Biography of Gerard A. Vanderhaar

Early Life & Education | Rome & Vatican II | Dachau | Marriage | Memphis & CBU | Bishop Dozier & Pax Christi USA | Activism & Writing
Recognition | Illness & Death

Vanderhaar Christmas

St. Louis Bertrand Catholic Church sits near the end of a street that bears its name in an old part of the city of Louisville, Kentucky. The massive English gothic structure, staffed by Dominican friars, had been standing for well over a half century when a young Gerard Vanderhaar prepared his school work in the dim light of the church’s choir loft as his mother played organ for daily mass. He remembered vividly slipping out between masses for breakfast with his family at a nearby bakery.
The oldest of four children, Gerard Anthony Vanderhaar, was born on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, August 15, 1931, much to the joy of his parents, Gus and Margaret Vanderhaar. Both of his parents were gifted, creative, talented people. His mother, an accomplished pianist, was a church organist professionally. Her musical talent added much needed income for the family as they struggled during the lean years of the depression. His father, a gifted advertising artist, put his talents to work for the Louisville Courier-Journal for several years. In his studio he created many beautiful paintings often exhibited in downtown Louisville galleries.
Gerard continued to be a frequent presence at St. Louis Bertrand, serving the church as an altar boy and studying the catechism under the tutelage of the Dominican friars. There can be little doubt that the friars greatly influenced the bright young student, who managed to skip an entire grade. Gerard made the decision to enter the religious life before he finished high school.
Traveling nearly 1000 miles from his Kentucky home, Gerard entered the seminary after two years of study at Providence College in Rhode Island. Throughout the next 20 years of religious life, he continued to be drawn to academics. He was ordained a priest and soon accepted his first assignment in Memphis, Tennessee in 1958.

vanderhaar ordination portrait

Reporting to St. Peter Church in downtown Memphis, the young clergyman, now known as Father Anthony Vanderhaar, juggled the duties of a parish priest with his teaching assignments at both Christian Brothers High School and College, two all male institutions typical of 1958.
Father Anthony’s intellect and work ethic soon gained the notice of his superiors. His next assignment was in Rome at the priory of St. Sabina, the International Center of the Dominican Order, as Secretary to the Procurator General, the Order's liaison to the Vatican. There he earned his doctorate at the Angelicum and plunged himself more deeply into his work. It was a new decade. The world of the 1960s was changing quickly and now at last, the church was changing with it. Father Vanderhaar found himself at the center of it all -- or perhaps it is more accurate to say he was in the process of finding himself.
When Pope John XXIII was planning to convene the second Vatican Council, he was often quoted as saying it was time to open the windows of the church and let some fresh air in. In Rome Father Vanderhaar not only experienced the excitement of Vatican II but also the freedom of spirit among the Italian people.
Harsher realities set in. Pope John’s death was soon followed by the assassination of President Kennedy. He watched the news from the US of civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi. During one of his vacations in Germany he had the opportunity to visit the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, a scene of unimaginable horror and brutality, and left there deeply affected.

vanderhaar in rome

Later he would recall that upon leaving Dachau he realized that the world was now threatened with nuclear holocaust, with Russia and the US targeting one another with missiles, “capable of incinerating millions who were as innocent as the inmates at Dachau.”
As Vatican II ended in 1965 with a call to the world to evaluate war in a new light, Father Anthony Vanderhaar continued to view the images from Vietnam and realized that the violence he witnessed was just business as usual for the land of his birth. He became angry as politicians and generals attempted to justify the horror their very orders meted out.
There was talk of freedom -- women’s rights, a new role for laity in the church, resistance to the military draft. Father Vanderhaar had come to see the world in a different way. He, too, wanted to be free.
In Personal Nonviolence, he describes his feelings at the time:
“Church structures, I felt, were moving with glacial slowness to embrace the direction of Vatican II, especially as it applied to the war in Vietnam. My impatience led me into conflict with many of my brother Dominicans and with the mainstream of U.S. society. My sense of isolation, except from those I came to identify with as comrades in the peace movement, led to a desire for intimacy and affirmation I was not experiencing as a priest.”
Returning to the states he began teaching at St. John's University ('64-65) where he was actively involved in helping form the country’s first teachers' union at a Catholic College. He then went on to Providence College ('65-68) where he was deeply involved in the anti-war movement. He was selected as “Teacher of the Year” an award given by the students. His whole world was changing.

