February 1, 1995
Dear Friends and Benefactors,
Another old and faithful American priest, known to many of you, and an ally of the Society of St. Pius X in its earliest days, died last month in the United States: Fr. Urban Snyder. He died at 9:30 pm on January 25 in the infirmary of the Cistercian Monastery of Genesee, in u-state New York, in his 82nd year. "He had been for a month in the infirmary," said those who were with him, "and for the last two weeks he was unable to talk, but he was serene, and appreciated with a smile anything done for him. It was a very edifying death."
As the faithful veterans of the Catholic priesthood disappear one by one who handed down their Faith to the youngsters of the Society of St. Pius X, enabling or helping the Society to start and to take up where they left off, it is fitting to pay tribute to their generation –
"Their shoulders held the sky suspended, They stood, and earth's foundations stay ..."
Fr. Snyder was actually a late vocation to the priesthood. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1912, in a pious Catholic family, graduating in 1934 with a Master's degree in history from Xavier University in Cincinnati, he may have thought his career lay in the law because through his middle twenties he studied at Jefferson School of Law, being admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1940. However, he never practised as a lawyer but worked instead as a lay secretary of the Louisville Catholic School board under 1Vlsgr. Pitt for a few years.
So the first thirty years of his life were spent in the world, giving him a knowledge of life and an experience of men which those same years spent in the Church would not have given him in the same way. Not that he ever strayed far from the Church. It was the Jesuits who had formed his mind, and in early manhood an annual retreat at the Cistercian Monastery in Getsemane, NY, had maintained this spiritual life.
Later in life the contrast was striking between the slightness and apparent frailty of the outer man, and the firmness of faith and solidity of reasoning of the inner man, so it is easy to imagine the unassuming exterior of these early years behind which God was preparing his future servant. The hour of God struck in the spring of 1942 when John Francis Snyder met the famous Apostle of the Sacred Heart, Fr. Mateo Crowley, at a retreat at Getsemane. It was the priest who first mentioned a religious vocation. The young man did not hesitate. He entered the Monastery as a postulant in the autumn.
He took naturally to the Cistercian monk's life, which is proof of his providential preparation. Ordained priest on December 20, 1947, in his 36th year, he was immediately appointed Retreat Master for visitors coming to the Monastery from outside, and then Novice Master for a horde of novices flocking to the Monastery in the wake of the World War. He would in fact over the next few years hold every office in the Monastery except that of Abbot.
But in the 1950's storm-clouds were gathering over the Church, and it might be said the Devil began with the monasteries. For example, Getsemane's most famous monk of that time, Fr. Thomas Merton, had undergone a conversion in the 1940's to the quality of which his early books, and their fruits of many vocations, seem to testify, but in the swing to modernism of the 1950's the self-seeking emotionalism of his Protestant origins regained the upper hand, and worse, he continued to draw a large part of the monastery after him. What was a true monk to do?
Here began for Fr. Snyder tens of years of wandering, again, not outwardly impressive to relate, but revealing to the inner eye a steady fidelity and coherence: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord" (Is LV,8). The monk might be driven out of the unfaithful monastery, but the monastery could not be taken out of the faithful monk. He remained the monk, say friends, to the end of his days.
Firstly, he requested and obtained a transfer to the Cistercian monastery in Genesee, NY, and then, probably harried by the monks' modernism burgeoning there too, obtained a sabbatical year to study in Rome. Here he remained for a good part of the time of the Second Vatican Council, but instead of letting himself be confused or swept away by that collective madness possessing numberless priests from the heart of the Church, he returned to the USA, to work as a chaplain for the Sisters of Charity in Nazareth, Kentucky. This time one would guess the modernism of the nuns drove him to ask for and obtain leave to work in the diocese of Covington, KY, under Bishop Ackerman, which is where he met in 1970 Archbishop Lefebvre who was just at that time looking for priests to help him found the Society of St. Pius X, in particular for an English-speaking priest to help look after the several American seminarians then entering the new seminary at Ecône.
Fr. Snyder obviously found in the Archbishop a defender of his own faith, so he agreed to help in forming faithful priests with him, and he followed the Archbishop back to Europe, this time settling in Switzerland. Fr. Snyder's official incardination or entry into the new Society in 1971 is a part of Society history, because it was (and remains) a proof of Rome's recognition at that time of the Society's canonical standing within the Church, denied by many. For a few years, crucial years for the Society, Fr. Snyder helped form the English-speaking seminarians at Ecône. Few priests saw at that time the need to stand by the Archbishop, and still fewer had the courage to do so, but Fr. Snyder was one of them. His mild and quiet exterior belied his strong faith and clear mind.
However, about 1975 he left Ecône, at least in part over a practical disagreement with the Archbishop. The Archbishop had his reasons, needing men to found his Society in the U.S.A., but Fr. Snyder was not incorrect in his assessment of some of those men, who, at least objectively speaking, would betray the Archbishop a few years later. On the contrary, if Fr. Snyder did not stay at the Archbishop's side, he nevertheless remained faithful to his cause and sympathetic to the Society.
For several years more he stayed in Europe, serving as private chaplain amongst Catholics of the rising Traditional movement, this time in Germany. From now on, souls from numerous countries in several languages were contacting him to obtain spiritual counsel and solid advice in a more and more confusing situation of Church and world. Surely his spiritual wisdom and balance never failed them.
In 1982 he returned permanently to the United States, based on his beloved home state of Kentucky. From here he continued to travel, to lecture, to administer sacraments to the scattered remnant flock, to study, to pray, always the monk, but his main apostolate was perhaps by mail: "His mail was unreal," says a friend who knew him well during this time, "his secret was his spirituality. He drew people. He always had the right words to say. lie answered any question spiritually. People wrote to him from everywhere."
He visited the Seminary here in Winona a few times in his late 70's, and he was always a welcome and interesting visitor, with useful tales to tell to whoever could stop and listen. But as he reached 80 his strength was giving out, so he finally returned to the monastery in Genesee which was where he could be looked after and where he died and was buried. In fairness, the monastery had always been kind to him. May his soul rest in peace.
His had not been a great public career, but only God knows how many souls are grateful to him for his priceless help in private, at a time when true priests were becoming harder and harder to find. Amongst men, no doubt he could easily be overlooked or passed over, but before God it was surely a faithful servant who hung back from the polluted public arena and quietly did the Good Shepherd's work amongst the scattered sheep. We shall not however assume that he is already in heaven, we shall pray for him and beg prayers for him, because we are grateful for his counsel and his example on our darkening scene. Fidelity is possible, his example proves.
Dear Friends and Benefactors, thank you always for your support. There are many claims on your generosity, but do not forget the Seminary. We ourselves always need some of you, and one or another of our good causes needs all of you!
Most sincerely yours in the Sacred Heart,