LATROBE, Pa. — It would seem an unlikely pairing: a Benedictine monk living mostly in obscurity, and a Presbyterian minister whose television show for children became a celebrated part of American history.
But the details confirm the natural unfolding of a friendship between the Right Rev. Douglas R. Nowicki, archabbot of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, and Fred Rogers, or “Mister Rogers.”
“Fred came from a very prominent, Presbyterian family in Latrobe,” Nowicki begins, adding that, in the 1920s, Rogers’ grandfather befriended one of the previous abbots, and in the ’50s, his father, Jim, followed suit with another. “Eventually, I came along, and became good friends with Fred Rogers.”
In 1967, Jim Rogers received an honorary degree from their college. “Fred was the commencement speaker and received one, too, in 1973.”
When St. Vincent experienced a devastating fire that year, losing six buildings, the first person to show up was Jim Rogers, Nowicki says. He founded “The Jimmy Fund” to help students who couldn’t afford their tuition. “He was always very generous, and that continued” with the rest of the Rogers family, he says.
Joseph Duchene, of Fargo, discovered the connection upon meeting Nowicki for spiritual discernment in June 2005.
“As soon as you walk into his office, you see the trolley from ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” he says. “I didn’t know the abbot, and had no concept of that association, but you find out pretty quickly.”
He soon learned the archabbot had a doctorate in child psychology and had been Pennsylvania’s secretary of education in the mid-1980s, working for a time in the Pittsburgh area, as did Rogers. “And then there’s the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent, where his archives are,” notes Duchene, who spent four years at the monastery.
Built in the mid-2000s, the center was in its final phase of construction when he first arrived. “It’s down the hill from the basilica,” Duchene says, noting that the visibility of the center makes the relationship between the Rogers family and the monastery apparent, adding also to the area’s other claims to fame: the birthplace of Arnold Palmer, the banana split and Rolling Rock beer.
“St. Vincent is pretty well-known, too” as the oldest Benedictine monastery in the United States, and largest in the Western Hemisphere. The archives, Duchene says, include some of the clothing Rogers wore on his TV show — sweaters and shoes — along with some private writings, as well as show segments that play on a circuit.
The building hosts many of the monastery’s non-liturgical, public presentations. “Whenever we had our vows or ordination celebrations, the reception and dinner would often happen there.”
A meeting of minds and souls
Nowicki says he and Fred Rogers met in 1973 and, from there, began exchanging occasional letters. “In early 1978, he invited me to travel with him and his filming crew to Mexico, where they videotaped a story about an orphanage run by a Catholic priest,” he says.
In 1985, they traveled together again, this time to Haiti, visiting another orphanage. “Fred Rogers was always interested in anything that could be a help to children and families.”
The two remained close, collaborating on their shared profession and how it connected with their faith. In the 1980s, Nowicki became a professional consultant for Rogers for several years.
“I think the parable of the good Samaritan is a good image of Fred,” Nowicki says. “The question was never, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ but, more importantly, to be a good neighbor. He never labeled people on the basis of race, color or creed. He felt the universal need was to be loved and affirmed.”
And though his teachings seemed simple, Nowicki says the subject matter, and associated emotions, were anything but. “He undertook some very challenging topics early in his career, back when in the ’60s racism was at its height.”
Not even divorce and death were excluded. For instance, the death of a fish in one episode introduced that topic fittingly to its audience.
“He always did it in a way that was sensitive to the child,” Nowicki affirms. “His guiding principle was, ‘If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.’”
Though he didn’t speak explicitly about religion on the show, the themes had spiritual underpinnings, Nowicki notes.
“Fred was an ordained minister, but his ministry was to children by way of the television. He didn’t give a lot of dogma; he gave a lot of examples,” he says.
Rogers chose to see everyone as a child of God, he says, believing that if people felt loved, they’d be more willing to listen. “He’d always say, “The best teachers are those who love their pupils.’” And every morning, Rogers would read from the Scriptures and say the same morning prayers as the monks.
“I think that’s one of the things that attracted (Rogers) to St. Vincent,” Nowicki says. “He felt the values he found in the college and in his relationship with the Benedictine community were reflective of his own life.”
In 1996, Rogers was the keynote speaker at the 150th anniversary of St. Vincent’s founding. “It was a wonderful occasion when he came and spoke to the community,” Nowicki says, mentioning a two-page tribute Rogers wrote to the abbey: “The Final Word is Love.”
In 2002, Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died shortly thereafter in February 2003. It was then, Nowicki says, that his archives and writings were transferred to the abbey; Rogers had agreed beforehand, in 1997, that St. Vincent would become their recipient.
Nowicki says he’s gratified at the renewed interest in Rogers’ work, including three recent major productions: a well-received documentary that came out this past May; a book biography released a year ago, now in its 11th printing; and the film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which opened on Nov. 22 and starred Tom Hanks, who was nominated for a Golden Globe award.
