Father Adrian W. Harmening once told an interviewer that his goal as a priest and an educator “was to make saints of whoever I taught.”
En route, he might have made one of himself.
The Rev. Harmening, respected and more often than not loved by generations of Benedictine College Preparatory cadets, died Monday at the age of 92. His death was not unexpected. Nonetheless, the news hung like a dark cloud over the school’s Goochland County campus.
As well it should have. To most who attended the all-male military school during the second half of the 20th century, the Rev. Harmening was Benedictine. He was its face, its voice, its personality. He taught. He served as principal for 25 years. He held a faculty/staff position for 45 years and was a continuous presence at the school for nearly 65 years. He was an active participant in board of visitors meetings as recently as 2019.
“He was an iconic figure,” said board President Drew Mugford, a 1986 graduate. “He had a big impact — no, a huge impact — on the lives of so many boys who passed through the halls of the school.”
Benedictine Headmaster Jesse Grapes said the Rev. Harmening’s dual careers as an educator and administrator at Benedictine and a priest at St. Benedict’s Church enabled him to touch lives over an extended period of time “on a scale that is maybe unmatched in this city.”
That seems not to be hyperbole. The Rev. Harmening celebrated countless Masses and administered countless Roman Catholic sacraments to not only cadets but also Museum District families. The school and Mary Mother of the Church Abbey announced his death in a joint release. He was described therein as “the model of a holy priest, humble monk and virtuous man.”
Benedictine students encountered the Rev. Harmening during the formative and at times turbulent years of adolescence. He answered their angst with steadiness and resolve. The importance of his influence, Grapes said, “is something that can’t possibly be put into words.”
The Rev. Harmening became a Benedictine monk in 1949 and was ordained a priest in 1955. In July of that year, he accepted a one year assignment to St. Benedict’s priory and the Benedictine faculty.
His presence in Richmond was supposed to be brief. It wasn’t — he stayed until he died.
The Rev. Harmening grew up under threadbare circumstances in Connellsville, Pa., which perhaps explains the philosophy — basic, uncluttered and laced with steel — with which he arrived at Benedictine.
“He was a good man and a very honest man and he wasn’t afraid to use tough love on guys who needed it,” said Johnny Cates, a member of Benedictine’s Class of 1970. “He wasn’t a rah-rah kind of guy. He didn’t want to challenge you. He wanted you to challenge yourself. ‘Go look in the mirror’ — that’s what he’d tell you.”
A challenge issued by the Rev. Harmening seldom went unheeded. He could, if he so desired, cast an intimidating shadow. He served in the Navy during World War II. His frame was solid and his jaw square. A tale handed down from one class of cadets to the next insisted that the Rev. Harmening was once a Pacific Fleet boxing champion. The formal announcement of his death said the Rev. Harmening “steadfastly denied” those rumors. “But his cadets believed them anyway.”
This much cannot be denied: The Rev. Harmening was a fine, versatile educator. When school was in session, he taught chemistry, Latin and theology. But he saved his best work for outside the classroom. There he emphasized service to God and others before self. Some regard those priorities as the Rev. Harmening’s greatest gift to the Benedictine community.
“Other than my parents, I can’t think of anyone who had a bigger influence on my life,” Mugford said. “He was a huge inspiration and a wonderful role model.” It was the Rev. Harmening, Mugford said, who “taught me to think first about others.”
Mugford said he tries to follow his mentor’s example by “working as hard as I can and doing as much as I can to give back to the school and the boys.”
The Rev. Harmening was an advocate for the construction of a multipurpose gymnasium on Benedictine’s Goochland campus. The Cadets have played in aging Memorial Gym in the Museum District since the school’s 2013 relocation west to River Road. Their new facility, the 2,000-seat McMurtrie-Reynolds Pavilion, will officially open in late August.
The Rev. Harmening “understood, maybe more than anybody, the importance of a gym,” Cates said. “He understood what a gym can do when you’re trying to create a sense of community.”
A 15-foot-tall bronze cross, a symbolic finishing touch, was hoisted to the top of the new gym’s bell tower a few hours after the Rev. Harmening died.
“He didn’t get to see [the gym] finished,” Cates said. “But he knew it was there. He knew it was going to happen.”
The Rev. Harmening’s funeral Mass and burial will be offered Friday at 11 a.m. and will be private, restricted to the Rev. Harmening’s fellow monks and immediate family. The Mass will be available to follow online at https://livestream.com/accounts/7787388/events/9138810.
A public memorial service will be announced at a later date.