Tuesday February 24th, 2015

MT. ANGEL, Ore.—Alex Woelkers sighed and held out his hands in a what else can you do? shrug. The second-year college coach was talking about his team’s struggles and how this season hasn’t gone as planned. It’s a rebuilding year for the Guardians, partially because they didn’t get any prized newcomers. Selling their program is tough. Other college coaches complain about competing against cheaters and wooing AAU coaches. The Guardians have bigger problems.

“Celibacy,” Woelkers sighs, “is not the best recruiting tool.”

Monks, Friars and priests-in-training call Mt. Angel Abbey home. Fifteen of them, aged 18-38, comprise the Guardians, a seminary and monastery college basketball team that fits into no real division. Boasting a 2-8 record and playing their final game Tuesday night in the third annual Rose City Classic at Multnomah University, they compete against local NAIA Division II junior varsity teams and junior college squads. They already know what you’re thinking: Robes, vows of silence and generally unathletic men.

“Everything we’re doing, I hope it’s breaking down stereotypes and helping people find the human being in us,” says Matthias Lambrecht, a Carmelite Friar in his fifth year who is sitting out this season because of a nerve issue. “I think a lot about a quote from St. Francis of Assisi: ‘Go preach the gospel—and use words if necessary.’”

The Guardians have their quirks: After blowout losses, most college teams sulk through the handshake line. Mt. Angel players earnestly thank their competitors for teaching them humility. But they’re also not that different from other teams across the country. For the Guardians, basketball serves as a foundation of brotherhood, a way to build fraternity within their community. It’s hoops at a grassroots level, where they hope a ball and a court, no matter the quality of play, can become the space for life-changing conversations.

*****

“You’re tall—do you play basketball?”

It’s a question Stephen Cieslak has become used to, because 6’5” stands out, especially in a high school of just 250 people. But he didn’t expect to hear it during his admissions interview at Mt. Angel. Three years later, he is the star of the basketball team he hadn’t known existed.

In the Catholic faith, priests and monks each have their own discernment, or vocation story, where they come to understand the path God has intended for them. For Cieslak, who grew up in North Portland and attended De La Salle North Catholic High, it came after two years attending Boise State on an ROTC scholarship. From the age of 5 he understood priesthood was an option, and when two relationships fizzled and didn’t result in marriage, he thought God might be pulling him in a different direction. He prayed on it and, after a conversation with the vocations director for the Archdiocese (a Catholic name for a district of churches overseen by an archbishop) of Portland, landed at Mt. Angel.

Established in 1889, Mt. Angel is the oldest seminary in the Western United States. Fall enrollment was 114 seminarians representing 30 dioceses and 40 candidates for religious orders (or faith vocations). Students come first for an undergrad degree in philosophy, then a master’s in theology. Typically, a student’s individual diocese pays for his fees and housing costs at seminary. Though students might have specific location requests, it’s up to each diocese to place a man called to the priesthood. That’s why the Guardians are never quite sure what their roster will look like each season.

“We need a good transfer,” says Michael Kelly, 18 and in his first year at seminary. “Think there’s any chance Damian Lillard has a vocation story?”

Rev. Joseph Betschart, the school president-rector, says being a regular person and being dedicated to God are not mutually exclusive. He believes that “God comes to us in everyday things.” So why not hoops? Mt. Angel students view it as their responsibility to witness through words and actions and, in this case, hobbies. Cieslak, 23, and one of the Guardians’ player-coaches, says he and his brothers are “normal people doing normal things.” They have Facebook pages and cell phones and Super Bowl parties and no, they don’t play in their robes. Beards aren’t required either.

The college actually has three sports—volleyball, soccer and basketball—and a tradition in football and baseball. The Abbey used to have a high school, too, and in the campus museum displays trophies from the 1948 Willamette Valley Football championship and the 1959 Capitol Conference baseball championship. The school sits on a hilltop overlooking the town of Mt. Angel, a community of 3,400. Best known for hosting one of the biggest Oktoberfests in the Northwest, more than 350,000 people travel to Mt. Angel each September to celebrate the Bavarian festival. Even the Abbey has ties: Currently the Carmelites at Mt. Angel, one of two orders of monks, are in talks to open their own brewery on campus that could serve as a year-round fundraiser. Yes, monks and priests drink beer, too.

*****

Matthias Lambrecht is sitting out this season due to nerve issues.
Matthias Lambrecht is sitting out this season due to nerve issues.
Courtesy Mt. Angel Abbey

Lambrecht wasn’t surprised to learn Mt. Angel had a basketball team when he arrived on campus, because he likes to think hoops have become an everyday part of Catholicism. In Chicago, Mundelein Seminary also hosts an annual tournament, drawing teams from seminaries as far away as Missouri and Louisiana. Santa Clara University is home to the annual Revs vs. Sems basketball tournament, pitting west coast diocesan priests against Seminarians each February. At Mt. Angel, players wear shorts and jerseys. At Revs vs. Sems, Lambrecht remembers watching one monk play in his robes, explaining to bystanders “these are my clothes, this is who I am—why would I change that?” Lambrecht, who sports what Cieslak describes as an “epic beard,” says he’s not “hardcore enough” to play in his habit. Yet.

