Brother John Thomas Thornton, CSC

September 4, 1929 – December 3, 2015

Brother-John-Thomas-ThorntonThe prayers of the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross are requested for the repose of the soul of Brother John Thomas Thornton, CSC, a member of the Moreau Province of Brothers and Priests. Born in Philadelphia, PA, Br. John died in Valatie, NY on December 3, 2015. He was in his 53rd year of religious life in the Congregation.

The son of Irish-born parents, Patrick Thornton and Theresa Coen, John Thomas Thornton was born in Philadelphia, PA, on September 4, 1929.  He was baptized at St. Edmond’s Church in Philadelphia, PA, on September 22, 1929 and received the sacrament of Confirmation in the same church on March 19, 1938.

Growing up in the City of Brotherly Love, John received his elementary education at St. Edmond’s School and graduated from Bishop Neumann High School in 1947. He landed a clerical job in the advertising department of S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Company and began studies at St. Joseph College in Philadelphia. In the fall of 1951, after the United States had been involved in the Korean War for more than a year, John was drafted into the Army.  He served as a battalion mail clerk for the next two years in Fairbanks, Alaska, and received an honorable discharge as Corporal Thornton in August 1953. He was immediately employed as a clerk in the United States Post Office in Philadelphia, until the summer of 1960.

Hearing the Lord’s call to Religious Life, John communicated with Brother Hyacinth (Edward) Sniatecki, CSC, the Vocation Director for the Holy Cross Brothers, Eastern Province, and was accepted into St. Joseph Juniorate in Valatie, NY, on November 19, 1960. On the orientation questionnaire for aspirants to the novitiate, John was asked, “Did your military record include foreign service?” John wrote in: “Yes, Alaska.”  Brother John entered St. Joseph Novitiate in Valatie, NY, on January 25, 1961.  He made his first profession of vows as a Brother in the Congregation of Holy Cross on January 26, 1962, and his final vows on June 20, 1965.  As he was entering the congregation, John shared that his religious vocation was supported by his family, especially his parents, and that the greatest support in discerning his vocation came from frequent reception of the sacraments.  He also wrote that the only class that he ever failed was Latin due to “lack of application.”  It seems a lesson was learned, since ‘lack of application’ was never evidenced in his life as a religious.

Following first profession, Br. John was assigned to the Vincent Hall Scholasticate to complete his undergraduate studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX, graduating in 1964 with a B.A. in Education.  Br. John’s ministry began with a brief teaching assignment to Holy Cross High School, Flushing, NY.  It was during this time that John studied at St. John’s University, NY, and received the final eight credits needed to complete his B.A. degree at St. Edward’s.

He then spent six years teaching and in administration at Notre Dame International High School in Rome, Italy.  During this time, John coached the school basketball team to two championships in the league of American Schools in Italy.  John wrote that he was proud of this accomplishment, having never coached before, and chose to not press his luck – by never coaching again. Returning to the States in 1970, he entered a Master’s degree program at Villanova University, Philadelphia, PA, while teaching at Msgr. Coyle High School in Taunton, MA, and serving as Superior of the Brothers Community there.  In 1971, Br. John was reassigned to Notre Dame International where he served as Superior (1971-1972) and Headmaster (1971 -1979).  Returning to the States from Rome during the summers, he completed the M.A. degree at Villanova University.  While on assignment in Rome, Italy, during the 70’s, he was a member of the visiting team of the Middle States Association for Colleges and Schools and participated in accreditation visits to English-speaking schools in Zurich, Tel Aviv, Waterloo, Belgium and Tamil Nadu, South India.

After completing his ministry in Rome, Br. John lived with the Brothers Community at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, MD, (1979 -1980) and studied at Loyola University in Baltimore.  After earning a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling, he was employed by his alma mater, St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX.  From the fall of 1980 to the summer of 1989, he served successively as the Assistant to the Dean of Students, then as Dean of Students, and, for his latter two years at the University, as the Acting Vice President. Upon his return to the North East, Br. John became the Director of Development for the Eastern Province of Holy Cross Brothers (1989 – 1992), living first at Lorillard Place in the Bronx and then at the Province Center in New Rochelle, NY. Then, making his last major relocation, Br. John moved to St. Joseph Center in Valatie, NY, where he took on the role of the Director of Well Elderly and then Superior while serving as a member of the Provincial Council.  From 1995 until 1999, Br. John was the administrator of St. Joseph Center.  Retiring there in 1999, but still active, he assisted Brother James Posluszny, CSC, in the North Country Ministry, in up-state New York.

