The Pioneers: Theodore James Ryken
Theodore James Ryken, the founder of the Xaverian Brothers, was born Aug. 30, 1797 in Holland. He died at the age of 74 in 1871. And, as former Xavier Principal James Kelly once wrote, “Nothing came easy to him.”
As Kelly said, Ryken had his faults and his failures. But he also left a legacy.
Ryken was raised by an uncle, his parents having died when he was young. Ryken was trained as a shoemaker but what he really wanted to do was follow in the footsteps of St. Francis Xavier. By 1837 he had written a plan for a religious institute that he would “try to adorn the congregation with the lofty names of Brothers of St. Francis Xavier.”
By the time of his death there were 133 brothers and nine communities working among the poor in cities in Belgium, England and the United States.
In 2004-05, the Xaverian Brothers marked the 150th anniversary of Xaverian education in the U.S. There are 13 Xaverian Brothers Sponsored Schools (XBSS) that serve more than 13,000 students and families in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Maryland.
Here at Xavier High School, Theodore James Ryken Hall was dedicated in 2015. Ryken Hall is home to the music suite, science labs and art wing. There is a view from the music suite of the Ben Foisie Memorial Athletic Complex, which was dedicated that same day.
The name Theodore James Ryken is never far from the Xavier community’s eyes and ears. For instance, there is a yearly award given to a faculty or staff member who is an exemplary model of Christian education. The winner is chosen by co-workers.
The Ryken Service Society is a Xavier club that “encourages students to become involved with various service opportunities provided through the school and their faith communities.”
Ryken is part of the Xavier school prayer (“Help us to find the strength and passion to be leaders and pioneers like Theodore James Ryken, the Xaverian Brothers and those who founded our school.”).
And Ryken is among those celebrated during Founders Week at Xaverian Brothers schools.
In an April 1989 newsletter to parents, as the Xaverian Brothers were celebrating their 150th anniversary, Bro. James Kelly wrote: “Theodore James Ryken is a man close to my heart. A compulsive worrier and more than a tad bit neurotic, Ryken was never a man who let reality get him down. In fact, he attacked reality with such a vengeance that he frequently got it to bend to his will.
“Each year for 20 years he managed to talk the owner of the local bank in Bruges [Belgium] out of making the Brothers meet the annual interest payments on the motherhouse. When Ryken resigned as Superior General in 1860, the Brothers had lived at Het Walletje for close to 20 years, having paid precious little of the interest on the original loan and absolutely none of the principle.”
He goes on to write that Ryken had his faults.
“In fact, an objective look at his life is a catalog of what he wasn’t. Twenty-one years after he founded the Xaverian Brothers he was forced to resign as Superior General. Financial matters had gotten totally out of control even though Ryken was never too proud to beg. He’d ask anyone for money (I caught that part of the founder’s charism at least!).”
Ryken lived out his days working at the farm outside Bruges that supplied the school there with vegetables.
“Theodore Ryken was a ‘persistent plodder,’ ” Bro. Kelly continued. “A nose-to-the-grindstone kind of man. Nothing came easy. He didn’t expect it to. His faults were as numerous as his failures. Yet Ryken managed to bring into existence and sustain a community of men, which has, for 150 years, ‘plodded’ in the Lord’s vineyard in six countries on four continents.
“Whatever good the Xaverian Brothers have accomplished in the last 150 years is not a tribute to Theodore Ryken’s matchless gifts and talents. Ryken’s only ‘talent’ was a tremendous and dauntless faith in the loving providence of God. When men had given up on him, Ryken was convinced God hadn’t. One hundred fifty years later, it appears God was pleased to bless Ryken’s faith with success that perhaps even Ryken himself could never have imagined.”
“Theodore James Ryken is a man close to my heart. A compulsive worrier and more than a tad bit neurotic, Ryken was never a man who let reality get him down. In fact, he attacked reality with such a vengeance that he frequently got it to bend to his will."Brother James Kelly, former Xavier Principal