R.I.P. – Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD

UPDATE 27 Dec 2020:

Telegram from Francis to the Superior of the Carmelites:

Originally Published on: Dec 25, 2020 at 11:10

I had a note this morning that my old friend and Latin mentor, Carmelite Fr. Reginald Foster died on Christmas. He was a Carmelite of Holy Hill, WI.

I owe Reggie a terrific debt for the gift of his knowledge of the Latin language that he passed on and good years of friendship. He was a rara avis if ever there was one, simultaneously jovial and irascible. He was one of the smartest, keenest minds I’ve ever known.

He said a lot of things that shocked people and wasn’t in the least the picture of the cleric.  I think that a lot of the time, he said things to shock because he was a little bored.  He had 1000MHz more brain speed than any one in the room, and a virtually photographic memory.   If he got on your case about something, holy angels help you.  However, he was astonishingly kind.  When I was studying with him in Rome during one of the really intense summer courses for advanced students I had a tumble and badly injured my ankle. Foster came to visit me every single day… bringing homework sheets – the legendary LUDI DOMESTICI.

Fr. Foster could veer from curmudgeon to Samaritan in an instant, and he could be both at the same time.  Many were the times I spotted him in Rome sitting on a curb with a homeless guy or giving him his sandwich out of his briefcase.   Affable and gruff.  Chipper and brusque.  And I found that, once you got past the first layer of the encounter and he relaxed a bit, the man truly was a priest down to his nails.   He suffered at the hands of his order and ecclesiastics and he was not happy at all about certain clerical doings.

Foster was, of course, for years in Rome writing Latin for the Holy See and also teaching. Thousands of priests passed through his “experiences” and, today, when we read important documents of pontiffs past, we are often reading Reggie’s Latin.

In his last years he had physical ailments, which were not entirely not his fault.

I will pray for my old friend, whom I’ve known since the early ’80s, and I commend him to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. acardnal says:

    I look forward to reading his obituary. Perhaps in the “Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.”

  2. acardnal says:

    I found this wonderful interview with Fr. Foster on CBS television. It was so nice to learn how many students he has influenced! Some are now professors. And young people, too.

  3. Fuerza says:

    Added his name to the Rorate Caeli Purgatorial Society list. RIP.

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    Aw, God rest his soul, poor old dear thing. When this older generation passes away, it will be hard to find their kind again. I’m sorry for your loss, Fr. Z, and condolences to his community and family.

  5. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    May he rest in peace.

  6. Gregg the Obscure says:

    i have a hunch “not entirely not his fault” would read better in Latin. just sayin’

    more importantly, i’m honored to have the opportunity to pray for the repose of his soul

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  8. Gaetano says:

    Lux eterna, Pater.

  9. Fallibilissimo says:

    I’m so sorry to hear that; very sad indeed. RIP

  10. robtbrown says:

    I have had many very good teachers in my life. Three of them were great: Reggie Foster in Rome, and John Senior and Clark Bricker at KU. The last was a chemistry professor who could teach an auditorium of 300, and it seemed like a group of 4 students. All three had such extraordinary knowledge of their discipline that they were able to see it from the outside in, as if they were neophites just beginning the learning adventure.

    There are thousands of stories about Reggie, as Latinist, teacher, and generous friend. And he was a character. He had, as Fr Z said above, a wondrous memory. The homework sheets (ludi domestici) took anywhere from 3 -5 hours to complete. More than once, I heard him tell a student (each year he would begin with c. 150) that he had made the same mistake on the last 3 sheets. You could read him a long paragraph of Latin. Not only could he recite it perfectly, but then he could put it in whatever style (Cicero, Caesar, et al) you wanted.

    One of the worst things about today is that people with the intelligence of a turnip will emerge accusing him of being a heretic or a Modernist. He was a man who had little use for the By the Numbers theological “education” that had been thrown at him . . . aimed at memory rather than understanding.

    Requiescat in Pace Magister Reginaldus.

  11. robtbrown says: made the same mistake on the last 3 sheets

    I’ve got that one beat. Once when we were doing simultaneous translation from TIME, after screwing up his face in unendurable pain, he declared that I had made the same mistake on a sheet the year before. While I didn’t doubt the mistake, I verbally doubted that he remembered that mistake.

