By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
December 2019 - Conversing with Jesuit Jubilarians Don Highberger and Jim Knapp is a bit like watching a tennis match — if both players were allowed to serve at the same time. The companions speak over each other or complete the other’s sentences in their enthusiasm for sharing their stories of 50 years together in the Society of Jesus. Fathers Highberger and Knapp were just 18 years old when they entered the Society of Jesus at the St. Stanislaus Novitiate in Florissant, Mo., in August 1969. Members of an entrance class of nine men, they are the only two who remain as Jesuits.
They entered together, were ordained together, and were occasionally — perhaps imprudently — assigned to the same communities, as they are now. Both reside at Jesuit Hall in St. Louis, where Fr. Highberger serves as minister, a Jesuit term for the go-to guy in the community. Father Knapp experiences some memory challenges, but more often than not, thanks to their close friendship, Fr. Highberger is able to fill in the gaps. The warmth of their friendship is evident as they tell their stories.
The entrance class of 1969 was the last to enter the novitiate in Florissant. That august institution, established in 1823, included several buildings intended to house and train hundreds of men. In 1969, there were just 12 novices between the two classes. “There was practically a floor per person,” Fr. Highberger recalls.
The following year, the Society experimented unsuccessfully with a combined novitiate in Detroit for the Missouri, Chicago and Detroit Provinces. Under normal circumstances, the second-year novices would have remained at the novitiate, but with the experiment underway, they moved to Kansas City, Mo., with their novice master.
“We bought an old VW van,” Fr. Knapp recalled.
“That was the novitiate,” Fr. Highberger picked up. “We travelled all over the country, but wherever that van was parked, that was the novitiate.”
“It had to be big enough to hold Lena,” Fr. Knapp interjected, referring to the bass he played to back up the St. Louis Jesuits.
Ah, yes, the St. Louis Jesuits. Self-described hippies, Fathers Highberger and Knapp both worked with the St. Louis Jesuits, who composed and performed liturgical folk hymns now recognized as standards. Knapp played bass and sang while Highberger and his brother, a former Jesuit, recorded the music. They chuckle at the fame the group attained as they recall recording in a makeshift studio in the basement of the old First Studies building on the campus of Saint Louis University. The young Jesuits converted an old language lab by hanging blankets on the wall to improve the acoustics.
Despite their different ministry paths, these two managed to spend large chunks of time in the same community. Their tertianship experience in Alaska in 1993-94 generates the most animated storytelling.
“Jim was principal at Regis (Jesuit High School in Denver), and I was at Gonzaga trying to get tenure,” Fr. Highberger relates. “We both applied to go to Alaska without realizing the other was going. And we took off before they realized they shouldn’t send us together!”
The assignment would make a great buddy movie. Their journey to St. Mary’s, Alaska, involved several days on a ferry that stopped at ports along the inside passage. Without cabins, they camped out on the top deck “with the rest of the hippies.” They bused to Fairbanks, Alaska, and fished in Denali Park. (“I still have that fly rod,” Fr. Knapp muses now.) Father James Sebesta, SJ, flew them in a small plane to their destination.
They worked on Nelson Island in the Bering Sea, meeting the sacramental needs of the area’s Catholics. But their stories reveal the “go where needed” mission of the Jesuits, as well as the occasional corollary of “find your own way home.”
The two priests tell the story together: “We were going to build a garage out of packing crates. Jim Sebesta flew us to St. Mary’s, and we helped load up the boat with the crates, then hopped in. Brother Jakes — a taciturn Alaskan Jesuit — pulled away from the dock, stopped, went right back and said, ‘Get out.’ We were weighing down the boat.”
They were in the middle of the Yukon, with no transportation or place to stay. But they figured it out, and now they laugh as they relate the experience.
“My Jesuit life has been a series of journeys,” Fr. Highberger said. “The image of Ignatius as a pilgrim? It’s been like that. It’s like our story of being on the lake: sometimes you get in a boat and never make it to the other side. Or you wind up some place you didn’t intend. You just never know what you’ll encounter.”
“It’s like our floating novitiate: always changing. That’s what I found Jesuit life to be like,” said Fr. Knapp. “That’s what pilgrimage is like, moving from place to place, always relying on God. That’s what our life is all about.”
With a master’s degree in TV and radio, Fr. Highberger worked in media and taught communications in Jesuit colleges. He is now the minister at Jesuit Hall, attending to the practical needs of the community, the largest in the United States. Father Knapp has a Ph.D. in secondary education administration and served in secondary education for most of his ministry, primarily at Regis Jesuit High School in Denver and St. Louis University High School in St. Louis.