Brother Michael's Merry-Go-Round

by Victor Hoagland, C.P.

Most mornings you can find Passionist Brother Michael Stomber in his cluttered shop behind the Passionist compound in Mandeville, Jamaica, West Indies with something in his hands. Maybe it's a lock that needs fixing or spark plugs dusty from the punishing Jamaican roads that need cleaning. For the Passionist priests and sisters living at the mission as well as Jamaican friends nearby, Michael is just a call away when things break down.

But in his dusty shop he not only works on what is breaking down. Things of exquisite beauty emerge from his skillful hands. Like abstract wooden carvings and the makings of a merry-go-round.

Brother Michael has been in Jamaica for 19 years. The Massachusetts native also piloted a bush plane for Jesuit missionaries in Guyana for two years and another two years for the SVD missionaries in Papua New Guinea. He served with the Passionists in India for a short period, too. Missionary life is his call. And he serves through his hands.

A man of few words, Brother Michael could well be what St. Francis of Assisi had in mind when he said: "Preach the Gospel, and sometimes use words." On his weekly visits accompanying Passionist Sister Kathleen Burke to the infirmary for the poor near Mandeville, Michael takes up his guitar and plays for the destitute men and women whose eyes and voices awaken to the tunes of old hymns like "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me."

Then Michael passes out biscuits to the patients and visits the wards to ask each how they are and says, "God bless you."

Children who go to the simple Catholic basic schools in places like Black River and Williamsfield play on Michael's merry-go-round, which he fashioned from spare machine parts and bits of extra lumber. Over the years he's watched children spin around and shout for joy as they push faster. Brother Michael loves the children of Jamaica.

Children are favorite subjects for his wood sculpture. "I study the faces of children and try to remember them. Children's faces here are very beautiful. I'm not sure if I have them yet, but I'm getting closer every time."

It was while he was flying as a mission pilot over the jungles of Guyana that Brother Michael became interested in the beauty of various forest woods and tried his hand at some rough carving. In New Guinea he came upon the famous carvings done by the natives along the Sepic river. "I was overwhelmed by the beauty of primitive art," he says.

He exhibits his art each year at the annual Bishop's Mandeville Art Fair, the biggest yearly social eventin that region of Jamaica. Thus far he has sold about 100 pieces and given the proceeds to support the activities of his mission. Now in Jamaica he has become a recognized artist carving pieces of lignum vitae, mahogany and local hardwoods. He says, "I'm not happy unless I have a piece in progress."

Describing his work, Brother Michael says, "I usually alternate between abstract and realist pieces. Even in my abstract art I like to capture some form of human life and activity. I especially like the ocean. I simply start cutting a piece of wood without seeing anything developing. It's like faith -- you don't see what you're doing but something comes. I let the subconscious come through and it's usually beautiful. Sometimes I look at a piece I did years ago and am surprised by its beauty. Did I do that?"

Recently, at an assembly of St. Paul of the Cross High School in Mandeville, Passionist Sister Una O'Connor, school principal, presented scholarships to 12 students from the Stomber Fund, a fund established from the sale of Brother Michael's art works. For young Jamaican students, the scholarships offer some welcome financial help to advance their education.

At the assembly, Brother Michael proudly offered the scholarships and even managed to say a few words. "You see me around and maybe I don't say anything to you. But don't think I'm not interested in what you're doing and how you are. I am."

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