Father Charles Brandt made a long and winding journey from a farm in rural Missouri to the Comox Valley. Along the way, it took him through New York, Louisiana, Mexico City, Oklahoma and Iowa, with side trips through Switzerland, Italy, England, Ottawa and Winnipeg.
He eventually found his way to the Tsolum River where he lived with a group of hermits and, a little later, on his own 27-acre hermitage along the Oyster River.
This week, just 19 days before his 96th birthday, Father Charles donated a conservation covenant over his land to the Comox Valley Land Trust. The covenant protects the land from development, logging or other activities in perpetuity, regardless of any change in ownership over time. The CVLT will hold the covenant, although Brandt plans to gift his property to the Comox Valley Regional District for a public park.
It’s a remarkable donation, not only for its charity or its demonstration of love for nature, but also because it happened at all.
The boy who was raised as a Methodist and converted to Anglicanism, was once on track to the Anglican priesthood. But as his interests in communicating with God through nature and in living as a hermit grew, Brandt later converted to Catholicism. He was officially ordained as a hermit-priest, the first in 200 years, in the Roman Catholic Church in Courtenay in 1966.
But Brandt told Decafnation in an interview just over a month ago that he wasn’t always so certain about his future vocation. He had many questions and doubts along the way.
Still, Brandt said, he subconsciously knew he wanted to live a contemplative life within nature.
As a young Boy Scout he slept in the wild and kept absolute silence for 24 hours. He had a passion for birding, which with scouting, were his first connections to the natural world. He studied ornithology at Cornell University. He became an internationally known master bookbinder. By the age of 13, he had read Henry David Thoreau’s epic book, Walden.
Uncertain early beginnings
Charles Brandt was born on Feb. 19, 1923 in Kansas City, Missouri to his Danish-English parents, Alvin Rudolph Brandt-Yde and Ann Chester Bridges, who were Methodists. When the family moved to a farm outside the city when Brandt was five years old, Brandt had his first experiences with the natural world.
“Every tree had a bird’s nest in it … it was amazing to me,” Brandt said in an interview published last year on Academia.edu. “When I was quite young, I felt we should have contact with God … it was just kind of an intuition.”
“The monastery life doesn’t provide enough time for meditation and prayer. They’re workaholics.”
And when a relative introduced him at age 13 to the works of Henry David Thoreau, he read Walden, which he now says was his first awareness of the hermit life. But the idea didn’t have time to fully sink in.
After graduating from high school in 1941, he started post-secondary studies at the University of Missouri. But that was interrupted by the draft and a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. He trained primarily as a navigator, but also bombardiering, something he questioned with a military chaplain. But the chaos of war didn’t give him space to think more about it.
Brandt says now that he wouldn’t consider himself a conscious objector. He calls himself nonviolent, but ready to take a stand when there is a reason.
“If I had known what was going on in Germany, I would have been there from the beginning,” he said.
After the war, Brandt chose to study at Cornell University in New York State because they had an ornithology department. But he quickly decided against pursuing that course of studies, and was, for a time, uncertain about his vocation.
Brandt had come into contact with the Anglican Church while in the military. So when he attended a summer religious retreat during his second year at Cornell, at age 25, he began thinking of the Anglican priesthood and was ordained into the church in 1948.
Brandt meets Merton
But after reading the book The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton he started thinking about the monastic life, and becoming a Roman Catholic. So after visiting a Catholic priest in Louisiana and carrying on to Mexico City to visit the shrine of the Lady of Guadalupe, Brandt decided to study theology with Benedictine monks in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He spent a year there as a choir monk, and was officially “received” into the Catholic Church.
Brandt’s next stop on his journey to the Comox Valley was a religious order farm in Bardstown, Kentucky, known as the Abbey of Gethsemani. He learned bookbinding there and met one of the great influences on his life, Thomas Merton, in person.
Brandt then spent eight years as a Trappist monk in the New Melleray monastery in Iowa. He honed his skills as a bookbinder there, eventually taking charge of the bindery. But he found the Trappist life too rigid. Brandt had become more and more interested in a contemplative life.