vanderhaar couple

He continued to be Director of the Graduate Theology summer program at Spalding College in Louisville, which consisted of a few girls he had taught two years before, but now was predominately composed of sisters from several congregations working on their MA degrees. It was during the summer of 1966 that he first noticed a pretty young sister who was starting classes toward her advanced degree.
Sister Janice Marie Searles, a Sister of Providence, located at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana entered the community in 1957 and took final vows in 1965. She taught high school girls with a focus on religion. During time off from teaching, she took classes in theology during the summers from 1966 through 1968.
Father Vanderhaar began corresponding with Sr. Janice Marie as his teaching duties took him back in Providence, RI, and later to Wesleyan University in Middleton, CT. During this time, his fondness for her had grown, and by 1968 their letters reflected deeper feelings. He applied for laicization in 1969 and she for dispensation from her canonical vows, which were both granted during that year. His experience in Rome and the contacts he had established there allowed him to expedite what was normally a long, arduous process.
On December 22, 1969 in a small Chicago chapel, with a priest from the diocesan offices presiding, the couple was married.
As a priest, he had a solid position as a teacher and chaplain at the prestigious Wesleyan University. As a layman, he now had a new wife and only a temporary position at Ripon College in Wisconsin. He was no longer able to return to Louisville to teach at Spalding College since the Archbishop wanted nothing to do with an ex-priest teaching at a Catholic institution. In fact, the summer before he was not allowed to be Director of the program that he had carefully crafted into an excellent Vatican II Theology Studies degree.
Janice was accepted as a graduate student at Mundelein College in 1969 in their newly formed Religious Studies program in Chicago. They generously accepted most of the credits she had earned at Spalding College, for which she was totally grateful.

vanderhaar wedding

For her thesis, Janice chose to write about non-violence, but can’t recall her rationale for choosing the topic. She does remember that her faculty advisor tried to dissuade her from pursuing the subject, but she remained determined and finished the paper.
Although Gerard, who was working as a probation officer in South Bend in the summer of 1970, continued to be engaged in the growing peace movement, it was her paper that really piqued his interest in the broader subject of non-violence, particularly the study of Gandhi. Janice believes the couple began to benefit from several small “miracles” that ensued.
For months the newlyweds had continued to mail resumes all over the country. Finally a call came -- from Sister Marina Gibbons in Memphis, the city where Gerard was first assigned as a newly ordained priest. She conveyed that there was a faculty spot open at Siena College, a small Catholic Women’s School on Poplar Avenue.
The Vanderhaars wasted no time in accepting. Janice asked Sr. Marina if she could find a job for her also. She was hired as Coordinator of Adult Education taking the position just a few months before the Diocese of Memphis was officially formed.


On November 12, 1970, Carroll Thomas Dozier was appointed the first Bishop of the Diocese of Memphis and consecrated bishop on January 6, 1971. While Janice was working on adult religious education programs, she and Gerard discovered that Bishop Dozier was very interested in peace, and was supporting a conscientious objector against the war in Vietnam. He told Janice he intended "to build the Diocese on two legs; one on peace and the other justice."  He wanted to gather a committee together around his dining room table to discuss what would be appropriate content for his first pastoral on peace.  It was an incredible undertaking with a number of brilliant minds including Dr. Gerard Vanderhaar, Dr. David Thomasma, Rev. James Lyke, Rev. Albert Kirk, Dr. Barbara Frankle and others. Gerard took assiduous notes and hammered out the drafts from the committee ideas. Dozier initially revealed that he still adhered to the church's Just War Theory, but by the end of the process, he announced that he not longer believed there was a possibility of the Just War in this nuclear age.
After many meetings and Bishop Dozier's final approval, his first pastoral letter "Peace: Gift and Task", came out in December 1972, less than a year after his becoming bishop. It made the cover of the Christmas issue of Commonweal magazine.  As the first bishop of a diocese to publicly oppose the Vietnam war, the bishop remained undeterred by his critics, addressing controversial issues of the day including support for draft resisters, busing to achieve desegregation in Memphis public schools, opposition to capital punishment, support for ecumenism and advocating women’s rights.
Meanwhile, the Dominican sisters who ran Siena College on Poplar Avenue announced the closing of the school in 1971. Gerard Vanderhaar was once again faced with unemployment. Although Siena did not officially merge with another college, Christian Brothers University changed from being an all-male college to a co-ed institution in 1972. Many Siena students became the first female students at CBU, and Gerard became its professor of religion and peace studies. A number of the Brothers who taught there were friends from former days, and he continued his anti-war activism and began to write books and articles on non-violence.