“In our current culture, characterized by greed, aggression and violence,” Nowicki says, “Fred Rogers demonstrated that there’s an alternative to all that; namely, kindness and being a good neighbor.”
Borrowing from Saint Paul, who said, “I no longer live, but Christ who lives in me,” Nowicki adds: “I think Fred did that. He didn’t need to use words of theology, but the values Christ used and modeled in his own life.”
Nowicki, who is mentioned in Rogers’ biography, spoke at his memorial service, broadcast from Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh.
“He was a very accessible person. There was an honesty and simplicity about (Fred Rogers). He was not taken by the things of this world,” Nowicki concludes. “I’m grateful the Lord sent him into my life, and I continue to pray that he, now that he’s closer to the Lord, will not forget me.”
Locals share life lessons, insights from ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’
FARGO — As a child of the ’70s, Heather Bjur grew up hanging out almost daily with Fred Rogers, or “Mister Rogers,” on TV.
“I specifically remember the crayon episode,” she says, noting that, “Back then, the best gift was simply a new box of new crayons — with a sharpener.”
As a longtime fan, she was drawn to the 2019 movie of Rogers’ life, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks. Now a counselor with a faith-based view, Bjur has an even greater appreciation for Rogers’ work.
“From the perspective of a counselor, I thought the movie was absolutely profound,” she says, adding that, as a parent, she also found it insightful and inspiring.
“The fact that there was a man out there who wanted to help children know there are such things as feelings, and deal with their emotions — it’s such an incredibly novel idea,” Bjur remarks. “I think the entire world could benefit from that — every man, woman and child.”
In our American culture of extremes, where “we kind of go all in, or we’re passive and silent,” she says, Rogers’ manner of relating seems needed more than ever.
“There was just something so sweet, inviting and caring about him,” Bjur says. “Emotions can be terrifying, but to be given permission to feel, like he did, is healing.”
She found the movie itself deeper than expected, becoming excited to realize the secondary character, a magazine reporter, would be undergoing a transformation.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be a redemptive story. Who doesn’t love that?’”
Bjur also mentions a scene at the end, involving the reporter’s dying father, who asks Rogers to pray with him.
“The intentionality of some of (Mister Rogers’) phrases really blew me away,” she says. “He gave a whole sermon to that father, saying 1,000 words in two sentences.”
Back in her college days, Becky Burns recalls walking by the TV lounge in her dormitory, where the education majors were circled around, “glued to ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” and thinking how silly it was. “I thought, ‘Why are you drooling over this drivel?’” she says.
But when she had children, her perspective flipped.
“Mister Rogers became a very wonderful thing, because of the honest way he talked to the children,” Burns says. “It wasn’t for the adults. His focus was on the children, and that was so special.”
She also appreciates how the tenets of her Christian faith were hidden within Mister Rogers’ teachings. “They were always there, but he never slapped you in the face with it.”
Katherine Tweed says her family watched a lot of “Mister Rogers” as her daughter, Kara, was growing up. The recent resurgence of interest in him doesn’t surprise her.
“For a certain generation or two, he’s a really big deal. I always had such respect for him,” she says, noting how she chose recently to insert his picture into her Facebook profile to brighten her day.
Now an adult, Kara still talks occasionally about the things she’s learned from the show, including: “Do one thing at a time, and do it very, very well.”
“When children are little, their attention span is pretty short. So that was always a reassuring message for her,” Tweed says.
Mister Rogers helped her in her mothering, too.
“The subtlety of Mister Rogers appealed to me. He made courtesy, acceptance of others, cardigans, changing shoes when you come into the house and smiling — with the mouth and eyes — appropriate. He was real in every sense.”
And though his faith lessons weren’t overt, they were there, she agrees. Tweed says she recalls learning in Sunday school as a child that Jesus came to us “so people would know what God was like with skin on,” commenting, “Mister Rogers reinforced that lesson by modeling that we all have a place and importance in this world.”
She also appreciates the reinforcement of “it’s a beautiful day,” a phrase from the show’s intro song.
“A lot of days don’t seem very beautiful, but sometimes it’s just nice to think about, ‘It is a beautiful day. Maybe not this moment, but it is a beautiful day.’ That’s a positive reinforcement that even I often need,” she says.
Mister Rogers’ facial gestures were always gentle, she says, especially his eyes.
“They would twinkle, and it looked like he was in deep concentration. He was one of the rare people on television who looks out from the screen and it seems as though he’s right there with you,” she says.
Tweed says the anger that fills society right now could use a little Mister Rogers.
“Having the reminder of gentleness and caring for other people just because they exist, just because they’re there, is comforting,” she says, adding, “Feeling that love and generosity of spirit and kindness that Mister Rogers just gently laid before us for a half hour every day… If we could all take the time to renew ourselves for a half hour every day and think about those things, it would be a bonus.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 24, 2020.]