Fr. Don Miller, OFM
A passion for life as a friar
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Fr. Don Miller was not shy about speaking up.
Talking was his talent, the gift that made him such a good teacher and preacher. But he was also, ironically, a private person who kept his final illness close and quiet. Diagnosed with cancer in October, he was gone within weeks of that confirmation.
There was pain and disbelief at Don’s funeral on Dec. 16 at St. Clement. After 12 demanding years in the Vocation Office, a job at which he excelled, he was making a place for himself at Franciscan Media, preaching the Gospel through podcasts and livestream videos.
"He had plans; he had books he wanted to write," said Fr. Mark Hudak, a fellow resident of Br. Juniper Friary in Cincinnati. "His body let him down. Cancer came fast and furiously and stole him away."
For Mark and for Br. Chris Cahill, living with Don was an exercise in patience. "Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into?" Mark was asked when he moved into the friary. "We are quiet, probably the perfect housemates for Don. He would talk and talk and talk and talk. He would have coffee and talk some more. But there was always passion behind his words."
It was his passion for religious life that drew so many colleagues, former students and once-prospective friars to Don’s funeral. Following his unexpected death on Dec. 12, tributes poured in from the communities he touched as a teacher and as a mainstay of the National Religious Vocation Conference. Obviously, his work lives on in the students he inspired and the friars he mentored.
"I would ask postulants, ‘What drew you to this province?’" said Sr. Madonna Hoying, SFP, one of their teachers. "They would say, ‘I immediately got a call from Fr. Don Miller,’" whose promptness was legendary. Fr. Frank Geers joked about Don’s "hound"-like persistence with prospects. "Once he found someone, he stayed with them."
Peers considered him a role model. "Among Vocation Directors, he was ‘The Guy’," said Michael Surufka of ABVM Province, who traveled here from Cedar Lake, Ind.
Highly educated, "He never flaunted that," said friend Fr. Fred Link. "Don and I did a lot of things together. Because he was so bright and passionate, I really enjoyed my time with him. He was never reticent to express his opinion, but would never flaunt his background. He was an awesome man."
Fr. Roger Lopez, who learned about the Order from Don, was inspired by his zest for his ministry. "I found Don to be a wonderful preacher, a great homilist," he said. For listeners, "It would almost be retreat-like. I think of his last months at Franciscan Media", his work there, "and how appropriate it was."
Don’s attitude impressed everyone at FM, including John Feister. "Here was Don, a Vocation Director, a PhD, who came in and said, ‘I hope I don’t get fired.’ He was so fresh and eager."
Devoted to the friars, Don was just as loyal to his relatives in Peoria and never missed a milestone, according to niece Catherine Baumann, here with daughter Maggie and Don’s sister, Dorothy O’Toole. "He baptized all of us, married all of us, and was on his second [generation] round of First Communions." Dorothy’s son, Tim O’Toole, spoke for the family through the First Reading from Isaiah: "The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces."
This generational thread ran throughout the funeral Mass, beginning with friars influenced by Don – Roger, Br. Michael Charron and Fr. Richard Goodin – serving as pallbearers. It carried through the Gospel reading from John, given by Richard: "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it is just a grain. If it falls it will produce fruit." At the funeral for a Vocation Director, it was more than fitting.
"In these days, matters of life and death are front and center," said homilist Richard. "But honestly, issues of life and death are never too far away at any time. And we, those who have come here this morning, are staring the issues of life and death right in the face."
At such times, we are forced "to ponder again the mystery of life/of death," an experience that is always intense. Despite this, "We Catholics are, in fact, people of hope," Richard said. "Our focus is not so much on death. Our focus, because of Jesus’s resurrection, is LIFE, eternal life."
Today, he said, "as we celebrate this Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. Don, we ask God to make good on the promise to raise up one of his faithful servants. And this faithful servant, Don, lived his baptism in full by joining the Order of Friars Minor and dedicating his life to teaching and in assisting men in joining the Order he gave his life to. But then again, we friars understand that our profession to become and be a Friar Minor is indeed living out the baptismal life. We might even be so bold as to say that Don served Christ in these ways, and therein the Father will honor him!"
What stuck with Richard was his first impression of Don, "watching him wheel Fr. Valentine [Young] into a vocation fair down at the University of Kentucky where I was a student." Don seemed to be "a caring man who was attentive to witness to the fraternity he belonged to by helping his brother get out of the house and be present to exhibit their way of life in public." As Don often did, "He was reaching out to the young where they could be found: at college," Richard said. "He brought a brother with him who lived nearby: We do make more sense together.
"He and Fr. Valentine were dressed in brown: I knew who they were from a distance before ever a greeting was shared. Friars, in habit, in fraternity, in mission. That’s how I met the Friars Minor for the very first time. And now you know….the rest of the story."
As for the rest of Don’s story, Fred had a theory. "He’s totally free and carrying on a conversation in heaven."
And probably preaching about life as a friar.