trident demonstration

The pastoral letter attracted Catholic peace activists who were starting to organize a US Branch of Pax Christi, the international Catholic Peace movement whose European origins date back to 1945. Inspired by Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement and led by Eileen Egan, who worked for Catholic Relief Services, and Gordon Zahn, who taught at the University of Massachusetts and had been a conscientious objector in World War II, and others, their urgency, in the early 1970s, was ending the war in Vietnam. But their intention was broader -- to appeal to a wide range of Catholics, not just pacifists, in carrying out the peace teachings of Vatican II and of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI.
Memphis's Bishop Carroll Dozier was asked to join with Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit as episcopal moderators of the organization.
Although he was unable to attend Pax Christi's founding assembly in Washington in 1973, he sent two CBU professors in his place -- Dave Thomasma and Gerard Vanderhaar.
Pax Christi USA adopted five priorities for its peace work: Disarmament, Alternatives to Violence, Peace Education, Primacy of Conscience, and a Just World Order.
In view of the persisting nuclear threat, disarmament was felt to be the most pressing priority. But the memory of Martin Luther King, and the pacifist inspiration of Dorothy Day, led Pax Christi to explore alternatives to violence as its special contribution to the church in the United States.


Gerard was instrumental in helping to establish Pax Christi USA. He and Dr. Joseph Fahey, professor of Peace Studies at Manhattan College and first General Secretary of PCUSA, helped birth the movement here. Gerard wrote the first newsletters sent out around the country, which were collated and mailed from their apartment in Memphis. He used to say that Gandhi felt it very important to get the newsletter out to the members. Twice he chaired the National Council of the U.S. section, and was a delegate to four Pax Christi International Council meetings in Europe. A strong chapter of the organization became the vehicle for the peace movement in Memphis. Early members in Memphis included people of all faiths, not just Catholics. Their efforts for peace came from a sound spiritual basis.
He participated in the 1975 National Security Seminar at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, having the opportunity to express his views on war and peacemaking with those who were preparing to become the future leaders in the Army. In 1979 he applied for a sabbatical from CBU so that he and Janice could work with the newly created Nonviolent Alternatives initiative in Atwerp, Belgium. Unfortunately, their contact in Belgium, who had made the necessary arrangements, was injured in a very serious automobile accident, but they went anyway. Arriving in Antwerp, Gerard found little guidance on what his job description would be, so he helped write and edit the Nonviolent Alternatives newspaper that was sent all over the world, attended the Pax Christi International meetings whose headquarters were in the same building and worked with the Dutch on a magazine called Disarmament Campaigns. A highlight of his experience that year was participation in a European delegation to Moscow in a dialogue at Nagorsk Theological Seminary. He also embarked upon a speaking tour throughout England arranged by the British Pax Christi office.

Janice recalled, “it gave him a new vision of who he was. He returned to the states energized and in high spirits.”
Back at CBU, totally invigorated and more determined than ever to spread the gospel of non-violence, Gerard continued writing and speaking around the country. In Memphis they were instrumental in helping to found the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center in 1982, the same year the first of his six books was published.
He and Janice visited Israel, undertook a study mission for Pax Christi to the Philippines in 1989, and also made a personal pilgrimage to Hiroshima in Japan.
With Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, the Vanderhaars helped start the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in 1991 at Christian Brothers University.
Gerard left his full-time position at Christian Brothers University in 1996 after teaching there for 28 years. He was 65 and wanted to spend the rest of his years engaging in, and writing about peace through active nonviolence. He wrote two more books and worked tirelessly with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.


