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EXCLUSIVE: Father Travers Speaks Plainly About His Damien Dismissal — By Peter Bennett

father-traversIn a few days, the telltale signs of another school year will begin at Damien High School. The marquee will be flashing its back-to-school greeting, teachers will be handing out syllabuses, and football players will be cracking shoulder pads at Dick Larson Stadium under the watchful eye of head football coach Greg Gano.

Things couldn’t be more normal, except for one glaring and still largely unexplained omission. The man who has led Damien for a half century, Father Patrick Travers, will be missing.

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Over the summer, Travers was abruptly dismissed by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a religious order that oversees the catholic high school in La Verne, Calif.

The timing could not have been worse for Travers, now 74, who still lives on campus, but will quietly gather his things and leave his priestly residence as of this Friday. The end of this upcoming academic year in June 2012 would have marked Travers’ 50th year at Damien, which also happens to be Damien’s 50th graduating class and Travers’ 50th year as a priest.

“It was a hurtful, devastating thing,” said Travers via phone on Monday.

In the order’s official statement that appears on Damien’s home page, it states that “Recently, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts considered it appropriate and timely–at the imminent approach of his 75th birthday—that Fr. Pat be allowed to take a respite from his lengthy labor of love to enjoy a much deserved and long overdue sabbatical.”

But, it appears, no one, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, of which the Order is a part, ever bothered to check with Travers. According to Travers, he never got so much as a phone call. “The Archdiocese never talked to me,” Travers said.

The Rev. Peadar Cronin, a 35-year veteran of Damien, broke the news, according to Travers.

“He called me in,” Travers said, recalling the fast-breaking sequence of events. “I wasn’t privy to any conversations. It was the order’s decision.”

Since the shake up, Cronin has been appointed the school’s new principal.

What could have possibly caused Travers’ abrupt dismissal? While Travers can only speculate, he said he believes that the Archdiocese was upset over a June mission of Damien alumni volunteers that traveled to La Morita, outside of Tijuana, Mexico, to build houses for the town’s poorest residents. For more than 20 years, members of the Damien community have built over 60 houses in La Morita, including classrooms and community centers, representing donations exceeding $1 million.

Earlier this year, however, the Archdiocese, in light of the violent fallout from Mexico’s ongoing drug war, banned any more trips to Mexico involving current Damien students. In response, Damien alumni — to continue their long tradition of serving the poor of La Morita — organized a trip outside the auspices of the high school. On their own accord, some of the alumni volunteers brought their children, who were still minors. To bless and celebrate the new construction projects, the volunteers summoned Travers to deliver a mass, a request he faithfully fulfilled.

Travers believes it was this trip, conducted in an unofficial capacity and apart from the school, which drew the ire of the Archdiocese and the order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

“On their own, parents put together a crew to build five more houses,” Travers said. “They asked me to come down and celebrate mass with them and the locals. It was a community celebration to say the least.

Travers added that La Morita has always been a safe and peaceful community. “I have less concern going there than going to some parts of Southern California,” Travers said.

Asked about a longstanding rumor that he didn’t recruit hard enough to attract top athletes to Damien as a possible reason for his dismissal, Travers said, “I never believed in that (recruiting). When I got wind of that, I squashed it. We got along well with other schools because of our fair play. I didn’t want to upset the applecart and cause an annoyance that way.”

Thus, Damien enjoyed a sterling reputation over the years, not to mention a capital improvement program that helped build a new gymnasium and community center, aptly named the Travers Cronin Athletic Center, and the modernization of both the football and baseball stadiums.

On the phone, Travers hardly sounded like the retiring type or someone ready to enjoy a long awaited sabbatical, despite having bad knees, diabetes and heart troubles (he’s had a couple of stent operations). “I’ve got a few miles left on me,” Travers said vigorously.

Indeed, Travers is currently in discussion with Catholic church officials to represent a regional parish in San Bernardino County. He wasn’t at liberty to share any more details, but promised to disclose the information at the appropriate time with LaVerneOnline.com

Should Travers be in need of any recommendations, he can certainly point his interviewers to his Facebook fan page, which has been “liked” by more than 2,000 people since news first leaked about his unceremonious departure, similar to the public’s outcry that has welled up since the announcement over the weekend that comedian Jerry Lewis, the face of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon, had been fired.

While Travers is disappointed over his sudden departure, he is not bitter, calling the order’s action “a very Catholic, but not a Christian” one.

Regardless of the actions of the Sacred Hearts order or the Archdiocese, they cannot erase a half century of achievements and memories.

“I certainly have tons of happy memories,” Travers said. “That’s for sure. “We’ve had a lot of successes these 49 years, in a multiplicity of ways. I feel very good about that.

“I’m very happy about some of the associations I’ve made. I remember sitting on the curb in front of the Texaco station – where the fire department is now – talking with (then Mayor) Frank Johnson about how we were going to solve all the problems of the world.”

Travers added that he also struck up a great friendship with Mayor Jon Blickenstaff during his 24 years in office. “I was also just connecting with La Verne’s new mayor, but I guess that’s been cut short,” Travers said.

It’s more than a little ironic that Father Travers, who’s been primarily responsible for building so many homes for the poor, will now find himself homeless as of this Friday. Actually, he has made arrangement to stay with another priest until his new assignment is worked out. “I’m kind of a vagabond of sorts,” Travers said.

He also added that that he wanted to thank the many members of the community for their offers of rooms, apartments, cabins and other domiciles during his time of transition.

“God indeed works in mysterious ways,” Travers concluded.

To reach Father Travers, you can drop him a note at his La Verne, Calif. post office box, No. 8228. As other news is forthcoming, LaVerneOnline.com will report it.