review of a novel, Sister Mary Baruch. To my amazement, the author was Dominican Father Jacob Restrick; he and I were classmates pursuing our licentiates in sacred theology from the wonderful Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. – he as a student-brother, I as a relatively young priest.
The book review prodded me to contact Father Jacob and to ask for the book (actually, a series).
Although I love novels, life hasn’t given me many opportunities to indulge that appreciation. However, Sister Mary Baruch became my bedtime reading companion for a week. It is absolutely delightful at every level: plot and character development, word images, spirituality, humor, even pathos. Before launching into the second volume of the series, I invited Father Jacob to share some insights with CWR readers on the how and the why of this endeavor of his; he graciously agreed to take some time for this out of his very busy and demanding life as chaplain to the edifying Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, New York, who tend to patients with incurable cancer.
CWR: Father Jacob, give readers some background information on yourself.
Fr. Jacob Restrick: I was born to a nice South Jersey Episcopalian Mother and Dad. We moved from Haddon Heights to Defiance, Ohio, where I began high school. At the age of fourteen, I became a Catholic on my own, with my parents’ blessing. Upon graduation from high school, I went to St. Meinrad Seminary College, studying for the Toledo Diocese. Vatican II was in full swing. I did not go on to theology but taught Catholic school in Toledo, and then in Chicago. I tried my vocation again with the Sons of Mary Missionary Society in Framingham, Massachusetts.
This was at the height of the “changes” mentioned in Sr. Mary Baruch…after fourteen months, I left, moved to New York City, and was a writer for the National Office of Society of the Propagation of the Faith for seven years; a year or so with American Airlines. Later, I entered a newly founded Benedictine monastic community in Newport, Rhode Island. After five years, we were adopted by the Father Abbot of a Cistercian monastery in Quebec. I left them and entered the Dominican novitiate in Dover, Massachusetts.
I was ordained a priest in 1989 by James Cardinal Hickey. I have had various parochial ministries; served as prior and pastor in Youngstown, Ohio; then chaplain to the Dominican cloistered nuns in Buffalo, New York, and West Springfield, Massachusetts. I tried my vocation with the Trappists at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer; again a chaplain to cloistered nuns, and then chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. I returned to the House of Studies in Washington for three years, serving as sub-prior; then as prior of St. Dominic’s in Washington. After that term, I returned to Hawthorne as chaplain.
That’s probably more “autobiographical info” than you wanted. The interesting part is that I served as chaplain to cloistered nuns for twelve years; was a cloistered monk myself for almost eight years; and now serve active Dominican Sisters.
CWR: You have had some involvement with icons, haven’t you?
Fr. Jacob Restrick: I have never been or thought of myself as an iconographer. I have a love of icons and studied them for spiritual purposes; for prayer. I produced an 18-conference retreat using icons as visual aids. I also did a 13-episode series on EWTN, entitled, “Icons: Windows into Heaven”. That was first aired in 1998; some episodes are still aired at holiday times. My interest in icons began in France through visiting monasteries of monks and nuns.
CWR: What inspired you to begin the saga of Rebecca Feinstein/Sr. Mary Baruch?
Fr. Jacob Restrick: I was preaching a retreat to cloistered Dominican nuns during Advent. It was Sunday of the Second Week of Advent; I was writing my homily for Monday, and I wondered what a cloistered nun would think of those readings? The first reading was from Isaiah. And I made up a cloistered nun, whose Advent Journal I had discovered, and she used these readings to describe her life. It worked! I wanted her to identify especially with the reading from Isaiah, which she used to tell about her conversion.
I almost gave her the name of Sr. Mary Isaiah, but I wanted something a little different; in the original story, she was a secretary to a lawyer in New York. The prophet Baruch was a secretary. Also, of the great “modern” conversion stories, Edith Stein was a favorite of mine.
The nuns “liked” her from the homily, and so she would appear again and again in homilies. This went on for a year or more, and I would mention people in her family. One Sister said very simply: “You should write out her whole story.” I did it hurriedly as a Christmas gift to the nuns in Buffalo, where I was chaplain.
CWR: Why did you choose New York as the setting for the first volume of the series?