In 1996 they traveled through China with the World Cataract Foundation, on whose board they served. That same year, Gerard developed serious vision problems on his second speaking tour of England.
Gerard continued his demanding schedule in the following years, but his health continued to cause concern. While attending Janice’s brother’s funeral in 1998, he began showing symptoms of transient global amnesia. The bouts of occasional memory loss were particularly worrisome to him.
The couple spent a great deal of time with medical tests and doctors’ visits, but Gerard didn’t respond well to treatment. Still he was determined to maintain an intense pace, writing and working for peace.
Janice remembered one frightening incident in 2001 when Gerard, en route to a speaking engagement in Sarasota, Florida, blacked out in a motel room, suffered facial lacerations and had to be sewn up in an emergency room. Still, he refused to cancel and delivered his message to the Florida group -- a man of peace who looked like he had just gone ten rounds with a heavyweight prizefighter.


After their return home, his health worsening, he went to a new doctor who immediately placed him in the hospital. During that period he was diagnosed with Addison's Disease. Given the proper medication, his health was stabilized and he felt as if he had a second chance. It was then he started to write the memories of his life experiences, and also began a memoir that he was never able to complete.
Much well deserved recognition came his way. His Active Nonviolence: a Way of Personal Peace received a 1990 Catholic Press Association award for spirituality, and Beyond Violence in the Spirit of the Nonviolent Christ was given the 1998 Pax Christi National Book Award. In 1994 he received the Tennessee Higher Education Commission Award for community service. In 2003 he and Janice were given the Bishop Carroll T. Dozier award for Peace and Justice by Christian Brothers University. Pax Christi USA gave him the title of Ambassador of Peace for his outstanding unique service and leadership. He was listed in the Dictionary of American Scholars, Outstanding Educators of America, Who's Who in Religion, and International Authors and Writers Who's Who.
He would survive, and continue to write, for another four years after the incident in Sarasota. He passed away on June 21, 2005 -- the summer solstice, a day that Janice said Gerard awaited each year.
 “If just fascinated him,” she said in the article that reported his death in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “so I think it was very appropriate that we would go then. He’d waited for it and then it arrived and he went quickly.”
Gerard had been granted time to ponder his life and death -- even his funeral. Like the non-traditional masses celebrated 30 years prior by his friend Bishop Dozier, where folk songs replaced hymns and contemporary prose was read from the pulpit, Gerard applied his own special touch to his sending off. After the responsorial psalm, before the Gospel Alleluia, a reading from the Vatican Council Document, “The Church in the Modern World” was proclaimed, followed by a reading from The Testament of Hope by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

back yard

The Gospel reading was from Matthew 25, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Music was a mix of modern hymns, Mozart, Gregorian chants, and fanfares.
Gerard had even reflected on his life through music, and assigned appropriate pieces for the periods in which he divided his life: The Dominican Years, the Roman Years, A Tribute to John F. Kennedy, the New York Years, The Vietnam, Civil Rights and Cold War Years (featuring songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez), and the years with Janice (Gloria in Excelsis Deo). His overall theme: To Dream the Impossible Dream, and his final selection, My Way.
The funeral program included three lines inviting everyone to a party -- not a reception, not a somber meal, but “a party for a celebration of Gerry’s life.”
Indeed, Gerard Vanderhaar’s life is worth celebrating. Through his witness, through his writing and by his example he continues to inspire others in the ways of peace and non-violence.
Five years after his passing, Janice received a message from an old friend, Sister Judith Kelly, who had been vacationing at Glacier National Park in Montana near the Canadian border. Visiting the International Peace Park at Waterton Lakes, on a plaque featuring the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Moshe Dayan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Baruch Spinoza, Pablo Casals, Albert Schweitzer and others, she was surprised to see a quote from another great prophet of peace, her friend Gerard A. Vanderhaar.
“Peace is an environment where conflicts are resolved without violence, where people are free, not exploited, living so they can grow to their full potential.”