Brother Richard Sanker: Guiding ’his boys’ for nearly 30 years

Brother Richard Sanker, CFP, stands in front of Catholic High School in Little Rock with Zeke, Catholic High's mascot. "I always tell my students, I'm on this road with you. I struggle against my weaknesses and sin, just like you do."
Brother Richard Sanker, CFP, stands in front of Catholic High School in Little Rock with Zeke, Catholic High's mascot. "I always tell my students, I'm on this road with you. I struggle against my weaknesses and sin, just like you do."

Standing before class after high school senior religion class for nearly 30 years, Brother Richard Sanker, CFP, has seen and heard a little bit of everything. In every instance, he has worked to impart understanding on the nature of his chosen vocation and the quest for meaning and holiness in life.
Many of the questions that his young charges ask today are the same ones he has answered throughout his religious life.
“What’s it like to be a brother?”
“Do you ever regret not having been married?”
“How did you know you were meant for this?”
“Have you missed not having children?”
The 66-year-old member of the Brother of the Poor of St. Francis takes all questions in stride, age and experience having given him the opportunity to develop cogent, soft-spoken answers to their inquiries.
“There’s a joy in living out a vocation,” he said. “Religious, married, single, whatever it is.”
So has it been for Brother Richard, who decided at age 13 to follow religious life after attending an eighth-grade retreat at a Franciscan community in Loretta, Pa., not far from his childhood home in Altoona. The youngest of four children in a devout Catholic household, Brother Richard found his family to be very supportive of his decision to join the Franciscans. Ironically, the parish priest was a much tougher sell.
“In those days, all you really needed was a letter from your parish priest saying he thought you would make a good brother,” he said. “My parish priest said he thought I’d make an excellent priest, but he wouldn’t write a letter for me to become a brother. He turned me down twice before he finally agreed to do it.”
Entering a monastery in the 1950s required devotion. Postulants spent six months under the watchful eye of the brothers just to determine if they got in the front door as a novice. Once in, long periods of prayer and contemplation, often in silence, were the norm. Despite being in the center of a major American city, the novices may as well been on a mountaintop somewhere.
“We were really cut off from the outside world. The only television we watched was President Kennedy’s funeral,” he said. “I can remember the big treat was to walk down the street to get ice cream. Even then we went as a group.”
Perhaps it was making the decision to walk such a road so early in life — just a few years shy of the young men he now teaches — that equipped him to speak so clearly to them all these years later about what it means to devote one’s life to the service of others and the quest for holiness.
“The struggle is to become holier, always,” he said. “I have accomplished and am accomplishing in my ministry as a teacher, everything I set out to do. But the call to holiness goes to the grave.
“I always tell my students, I’m on this road with you. I struggle against my weaknesses and sin, just like you do. We’re in this together.”
Brothers differ from priests in that where priests are ordained, brothers are consecrated laymen. Of all the things he tries to convey to his students, it is this commonality that resonates most clearly, he believes.
“I tell them all the time, ’You’re not looking at Brother Perfect,’ he said. “I still haven’t learned that it’s not all about me, that it’s about God. But I think it makes them feel more comfortable knowing I’m not going to be judgmental.”
So you say you fear the future? Brother Richard left home at 17 to join Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis in Cincinnati, 500 miles away from his family at a time when being accepted into the community meant three years before your first visit home. You say you’ve experienced loss? Though he attends annual reunion with his postulant class, of those 40 young men who entered the community with him, a dozen are dead and only two are still Franciscans, counting him. Today he is the only Franciscan brother left in Arkansas. Lonely? Brother Richard doesn’t even hesitate.
“It can be a lonely life,” he said. “It’s very lonely at times.”
Still, religious life has been everything he expected it to be. Through all of the changes, both societal and, as in the case of Vatican Council II, vocational, his life has fundamentally been about service to others. For the overwhelming majority of his religious life, that has meant teaching.
Brother Richard graduated from Manhattan College in New York City with a degree in French and also holds a master’s degree in guidance counseling from Xavier University in Ohio. He has taught at the elementary and high school level in several states. His first experience in Arkansas was teaching at the Morris School in Searcy with 24 fellow Franciscans.
He landed at Catholic High in the early 1980s on his second try — his first interview fizzled after then-principal Father George Tribou balked at his $4,000 annual salary request — when he took over guidance counselor duties. Through the years, he has also earned the role of official caretaker of the school’s German Shepherd mascot, Ezekiel, and Jonah before him. Until last year he also taught French.
It has been in that class that his students have lent much depth and perspective to his teaching and by extension, his faith journey. A couple of moments stand out as particularly jaw-dropping. On one occasion, speaking of forsaking a family life for a life spent in vocation, Brother Richard told a student that he did wonder, from time to time, what his children would have looked like.
“Look around your office,” the young man told him.
On another occasion, in response to his annual assignment that the class write down what they believed he was most passionate about in life, he received one written reply that ranks as his very favorite.
“Us,” was all it said.
“I hate to call them ’my boys’ because they aren’t really mine, but they are my life,” he said. “I know some of the parents out there reading this won’t believe that their son could lead me closer to holiness, but it is possible for anyone — young or old — to shun the darkness and embrace the light.”

Click here to see the index of stories in Arkansas Catholic’s Vocations 2011 special section.

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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