During 2013, John experienced heart problems and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. He continued to be faithful to a ministry of prayer for the intentions of the Province, especially for vocations to Holy Cross.  Br. John passed into the presence of the Risen Lord on December 3, 2015.  Two hours prior to his death, the community had gathered in his room at St. Joseph Center to accompany and comfort him by anointing, prayer and expressions of our love for him and all that he had meant to us over the years.

In Holy Cross,
Br. William Zaydak, CSC

A Twinkle in His Eye

Brother-John-Thomas-Thornton-2We’ve come together as a faith community in this Eucharistic celebration to share our memories of John as our brother, uncle, friend, teacher, headmaster, tennis partner – and the list goes on.  We’ve known him as Brother John, JT, Uncle John and –I will leave it to the students here from Notre Dame International to let us know what nicknames he may have earned while in the classroom and as headmaster!

Our memories of John take us on a journey to the past.  We dwell in the past for a while and we savour and treasure those memories, but our time together today provides us more so the opportunity to live in the present and to be with each other.  My hope and prayer is that the experience of being together and supporting each other will continue for each of us beyond our time together today.

When John entered the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1960 at the age of 31, his vocation had clearly been nurtured by his family.  This was recognized by John on his application and by his parish priest.  I think it is important for all of his family to hear what his pastor wrote:

John Thornton called on me today to tell me of his intention of entering your congregation as a brother.  The Thornton family is one of the finest families I have ever come across in my long experience as a pastor.  His mother and father were exemplary parents and all the children were raised right.  I believe that you will have in him a fine candidate for the religious life.

Prophetic words.

Brother-John-Thomas-Thornton-3As we celebrate his 53 years as a religious in Holy Cross we acknowledge that those years as a brother were solidly based in his family and that the love that John had for his family during all his years as a brother was intrinsically part of who he was and we, the brothers, are grateful to his family for that.

We, his confreres in Holy Cross, ask you, the family of John, to convey to the rest of the family, the prayers from all of us on the loss of John. I hope that your time here with us has brought some peace and healing to you. Having you with us and hearing about your brother John helps us to appreciate his life and time among us even more.

I want to offer thanks to all who live and work here at St. Joseph Center.  I thank you for your hospitality to John’s family throughout the years and today, your hospitality to all that have come.  Thank you, Br. Ed Boyer, the nursing and house staff for your presence to John.  Thank you to all his confreres here at SJC who were able to visit him whenever he was in the hospital or nursing home and especially last week when you gathered to anoint and bless him, to just be with him – to pray for him, and I believe to also pray with him for John was surely with us as brothers, gathered in prayer.

As you know two of his major ministerial assignments were SEU, Austin and NDI, Rome.

In the past few years that I have been in Austin, I’ve heard stories of John’s time there and, most recently, had the opportunity to read some of his correspondence with provincials and others during his time at Saint Edward’s University.  It is all that you would expect from someone who was the Dean of Students.  There are letters about all the usual acting out of students. In John’s choice of words and expressions, there is a clear sense that in the midst of all, John was writing about the student escapades with a wry smile on his face and a bit of twinkle in his eye that we are all familiar with.  Annoyance, but mixed with a sense of amusement.

I mentioned in the biography sent out to the province and congregation that on his application to the novitiate he was asked the question “Did your military record include foreign service” and John wrote “Yes” and next to it where the form asked “Where was the foreign service?” He wrote “Alaska”.  I think that his world view and knowledge of geography jumped by quantum amounts years later when he was assigned to Rome for a total of 14 years.  As you know, it provided him the opportunity to travel extensively for the business of accreditation visits and much personal travel.

Notre Dame International was a major part of his ministerial life.

 I was thinking today of setting up a projector here and taking you through the private group Facebook page for graduates of NDI. It is truly a tribute to John; to Br. John, who as a Holy Cross Brother and just the person he was, touched so many lives of the young men at NDI.  I would like to share with you anonymously just a few of the posts.  The first three are just a sentence or two and express well and succinctly who John was:

A truly wonderful man whose ministry as Headmaster of NDI was blessing to us all.