    That earned a sizzling, “Look it up.”

    I did.

    He was right.

    “One of these days, Zuhlsdorf, you’ll get tired of making that mistake.”

  12. robtbrown says:

    Some Fosterisms:

    I’m going to teach you how to teach yourself Latin.

    If you know Latin, you can anything. If you don’t know it, you can do nothing.

    In ancient Rome whores and bums knew Latin. If they could learn it, so can you.

    If you need Latin for a degree but don’t want to study it, tell me. I’ll give you a passing grade, and you and Latin can leave each other alone. I don’t care who comes through that door . . . priest, bishop, His Eminence, His Holiness . . . If he doesn’t want to learn Latin, I’m not going to try to teach him.

    (When asked about smoking in class), I don’t care what you do as long as you learn Latin.

    We always had various people in class: priests, seminarians, religious sisters, atheists, Jews. It never failed that a pious ,,sister would have to translate a bawdy text from Petronius, and a Jew or atheist would be given a text from St Leo the Great.

  13. More:

    Holding up some paper….

    “See this? This is the new encyclical. Know what you can do with it?”

    Drops it in a garbage can.

    “That. That’s how many people are going to read this stuff.”

  14. robtbrown says:

    As an aside to show that extraordinary knowledge accompanies extraordinary teaching, the aforementioned Clark Bricker had a doctorate from Princeton and worked on the Manhattan Project.

  15. robtbrown says:

    Fr Z says,
    Holding up some paper….
    “See this? This is the new encyclical. Know what you can do with it?”
    Drops it in a garbage can.
    “That. That’s how many people are going to read this stuff.”

    Some years ago I was leaving the Angelicum, walking with one of my professors, a man I first met in the early 1970s. He was a Big Cheese at the SCDF, said to he the primary author of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which was promulgated long after this conversation.

    I don’t remember what started it, but he held out his hand, waist high, palm down, and said:

    “Documents? We have documents up to here. What we need is implementation.”

  16. That’s in keeping with an old bishop I met outside of a meeting of the feckless CEI. I mentioned we had had a procession on Corpus Christi in the Vatican Gardens behind us. He rumbled,

    “Meno chiacchiere… più processioni! … Less chattering … more processions!”

    Fewer WORDS. More DEEDS.

  17. whoisthere says:

    I shared this news on a engineer’s forum and got this interesting comment (I cannot validate it):

    “ I met Fr. Foster as a volunteer at the senior facility he resided in. Studied Latin with him. Ate olives and drank wine in his room. Was able to see him a few weeks ago. We planned on watching “Barbarians” on Netflix when this pandemic business was over. Talked about cross country train trips. He asked for a hug when I left. Told him I couldn’t get that close. Last thing we said to each other: “love you”. I have no words and I have so many words”

    Here is the discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25539292

  18. Diane says:

    I am honored to pray tonight, for your old friend, Father Foster.

  19. grateful says:

    In case you didn’t get a chance to read “the discussion” from whoisthere.
    This is from one of the commentators there:
    from schoen
    …His death reminds me that he taught us to sing the “In Paradisum” Gregorian chant, which he considered very beautiful. Have a listen in his memory!

  20. Sandy says:

    Prayed for him and also asked his intercession for a miracle of healing for my husband. He sounds like an amazing man and priest from what many of you have written! I hope that we have more like him (and you Father Z) still on this earth. We will need them in the months and years ahead more than ever.

  21. kimberley jean says:

    He was a bit of a mystery to me. He said things that looked horrible in print but people I respect just loved him.

  22. whoisthere says:

    Wow, when I shared this on Hacker News (see my post above) I expected one or two replies and for it to quickly disappear. It now had a collection of replies, including some from students or acquaintances, and has been on the front page for more than 24 hours, not an easy thing to do on Hacker News!

  23. Kathleen10 says:

    The tidbits above are why I say I would love to be a fly on the wall when senior priests get together to have some real conversation, unhindered by outsider ears. That would be well worth listening to.
    He sounds like a wonderful and unique individual who more than earned his eternal rest.
    May God grant it.

