Teaching Whoever Shows Up
It was the end of the class period right before lunch, and the eighth graders in Brother Tim Cahill’s religion class at St. Peter School in Huber Heights, Ohio, had been working on group projects. They had moved their desks around, pondered, and maybe wiggled a little bit in their seats, as most kids do, and the desks that had been in a straight line when they walked into the room were straight no longer.
Calmly and with military precision, Brother Tim moved from row to vertical row in his classroom, directing the students to align the desks before they left for the day, which they did quickly and quietly, without whining or questioning. It’s good for kids to be able to make a straight line, Brother Tim believes. It’s good for them to know where they stand.
He enjoys teaching middle schoolers; there’s a surprise in every day because he never knows who is going to walk through the door of his classroom.
“Middle schoolers are still children, but they’re willing to become adults,” he said. “Sometimes they want a cookie, and sometimes they are sophisticated young men and women who want to be treated as such. You never know what you’re going to get.”
He understands. Brother Tim, now 58 with 24 years of teaching experience, 18 of them at St. Peter School, remembers very well what it was like to grow up without really knowing where he was going, or what he would become.
Becoming a Brother
Brother Tim was born in Youngstown, Ohio, raised in a staunch Irish Catholic family who attended St. Brendan Catholic Church. He graduated from high school without a clear plan for his future. He worked part-time for a pharmacy chain, then the parish hired him as its director of religious education.
“The position of DRE was in its infancy,” he said. “Nobody even knew what a DRE was.”
He enjoyed the experience so much that “I thought I might like to become a teacher.” He enrolled in classes at Youngstown State and promptly failed. “I wasn’t a very good student,” he said.
He returned to work at the drug store, where he learned how to work with all kinds of people. “I had a manager who told me, ‘Don’t just tell people that they’re doing something wrong. Help them find another way.’ I have been using that advice ever since,” he said.
He volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters and at the parish. His pastor told him that he’d had a dream where God appeared and said, ‘Why isn’t Tim in a seminary yet?’”
Brother Tim said he had toyed with the idea of a religious vocation, but wasn’t sure where to go. The vocations director of the Diocese of Youngstown directed him to the Pontifical College Josephinum, a seminary in Columbus. His second try at college also did not go well, and he withdrew from classes. “I figured I would get a job someplace, maybe at the GM plant. Or maybe I would go to a junior college.”
Then his bishop called him in and sat him down. “He asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a religious brother?’ I said I never had, because brothers are guys who live in cells, wear black robes and sweep the floors. He looked at me and said, ‘You have no idea what brothers are all about. You need to meet Brother Bernie Barga.”
Meeting Brother Bernie
Brother Bernie was a Missionary of the Precious Blood, a dynamic, spirit-filled, big-hearted man who drew people toward him like a lantern draws moths. At the time, he was ministering at Brunnerdale, the Missionaries’ former high school seminary near Canton, Ohio, that was then being used as a retreat center.
Tim met Brother Bernie and some of the other Missionaries, and for the first time he felt he had found his purpose.
“I felt like I was home,” he said. “I had a big beard at the time and didn’t want to shave it off. When I walked into Brunnerdale for the first time, there was a brother sitting behind the desk with a big white beard. And it wasn’t just that. The guys there were friendly and welcoming. It was the only place I visited where I said, ‘This feels right.’”
Ministering to Young People
Brother Tim made his profession as a religious brother in 1989. He celebrated his 25th anniversary last year. It’s a good life, he said. He has ministered at parishes, including St. Augustine in Rensselaer, Ind.; Immaculate Conception in Celina, Ohio, and Precious Blood in Dayton.
In Huber Heights, a suburb northeast of Dayton, he works with students during the school day, and volunteers with young people in his spare time, primarily with the Young Marines, an anti-drug program of the U.S. Marine League that leads young people to a healthy, active life. He serves as the Young Marines’ adjutant and chaplain.
He also volunteers with the St. Vincent de Paul Society at the parishes in the Dayton area; is a CPR and first aid instructor, and is a first responder. Both at work and in his volunteer efforts, he reaches out to young people. “I recognize that kids have troubles. I had troubles when I was a kid. My teachers helped me. So I help my students,” he said.
Sometimes they slip up and call him Dad, he said. That’s when Brother Tim knows he’s made an impact on their lives.
Kids need the no-nonsense approach that Brother Tim brings to the classroom. It also doesn’t take them long to discover his big heart.
“When they hired me to teach eighth grade here, I said, ‘Okay, I can do that.’ But the first year was rough. I wasn’t sure that this was where God wanted me to be. Then I had an epiphany. I realized that they were no different than I was at their age. And when I was their age, someone guided me. My teacher, Mr. Craig, set me straight. He was firm but polite. From him, I got my love of reading.
“Once I realized that, I started enjoying being around the students. I saw that they weren’t doing things on purpose to get under my skin; that’s just the way teens are. Once a teacher accepts that, life gets a lot better.”
Years ago, he heard a Precious Blood priest give a talk about the Cry of the Blood of Jesus. “Where do you hear the cry of the Blood?” the priest had asked.
Brother Tim has thought of that often. “I heard the cry of the Blood coming from the children. They come to school, some with no lunch and some from broken homes, single- parent homes, homes where mom and dad are just too busy,” he said. “They come to us for learning, but what I see is their need for someone who will listen to them and hear their story. Someone who will just be there for them. Someone who will discipline them when they need it, laugh when they act silly, and—this is very important—be the adult for them.”