He was tough, but a kind soul inside.  He was wonderfully present when we needed him.

There were a number of posts which made reference to John telling students to get their hair cut.  One wrote:

He once said to me ‘Cut your hair and quit getting in trouble.’ I am proud to say I did 29 years in the US Navy – and I still got in trouble.   Love you, Brother

A bit longer:

I was at the bus stop one Saturday waiting to go into town. Brother John was out for a walk and saw me. He asked me where I was going and I told him that I wanted to go to the Vatican and climb to the top; I had never done it. He asked if he could join me. (I thought) ‘Join me? You, the Principal, want to join me?’ The short version is that I spent that Saturday, alone, with Brother John, climbing and visiting the Vatican. The advice he gave me that day, is as sound today as it was then. Rest in peace, Brother John. I cry for our loss but smile at the journey that lies ahead for you.

A final posting. But a comment first by me.  A few days after John passed on to eternal life, Pope Francis opened the doors to a “Year of Mercy” and challenged us to not judge and to accept others.  We all know of the hateful and judging rhetoric that is going on these days.  A former student on the NDI Facebook page wrote:

Brother John was my principal for three years at NDI. I was a Muslim student studying in an all Christian school. I feel that I have gained so much from the Christian values that these men (the brothers) taught and displayed which made me a better Muslim today. I pray to Allah that he accepts Brother John in his eternal JANNAH.

I will close with a letter that John wrote to the provincial in 1988 where John was writing about his funeral wishes.  He wrote this when he was in Austin, but was a member of the Eastern Province.

Depending on where this Irish heart should stop beating is where I would prefer to be buried.  Simply put, if I die in the South-West, then the community cemetery would be o.k.  It’s a little noisy next to Interstate 35. It’s hot in the summer, but after all it is the sun-belt.

It’s true that I-35 is exceedingly noisy and it is hot there, but I’m not sure why John is concerned about that! He further wrote:

If I die back in Valatie that is fine.  There are the four seasons, I like the agrarian settings, it is the place of my spiritual and monastic roots, and it is very close to the tennis courts.

Brother-John-Thomas-Thornton-4When faced with something as sad as the passing of our Br. John, I try to find peace and solace in my faith, in my belief and experience of a loving God.  To do that, we need to live in the present with the sorrow, to live to a point where we truly accept that, and accept the cross which is the center of our Holy Cross spirituality.  We believe that our dear Br. John is now with our founder of Holy Cross, Blessed Father Moreau.  John is with the communion of Saints: we call to mind especially St. Joseph and St. Brother Andre.  He is with all the deceased members of the family of Holy Cross, along with his parents, Teresa and Patrick, his siblings and other family members.  We can now pray to him and ask him to watch over us and to care for us.  And so let me close that way with a simple prayer:  Brother John, Uncle John, JT – may you rest in peace, watch over and protect us!  Amen!

– Eulogy delivered by Br. William Zaydak, CSC
At the chapel of St. Joseph Center, Valatie, NY
December 12, 2015

Family Memories

My name is Sheila Winas, I am Brother John Thornton’s niece.  On behalf of his family I would like to thank everyone for coming today.  I would like to thank the Brothers who were with my uncle when he passed away.  It meant so much to us to know that he was surrounded by so much love and prayers and he was able to pass away peacefully.

I would like to thank Susan for always making the arrangements for my husband and I and our children to stay here while we visited my uncle and for the arrangements she made for all of our family for this weekend.

Thank you to Brother Ed for giving me updates on my uncle and for Brother Bill for all of his help with planning my uncle’s funeral.

Whenever I had sad news for my uncle, such as a death in our family, I would call Brother Fred and ask him to deliver the news to my uncle in person as opposed to me telling him over the telephone.  Thank you Brother Fred, I am sure that wasn’t a pleasant thing to do.

Thank you to all of his brothers for visiting him while he was staying at Whittier nursing home.  I know it meant so much to my uncle.