    [He was a complicated guy, Fr. Foster. Really complicated. But, yes. When guys who get together and start talking about him bring out stories that make us both hurt with laughter and cringe with concern.]

  24. OssaSola says:

    Ah dear, I will add him to my prayers. I have his first book and am awaiting the second. I’m glad I can learn from him at a distance as I’m sure my abilities would disappoint such a luminous mind!

  25. mamajen says:

    I am fascinated. I had not heard of him before. I’ve watched a few videos of him teaching in recent years from his wheelchair, and he makes me think of Yoda…the Yoda of Latin.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the anecdotes from his former students. He was clearly a brilliant mind, and our smartest are never without their quirks. May he Rest In Peace.

    I hope his students can keep his legacy going. Reading about him has made me care about Latin more than I did.

  26. From my email:

    Here is my Foster story, Father.

    You can post it if you like. . I certify that I am not making this up:

    I had planned an outing to Lago Albano with other Foster summer students, in the late 1990s. We’d take the train out on a Monday morning, swim, eat, and be back in time for the 1:30pm class.

    Reggie graciously gave me photocopies of the train timetable (they are published in January and immediately snatched up by the Romans, leaving none for the rest of the year) and recommended that we have a good time.

    We did, swimming in that gorgeous water all morning. At about noon we sat at the terrace of a restaurant near the shore and ordered white wine and fish.

    Of course, by now we had every intention of blowing off class and spending the whole day at the lake.

    Before our antipasto came to the table I pulled out the ludus domesticus and told all at the table: “Well, let’s see what the old boy has in store for us this week, shall we?”

    The English-to-Latin translation exercise read, and I am not making this up:


    As you can imagine, we spat out the water we were drinking, cancelled the order, dashed up the hill and caught the train back to Rome, hopped into a taxi, and sped to class.

    In our beach gear, towels on our necks, flip-flops, still a bit wet, we filed into class just five minutes late, embarrassed and ashamed.

    He merely looked up briefly and said: “So you decided to come after all, huh?”

  27. Fallibilissimo says:

    This is one of my favourite comment section I’ve read. I don’t want it to end, you’re stories about this legendary man are riveting. Some of us have only seen Fr Reginald from afar, so reading your experiences and anecdotes helps to discover what a gift this man was. First time I heard of him was by watching that now infamous clip with Bill Maher. I knew his words would disturb many (fair enough) but I also sensed there was more to him than that short segment could communicate. I can very much appreciate it when Fr Z says he was very complicated.

    Kathleen10: I couldn’t agree more with you.

    God rest his soul. I’m very glad I heard about Fr Foster and his work. He also reminds me of a unique Latin high-school teacher I had and whose knowledge of the ancient language was seemingly unfathomable. It really is sad when we lose such minds; it’s like losing the soul of libraries.

  28. mark gillis says:

    One day he was lamenting the misuse of the work “miracle” when a baby is born….
    “If a woman gives a birth to an elephant, THAT’S a miracle.”

    Years ago Garrison Keillor did a “News From Lake Woebegone” that had a Protestant couple from Minnesota being shown around Rome by a Vatican Latinist named “Fr. Roger Fisher.” Obviously our venerable teacher. Does anyone have any idea how to find the audio version of the story?

  29. avr says:

    I graduated from college in 1999. I spent the next year in Rome. During that time I took Reggie’s “first experience.” I was not a tuition paying student at the Gregorian, but, as everyone knows, that was no obstacle to taking one of Reggie’s classes. One day during class, Reggie made a general offer to record himself reading something in Latin for those of us struggling with proper pronunciation. I happened to have a Loeb edition of St. Jerome’s Letters, so after class one day I brought a cassette tape and the book and asked him if he would record himself reading some of the letters. A few days later I had the tape back. He spent over an hour recording the letters. I bring this up as one of the many examples of his generosity to his students. It is really quite something to spend that amount of time on something like this for one single student. Of course, he did not think of it that way. When he returned the materials to me, he remarked on how wonderful Jerome’s letters were. He had not read them recently and was very happy to have had an excuse to read through some of them.

  30. Johann says:

    Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
    et lux perpetua luceat eis.
    Requiescant in pace. Amen.

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