Fr. Jacob Restrick: Because I knew New York; I love New York; and I had Jewish friends in New York. I celebrated my First Mass at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue. And as a layman years before, I had lived on West 79th Street, in the same building where “Rebecca Feinstein” lived.
CWR: Without giving away any “surprises,” share the basic plot with us.
Fr. Jacob Restrick: The first volume, The Early Years, is primarily about her conversion and the reaction of her family. She’s a college student at Barnard at the end of the 1960’s…a lot going on. Her brother was killed in Vietnam, and that is a factor in her looking at life more deeply. Her best friend, a Gentile girl, is dying, and she goes into St. Vincent’s to light a candle for her. And it begins…five years after her conversion, she enters a cloistered monastery in Brooklyn Heights. That volume goes up to her Solemn Profession.
Volume II, The Middle Ages, takes place 25 years later; she’s reviewing her life in the monastery. One gets to know her family and the Sisters in the monastery much better in Volume II. She has a vocation “mid-life crisis” and confronts “life” again through others’ deaths. Her reflection on events in the last 25 years becomes the “stuff” of life she’s dealing with.
Volume III, Vespers, is about ten years later…the turn of the century; the new millennium – she is captivated by a dream early on about her childhood and Pesach; it is probably the most “Jewish” of the volumes, drawing on the foods served at a Seder. Characters are developed even further. In each of the later volumes, she is also confronted with sin, change, crisis of faith as she shares her ways of dealing with all these in both a humorous but also inspirational way. Vespers is the quiet welcoming of the evening of her life.
Compline, Volume III, is not the “end” but a greater spiritual dark night: Sin and reconciliation; facing issues of life and death; evil and grace.
Fr. Jacob Restrick: Volume V, not out yet, will continue the theme of Compline, but includes new challenges in her old age, and the changes in contemplative life, the Church, the vocation crisis, etc.
CWR: What has been the reaction of readers and reviewers thus far?
Fr. Jacob Restrick: Written for the nuns themselves, it quickly became known and loved also by the Dominican Laity. One woman told me she sat up all night reading it from beginning to end! Priests and laymen have enjoyed it. One cloistered nun (not a Dominican, but a Jewish convert) called me and told me she had just finished Volume I and that my portrayal of Jewish life was “spot on.” Another Jewish lady in New York was given Sr. Mary Baruch by a Catholic friend. She loved it, and made the itinerary of Rebecca Feinstein, meaning that she went into St. Vincent’s Church and walked all around. She wanted to meet me, and we did – on the third tier at the Metropolitan Opera House. She has become a good friend, and consultant, as her son-in-law is a rabbi in New Jersey.
Those who have read the four available volumes keep asking me when Volume V will be out, as Volume IV ends with a couple “cliff-hangers.”
CWR: Why did you make a Jewish woman the protagonist?
Fr. Jacob Restrick: It just happened naturally. She was more interesting than an Episcopalian convert; and there is a wealth of theology available showing how the Catholic Faith is the fulfillment of Judaism. It is also not anti-Semitic at all, but loves and appreciates the practices of Judaism. Using a Jewish woman allowed for a greater conversion experience of coming to know the Lord, than a Methodist or any other Protestant.
CWR: Catholic theology and spirituality dot the landscape of the work. What did you hope to accomplish? Why not just a straight work on theology and spirituality?
Fr. Jacob Restrick: Yes. Through a narrative…a “story”…one can bring in the teachings of the Church and the work of grace in a very personal way. People can identify with her search – her own personality…this is even true when she’s in the monastery for many years. People identify with her emotionally…she makes us laugh; she’s very open about her own flaws and weaknesses; and yet she’s totally given over to the Lord and His mercy. Sometimes it’s seen more real in a story than through an academic presentation.
While it is not a text book on theology or even a strictly “spiritual reading” book, several Sisters have told me they read them more than once as spiritual reading. A Nashville Sister reads it for her retreat book; and a Sister here read all four volumes as her Lenten spiritual reading. The nuns in Buffalo have read them in the refectory, except for Volume IV.
CWR: How can readers get a copy of the now-four volume set?
Fr. Jacob Restrick: Volumes I-IV are available from Amazon, and from TAN Catholic Books. I’m hoping Volume V will be out by Christmas.
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