By Kristen Hannum

Of the Sentinel

Over the years, lay teacher and principal Jack Topper arranged for many vocations directors to come and talk with his Catholic school students in Chicago.

'I listened; the kids didn't,' he quips in reply to why he became a priest.

Father Topper, now director of the Servites' National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother (the Grotto) in Northeast Portland, chose the Servants of Mary (Servite) order for three reasons: first, the Servite devotion to Mary, second its charism of service, and third, the order's fraternity.

He and the other priests and brothers here are in striking accord as to why they joined the order, and in describing its special gifts. Servite Father Patrick McNamara, for instance, says he was drawn to the Servites' small, family-like structure and diverse ministries. Over the past 49 years he's lived in a dozen places, including Australia, and served in as many ministries, something that he says matches some 'gypsy' part of his nature.

He's also at peace with his choice of vocation because, as he says, the Servites have stayed true to their striving towards a spirit of compassion, as exemplified by Mary, mother of sorrow, and to their family spirit.

That gift of fraternity dates back to the Servites' unique beginning. Unlike other orders, it doesn't trace its birth back to one founder, but rather to seven men, all working together.

The Servites count their founding date as 1233, when seven businessmen of Florence were individually visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although all seven were active citizens, and three of them married with children, she inspired them to leave the world and live as hermits.

After several years, they went to their bishop, asking for a rule of life to follow. He encouraged them to pray to Mary for guidance. They did, and once again, Mary appeared to them. She carried a black habit and told them she chose them to be her servants.

They served the poor, the sick and pilgrims through their hospice. They adopted the black habit and also the Rule of St. Augustine. Six of the men were ordained priests and one a brother. The seven founders were canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888 as 'the Seven Holy Founders of the Servants of Mary.'

St. Philip Benizi was one of the order's early superior generals, but the saint most closely associated with the order here in the United States is St. Peregrine, another early Servite. Before joining the order, popular history reports that he was involved in an anti-papal movement. St. Peregrine struck St. Philip Benizi in the face,and was so moved by St. Philip's response - he turned the other cheek - that the aggressor immediately had a change of heart and eventually joined the Servites. He is the patron of those suffering from cancer, AIDS and other life-threatening diseases.

The Servite order first came to the United States in 1870. It came to Portland in 1916, in order to care for St. Clement Parish in North Portland. Servite Father Ambrose Mayer, pastor there from 1918 to 1926, built a new church and changed the name of the parish to 'the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.' He also founded the Grotto as a fulfillment of a promise he had made to God as a child.

When Father Mayer was a little boy, he learned that his mother might die after the difficult delivery of his baby sister. He ran to his parish church in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, where he prayed for his mother's life, promising God that he would one day do something great for the church.

His mother did survive, and Father Mayer in 1923 realized that some property put on for sale by the Union Pacific Railroad Company would be perfect for a sanctuary dedicated to Mary, a fulfillment of his promise.

The asking price was $48,000. Father Mayer offered $3,000, all he had. The railroad accepted his bid.

The first Marian Congress was held here, and the 62-acre shrine has become well known. In 1983 it became a national sanctuary. There is also a counseling center on the grounds.

'The Grotto is a good expression of the Servite charism,' says Father Topper. 'There's a diversity in what is offered and in who comes. People are grateful for the space, or the opportunity to talk with someone. Sanctuary is what the Servites offer.'

The monthly Mass of St. Peregrine especially moves Father Topper, who describes the number of ill people who come with their families, looking for the grace to be cured of disease or to accept their illness.

He has been director for eight years, living at the monastery on the grounds with seven other Servites, including Brother Mark Holmes, 92, the oldest Servite in Portland.

There is also an order of active Servite women religious in Portland, whose diverse ministries mirror those of the Servite friars. In other parts of the world, there are orders of contemplative nuns and a secular third order. Here in Portland, there is a confraternity of lay Servites.

What marks all Servites, though, is a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, says to Servite Father Damian Kobus, pastor of St. Rita Parish in Northeast Portland.

'We're a compassionate community of servants,' he says. Father Kobus says that mission describes the entire church, as well.

'Vatican II called us to be church, to be servants rather than to be served,' he says.

When a man decides he might have a vocation to the priesthood as a Servite, Father Topper says that the order would likely invite him to stay with them for a time, after talking with him about his motivation. The Servites prefer that candidates be college graduates. After an initial period of trying out life in community, a candidate would enter the one- or two-year pre-novitiate program in Chicago. After that comes the one-year novitiate program, which has been held wherever the order has the numbers of novitiates.

The next step is the four-year theology program, which might be in Chicago, Berkeley or Rome.

The order's work in the world is diverse, with priests and brothers working in parishes, healing ministries, schools, missions and with the poor.

Here in Portland, Servite priests serve two parishes: St. Rita's in Portland and Christ the King in Milwaukie; run the Grotto and perform ministry to the sick and aged at Mount St. Joseph Care Center and Providence Hospital and Medical Center.

'We've always looked for how best to serve the church,' says Father Topper. 'We always look to Mary as a model for what to do. And Mary always says, 'Do whatever he tells you,' always directing us to her son.'

There are about 100 Servite friars in the United States, about 12,000 worldwide, with the largest numbers in the Third World.

Father Kobus was director of vocations in Africa, where the order's devotion to Mary makes it especially popular.

His peripatetic career in the order took him to Rome and Ireland for his studies, and then to work in Chicago, California, Detroit, New Jersey and South Africa.

'Join the Servites; see the world,' Father Kobus jokes.

Father Topper hopes that the renewed interest in devotion to Mary, with the church recognizing Mary as an important model to follow, will bring more vocations in the United States as well, allowing the order to maintain its presence wherever they are now: Chicago, Portland, Florida, California (including a high school in Anaheim), Denver, Arizona, St. Louis and New Mexico.

And, of course, the Grotto, perhaps the order's best-known undertaking.

'We hope to be here forever,' Father Topper says.