Father James P. Burns, IVD, Ph.D. president, SMU, spoke during a ceremony honoring Blessed Brother James Miller.
by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A De La Salle Christian Brother, Saint Mary’s University (SMU) alumnus and teacher, Blessed Brother James Miller dedicated his life to helping and advocating for young people, and he died safeguarding them. An official beatification ceremony for him recently took place in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, bringing Blessed Brother James further toward sainthood.
In 1982, Miller was working as an educator in Huehuetenango. He was just 37 when he was shot and killed while fixing a wall near a school at which he worked. He and other brothers attempted to prevent their students from being forced to join the military amid a civil war, and it is thought that these protective actions may have led to his death.
Miller, who was originally from Stevens Point, Wis., graduated from SMU in 1966 with an undergraduate degree and in 1974 with his graduate degree. He taught at Cretin High School in Saint Paul prior to working as an educator in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
Brother Pat Conway, who is a professor in the education and interdisciplinary studies departments at SMU, had Miller as a teacher at Cretin High School in Saint Paul. He saw Miller at the beginning of each school day in homeroom. Miller was the first brother he met when his father took him to Cretin for his uniform and books before classes began.
Conway shared that he and Miller’s other students could tell Miller had a passion for Spanish and a desire to return to Central America. He said Miller visited Nicaragua between his junior and senior years at SMU.
“He loved working with the poor and people on the margins, particularly young people,” Conway stated.
Miller enjoyed laughing and teasing, and he was considerate and warm, Conway said. Miller also had high expectations as a teacher, Conway noted.
Miller made his students aware of the existence of poverty in the world, Conway said. Every Wednesday, he described his time in Central America as a collection was taken to support schools there.
Conway stated that the De La Salle Christian Brothers are proud that a member of their order has been beatified. The order started more than 300 years ago. Brothers in the order aim to combat the cyclical nature of poverty and help young people gain skills that are useful for fully participating in society. Conway said the brothers focus on education as a means of accomplishing these goals, and he added that he feels Miller “clearly went to the core” of utilizing education to help young people and fight poverty. Miller was the first De La Salle Christian Brother from the U.S. to be beatified.
“Our order is a teaching order, so we’re in the trenches, if you will,” Conway shared. “We’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and be one with the people.”
Conway said he remembers Miller as a regular guy who “on the one hand was ordinary, but then on the other hand extraordinary in what he did.” The beatification of Miller, he said, is inspiring and moving.
“One of the things I tell my students is in our faith, we say that we’re all called to sainthood. And sometimes we think, ‘Oh, it has to be this perfect person,’” Conway said. “And James was broken, just like all of us, and yet he did some extraordinary things with his life, and so what that does is it gives hope to a number of us that even in our brokenness, we can do some extraordinary things.”
There are three steps on the path toward sainthood, Conway explained. Beatification is the second of these steps. Some members of the SMU community attended the beatification ceremony in Guatemala. The ceremony was also marked with celebrations on the SMU campus in Winona.
Conway said Miller was automatically considered a martyr or servant of God, servant of God being the first step toward sainthood. As part of the beatification process, people who knew Miller, including his friends and colleagues, were interviewed, and this information was presented to a council at the Vatican and ultimately the Pope. The Pope then granted the title “Blessed” which is associated with beatification.
To reach sainthood, one miracle must be attributed to Miller, as he was martyred, and the miracle could come in the form of people praying to Miller to cure their cancer, for instance, Conway stated.
Miller was a year younger than Jane Campbell, his cousin, and the two met when she was six or seven. Her first memory of Miller involved the two of them reading children’s books aloud to each other while sitting on a parlor floor underneath a window.
Campbell noted that when she shared her recollection with Miller’s mother several years after his passing, his mother laughed and responded, “Yes, that’s Jim. He couldn’t get his hands on enough books, and he read at a very early age.”
When Miller was in Saint Paul, he would babysit Campbell’s children on occasion.
“The kids were always good for him because they knew he meant what he said, and they didn’t test him,” Campbell stated. “But they also loved him because they could crawl all over him, and he would lift them up and swing them. He was always available to them.”
After Campbell’s father passed away in 1981, Miller wrote her a letter which she carried with her each day at work as a source of comfort, she shared. She and Miller discussed the loss and death in general when he was next in Saint Paul, she said. He told her that it was difficult to talk to his students in Guatemala when he had to make them aware that their parents had been taken or arrested and possibly killed, she noted.
Miller and other missionaries in the province in which he was stationed in Guatemala had a meeting at which they agreed to resist any soldiers who came for them, Campbell said. She noted that when Miller told her about the agreement, she asked him to always keep two canteens, good boots and a good jacket in an easily accessible place so if the need arose, he could retrieve them quickly and walk to Mexico. She said he simply replied, “I’ll do the best I can,” and when she went to Guatemala after his passing, she realized he knew the distance to Mexico was further than she thought.
Miller once accompanied Campbell’s family to the ice follies, she stated. They arrived at the arena early so he could study its structure in support of his hopes to build a gymnasium for his students in Central America, she shared.
“He was one-of-a-kind. He had so much energy,” Campbell said. “He was always up for everything, and nothing was beneath him.”
The gutter on Campbell’s house was put there around 1981 by Miller and her husband, she said, after Miller noticed that the gutter was broken when Campbell and her husband discovered water in their basement.
Miller was present amid a period of sickness in Campbell’s family, she explained. “When my husband got very ill and had to be hospitalized and then was not able to work, Jim was there for us … he never let us just sit at home,” Campbell shared. “There was something going on somewhere, and we would go. He would make sure we were taking part in life during the time.”
Campbell stated that she cherishes the connection she had with Miller. “We could share things, we could share feelings about our siblings, our parents, our coworkers, that we couldn’t share with other people,” Campbell said. “And that was the beauty of having somebody like him in my life. At that time, I needed someone I could confide feelings to, and I didn’t have that person except Jim. He was that person for me.”