Thank you to the kitchen staff for always making sure my uncle had delicious meals.  I have eaten here on many occasions so I know my uncle received delicious meals.  The first time my children visited here at St. Joseph they referred to it as Uncle Jack’s hotel and the dining hall as Uncle Jack’s restaurant.  They have always enjoyed visiting here.  We have always felt so welcomed when we visited here.

Thank you to the nursing staff for taking such good care of my uncle’s medical needs with such compassion and to those who drove him to his many doctors’ appointments.  If I have forgotten anyone I apologize.  Once again I would like to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for caring so much about my uncle.  God Bless You.

I have so many wonderful memories of my Uncle Jack that I could talk for hours about him. When my uncle lived in New Rochelle, NY, my husband and I spent many weekends with him and made many trips into NY City with my uncle.  We visited downtown Manhattan, Bronx, Little Italy, Brooklyn, Southside Seaport, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square and Rockefeller Center.

But I must say my most memorable memory of my uncle Jack was the day I married my husband Matt. We asked my uncle to give a blessing, say grace before the meal at our wedding reception and of course my uncle said yes.

If you know my uncle as well as I do, you know he loved to talk, it runs in the Thornton family. We call it the Irish gift of gab.

So, when my uncle stood up to give a blessing, in true Uncle Jack style, he had to say a few words about the bride. He started out by saying, “The love affair between my shy young niece and I began back when she was in the third grade” and everyone began to laugh. I thought, oh no!

Back when I was in the third grade, my uncle was stationed at NDI in Rome Italy. Whenever my uncle came home from Rome, he always came to visit us.

On this occasion he decided to surprise my siblings and I while we were at school. He went on to say that he pulled some strings and with a little politics he was able to take us out of school and to the local McDonald’s for lunch and that’s when the love affair between us started!

Then he turned to my husband Matt and said, “So Matt, it does not take much to please Sheila.”

Then my uncle said, “Over the years as our love affair blossomed, I would know when I disappointed Sheila because she would lovingly say to me, ‘Uncle Jack, you bum’.”  Then he turned to my husband once again and said, “Matt, some 20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now when you and Sheila are celebrating your wedding anniversary and she turns to you and lovingly says, Matt, you bum, know that she loves you.”  So, I need to say one more time….Uncle Jack, you bum!

An excerpt from a letter of condolences:

It is hard to find the words to express how fortunate Meg and I feel to have the Holy Cross Brothers in our lives. My time at NDI was life-changing, and Br. John was such an important part of that experience. He made NDI a warm, nurturing place where we could thrive and develop as students and as people. .… Br. John truly made the Holy Cross philosophy of educating the mind and the heart come alive for us by the example of how he lived his life every day.

With heartfelt sympathy,
Paul and Meg Scarpetta

The following poem was prepared in celebration of Br. John’s 80th Birthday (2009):

Brother John:

When we were quite young, you were important,
This poem is for you, Brother John Thorton.
You molded our lives at old Notre Dame,
We have to smile when we hear your name.

A time long ago; a place so afar,
Your mind was open; your door was ajar.
Your words would be stern, but yet always fair,
Yet, in times of strife, you were always there.

After years gone by, this may sound silly,
We hold you so dear, this man from Philly.
We come to honor you for your four score,
And pray the Lord will grant you many more.

Mark P. Oropollo
Class of 1973

Br. John Thomas Thornton, CSC served the Lord faithfully in the following ministries:

  • 1964-1964      Teacher, Holy Cross HS, Flushing, NY
  • 1964-1970      Teacher/Administrator, Notre Dame International, Rome
  • 1970-1971      Dean/Teacher/Superior, Msgr. Coyle HS, Taunton, MA
  • 1971-1972      Superior, Notre Dame International, Rome
  • 1971- 1979     Headmaster, Notre Dame International, Rome
  • 1979-1980      Study, Loyola University, Baltimore, MD
  • 1980-1984      Asst. Dean of Students, St. Edward’s University, Austin, TX
  • 1984-1989      Dean of Students, St. Edward’s University, Austin, TX
  • 1989-1992      Director of Development, Eastern Province of Brothers
  • 1992-1995      Director of Well Elderly, St. Joseph Center, Valatie, NY
  • 1995-1999      Administrator, St. Joseph Center, Valatie, NY
  • 1999-2015      Active Retirement, St. Joseph Center, Valatie, NY