Growing up in La Center, Wash., Lambrecht had a handful of interests outside of religion. A former Division II track and field athlete and member of the 1997 Washington small school state championship basketball team, he once played electric guitar in a Catholic rock band. Now 32, he recalls 13 years ago when he saw Rev. Stan Fortuna, a Franciscan Friar and former professional jazz musician, speak.

“He’s talking about living in Harlem, and ballin’ in NYC and I’m like, ‘What?!’ What I’ve realized is, God calling me to live a life for Him doesn’t isolate my gifts.”

Yes, Lambrecht spends many hours in prayer, but he views physical wellness as a part of spiritual wellness, too. Being well rounded and able to relate to the average person is key in serving a community. Discipline is also a necessary component to living a life for God, and the Guardians find that small acts of discipline—like finding time for practice three times a week—helps set them up for success in bigger acts within the brotherhood and the community.

The Guardians have an athletic, fundamentally sound big man in Cieslak, a quick guard with solid handles in John Cannon III and a former professional soccer player in Andres Guerra, a star defender waiting to happen. But they foul too much, get caught flat-footed on defense and don’t have a go-to perimeter scorer. It would help if they practiced daily but they don’t have that kind of time because, well, they have to pray a lot. “We’re not exactly in it to win it,” Cieslak says.

They play in the Damian Center, an all-purpose rec building. At night on the dimly lit campus, it’s easy to find the game: Just follow the sound of squeaking basketball shoes.

The gym is small, about what you’d expect to see at a junior high, and doubles as an auditorium. Benches flank the stage where the scorer’s table sits, and metal folding chairs populated by students, faculty and the occasional community member line the other sideline. Cieslak, the school athletic chair, says proudly that Mt. Angel opted to re-finish its floor this year, joking that everyone feels the pressure of the facilities arms race. The Guardians average anywhere from 25 to 60 people per game depending on how many cram into the balcony. They have hecklers, too. When Guerra, a former player for the now-defunct MLS team Chivas USA, fouled out Jan. 31 against Concordia, someone from above shouted “Andres! Red card!” and pointed toward the bench. “It’s like a G-rated frat house,” says John Hesla, one of the starting guards.

The Guardians like to say they’re just a normal college team: They have regular press coverage (the cleverly-titled MAS Journalism blog), a pep band (new this year) and a team photographer (Sister Hilda Kleiman, a nun from the convent down the hill). They’re also not above occasional bragging. When he went home for Christmas break, Kelly, the first-year from Yakima, Wash., told his friends he was on a full-ride scholarship playing college basketball in Oregon. 

“Technically, those things are true,” Kelly says. “They’re just true independent of one another.”

*****

Courtesy Mt. Angel Abbey

In the course of reporting this story, Woelkers, one of the Guardians’ two player-coaches, left the program. He was there Jan. 20 for Mt. Angel’s scrimmage against a Salem, Ore.-area church team, drawing up the winning play for the Guardians’ 60-58 buzzer-beater victory. (Afterward he joked, “Most of our offense is ‘throw-it-to-Stephen-and-hope-something-good-happens.’”) But between that and the Feb. 6 game against Concordia, he felt God was not calling him to the priesthood. He told his teammates he was leaving on Tuesday, Feb. 3, and administrators on Thursday.

Rev. Betschart, the school president-rector, says Woelkers’ departure should not be viewed as a failure on anyone’s part; it’s just another step in his discernment path. Seminarians are used to change. It’s not uncommon for more than 50% of an orientation class to leave at some point of the program. Hesla, a fourth-year from Portland, entered the program in fall 2011 with 14 other men. Now there are only five from his class. But there’s no sense of survival from the ones who stay because they’re not in competition with each other. Now couch surfing in Seattle as he finishes his thesis and readies to travel to Africa for mission work, Woelkers insists the two and a half years he spent at Mt. Angel weren’t a waste. Leaving is sad, but in a joyful way, because it’s a byproduct of a closer relationship with God, and clearer understanding of how he’s meant to serve.

“Getting to coach my brothers, that was such a privilege of my life,” Woelkers says. “Playing with them, serving them, that’s such a big part of the person I’ve become.”

Woelkers will return to campus this spring to defend his thesis, and plans to keep up relationships with his former teammates. He recognizes that leaving seminary means leaving basketball, too, and estimates he won’t play in an organized setting again until he’s “40ish, and in the old men’s league.” He hopes to work at a Uganda orphanage, and wonders if he could start a basketball team there.

“At their most foundational level, sports are about building a team, building unity,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to do, no matter where we are. That’s why our story matters.”

His absence hurts Mt. Angel’s depth as it prepares for its final game of the season. But a roster in flux is part of the program. The Guardians lost four of five starters from last year’s team and this off-season, they’re expected to lose at least two more. Transferring is an epidemic across the college basketball landscape, felt in every corner of every division, Cieslak jokes. No team is immune. The Guardians are going to feel it too, because this July, Cieslak and Hesla will pack their bags and transfer to the Vatican.

Yes, that one. In Rome.

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