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Mary Fabilli, OPL (1914-2011) Dominican Artist and Affiliate of St. Albert College

St. Albert Priory will host a vigil rosary on Thursday evening, September 8, 2011 at 7:30 pm, and a requiem Mass on Friday, September 9 at noon. Interment will follow at St. Dominic Cemetery, Benicia, California, the place of burial for William Everson, and other members of the Dominican family, in particular the friars of the Western Dominican Province.

Mary Fabilli, OPLOn 2 September 2011, Mary Fabilli died at the age of 97 in her home in Berkeley, California. Ms. Fabilli had a nearly sixty-year connection with spiritual and liturgical life of St. Albert College (the original home of DSPT).

One of five children born on 16 February 1914 to Italian immigrants Vincent and Giacinta Fabilli, Mary and her four younger siblings were raised in San Joaquin Valley. One sister, Virginia, became a member of the Sisters of Social Service and was involved in social justice ministry in Mexico and Oakland. Another sister, Lillian, who had been studying at UC Berkeley, attracted Mary to do likewise. For a period of time, she enrolled in art classes, but was forced to withdraw because of the depression. Mary eventually returned to the UC Berkeley campus to complete her degree in 1941 in art and English. It was during these college days that she met members of the local art community, including Robert Duncan, who eventually introduced her to the Beat scenes of the Bay area.

William Everson aka Br. Antoninus, OPAs if on some parallel course, William Everson had also been raised in the San Joaquin Valley, and like the Fabilli family farmed the land. During these days he dedicated himself not only to the cultivation of his grapes, but also to writing poetic verse. Inspired by Robinson Jeffers, Everson noted of his own discovery of Jeffers' poetry, “It was an intellectual awakening and a religious conversion in one . . . Jeffers showed me God.” In 1938, he married Edwa Poulson. Themes during these days focused on the land, particularly the California landscape and what he described as a personal pantheism. His early volumes, These Are the Ravens, San Joaquin, and The Masculine Dead, brought him local notoriety and acceptance.

With the outbreak of WWII, Everson registered as a conscientious objector and in 1943 was sent to a Civilian Public Service lumber camp in Oregon. There he connected with other poets and artists, forming a fine arts program which staged plays and poetry readings. It was during these years that he wrote much of what would become The Residual Years, which brought him wider notoriety in the poetry world. It was also during these days that he learned the craft of artisan printing.

After his release from public service in 1946, Everson moved to San Francisco, to join with other pacifist poets and writers, in particular Kenneth Rexroth, who became a personal supporter. Having been introduced by Duncan, Mary Fabilli encountered Everson and the two quickly married. While their relationship provided the inspiration for Everson's poem, The Blowing of the Seed, it was Mary's own experience as a lapsed Catholic undergoing a rebirth of her faith that truly altered the course of Everson's life. As he noted in The Veritable Years,

It was my time with Mary Fabilli that broke both my Jeffersian pantheism and my Lawrencian erotic mysticism. She personalized this, her whole touch was to personalize, to humanize. . . . Also, the intuition to which her course led me is that my mystical needs, my religious needs, which had not really been met in my pantheism, could only find their solution in the more permeable human context, and in a ritual and a rite, and a mythos that was established in a historical continuity.

This “ritual and rite” to which Everson referred was, of course, the Catholic Mass.

St. Dominic Woodcut - Mary FabilliPart of Fabilli's re-conversion had involved regular attendance at the daily Mass offered at St. Albert Priory. Occasionally, Everson would accompany her. It was on Christmas 1948 at the Midnight Mass in the College chapel that his life was transformed. As literary professor, Donald Gelpi noted, “Everson was overwhelmed, psychologically, almost physically, by the divine presence in the tabernacle, and that mystical encounter led directly to his conversion the next year.”

Though raised in a Christian Scientist household, Everson had disavowed religious belief until this time. Because both he and Fabilli had been previously married, the Catholic Church did not recognize the validity of their present union. Giving way to the profound nature and depth of his own conversion, they both agreed to separate. The poem The Falling of the Grain chronicles this experience. In 1951, Everson entered the Dominican Order as a lay brother, taking the name Brother Antoninus, and remained a member for some eighteen years.

At this point his poetry became more explicitly religious, exploring the mystery of the incarnation in both intense and profound ways. His “persona” as Br. Antoninus and the mystical quality of his poetry brought him significant recognition as a member of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation. As he noted in the preface to The Veritable Years, this period of his life “represents a man's attempt to break the residual power of the past, achieve union with a metaphysical Absolute possessing intrinsic veritability on its own terms, beyond the power of process.”

As a Dominican, Br. Antoninus also continued the craft of fine printing. In addition to printing his own poems, catalogs for St. Albert College, and other materials for the Dominicans, his most masterful piece was Novum Psalterium PII XII, an unfinished folio printed at St. Albert Priory between 1951 and 1954. Curiously, this work has its own colorful history. Intended to be his finest work, Br. Antoninus was unable to complete the project for a variety of reasons, but contracted with a Los Angeles book dealer for the 48 sets he had begun. A local Catholic philanthropist, Estelle Doheny, purchased the entire collection so as to ensure its completion, with the stipulation that the copies could only be distributed to institutions. According to records, 19 numbered copies were distributed during her lifetime, including copy No. 1 to the Holy Father and No. 2 to Br. Antoninus. The remaining 29 unnumbered copies found their way to various locations. Recently, St. Albert Priory was able to recover copy No. 2 through the efforts and skill of its current Prior, Fr. Reginald Martin, OP

Triptych for the Living - Mary Fabilli, OPLIn addition to her written artistry, Mary Fabilli also produced woodcuts and linoleum block prints, as accents to her own chapbooks. Some were done for the poems of others, including an Everson work, Triptych for the Living (1951). She, too, joined the Dominican Order in 1953 as a member of the St. Albert Priory chapter of the Lay Dominicans, continuing her regular attendance at daily Mass until her failing health made this impossible.

The lives of Mary Fabilli and William Everson and their affiliation with the Dominican Order highlight the long-standing commitment of the Order to the fine arts. The expression and experience of beauty are fundamental to the encounter with the Divine. For Dominicans, they are also critical to the development of preaching skills. It was during the 1950s that St. Albert College sponsored a number of public lectures and events dedicated to the fine arts through a venture entitled Blackfriars of the West, including Blackfriars Fair and Blackfriars Publications. Everson himself established and ran Albertus Magnus Press out of St. Albert College.

Triptych for the Living - Mary Fabilli, OPL
Triptych for the Living - Mary Fabilli, OPLTriptych for the Living - Mary Fabilli, OPL

DSPT continues this tradition today through its own Blackfriars Gallery and its MA (Theology) concentration in Religion and the Arts. In addition to his own work as an art historian, DSPT Professor Michael Morris also continues this tradition through the Santa Fe Institute.

View Mary Fabilli's obituary in the SF Gate.