So Brandt wrote a letter to Thomas Merton, who responded that he should try it.
“He (Merton) told me the monastery life doesn’t provide enough time for meditation and prayer. It’s too busy,” Brandt said. “They’re workaholics.”
The responding letter remains a treasured possession of Brandt’s.
“I had just heard about some hermits on Vancouver Island,” Brandt told Decafnation. “I visited them in March of 1965 … and never looked back.”
Since that time, Brandt has practiced a different and little known kind of Christian prayer. It’s a type of Christian meditation advocated by Merton, and made popular by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating.
“By comparison, it makes traditional Christian contemplative prayer feel outdated,” Brandt said. “It’s a willingness to be present to God, to accept his actions within us.”
Brandt continues to host a monthly meditations for a select group of about 10 people at the Oyster River Hermitage.
Covenant decision not easy
Although Brandt owns his property — he purchased it for $9,000 in 1965 — he needed the blessing of the Bishop of Victoria, who briefly considered bringing another hermit to live there.
“I thought it would be difficult to sign the document for the covenant,” Brandt said. “I lose a little security making the covenant, but I still own the property and could sell it, but for much less value with the covenant on it.
“Kind of a temptation,” he said.
But when the covenant was offered to him he said, yes, because, “It’s always good to say yes … just the idea leads to things we don’t know about.”
Brandt will continue to live in the small cabin — sometimes called The Hermitage or Merton’s House –that he built from lumber salvaged from a house he tore down in south Courtenay. Former Vanier Principal Hank Schellink found the house for him, and Brandt lived there while dismantling it.
“They (doctors) hold immense power,” he said. “Not being able to drive would hold me down.”
Before his moved his cabin from the Tsolum area to the Oyster River property, the local Knights of Columbus built a foundation for him. And they used a low-bed trailer to transport the building.
“But the posts on the bridge across the Tsolum River were blocking our passage,” he said. “So they cut the top off the posts to get the cabin across — no one ever knew.”
While the protective covenant covers the whole property, Brant’s cabin and the road to it will be held by a private society comprising members of his Hermitage Advisory Committee. The group helped Brandt navigate the complex legal paperwork required, and to assist in raising the $20,000 to pay for it.
The possibility remains for a new hermit to someday live in the cabin.
“It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a monk, it could be someone with a little monastic training and an environmentalist,” he said.
Brandt has supported himself mostly through bookbinding, a skill he first learned at the Gethsemani Abbey and later perfected at an Iowa monastery. But it was his interest in learning more about archival paper conservation that changed his life.
Through a friend, he left the hermitage to study paper at the New England Document Center in Massachusetts, and quickly rose to the head of its bindery division within a year. That led to an offer from a bindery in Ascona, Switzerland, where he went to learn more about paper and binding. And that, in turn, created an offer to work as a conservator on many of Canada’s art treasures at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, where he spent five years and earned a small pension. From there, Brandt moved to Winnipeg to set up an conservation centre for the provincial government.
He lived away from his Oyster River hermitage from 1973 to 1984, an absence he likens to St. Paul, who travelled building tents.
“I bound books,” he said.
Brandt found bookbinding to fit perfectly with his contemplative lifestyle.
“I found it very meditative, especially sewing the book together. It’s very relaxing,” he said. “And I was preserving humanity, its culture, something I thought quite worthwhile.”
As Brandt prepares for the end of life, he’s trying to get all of his affairs in order. Yet, he’s troubled by a few things.
He’s unsure what will happen to his collection of 20,000 digital photographs and his “stacks of slides” that contain images chronicling his time as a hermit.
“Whoever moves in here will need to catalog them,” he said. “They might be historically valuable in time.”
But with his 96th birthday looming on Feb. 19, his biggest concern centers on his driver’s licence. It’s a topic his doctor has raised.
“They (doctors) hold immense power,” he said. “Not being able to drive would hold me down.”
After two hours of conversation, Brandt apologized for ending our interview. He had an important meeting in Campbell River. So, refusing help to descend his deck stairs, the nearly 96-year-old bookbinder and hermit-priest climbed into his Westfalia van and drove off.