I recently joined the board the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society. We are getting ready to launch our website, and I was tasked with writing a short bio on Father Charles Brandt, a Hermit-Priest who lived in a small cabin and supported himself as a bookbinder on Vancouver Island. I met Charles in 2016, when I was completing my dissertation at UBC.
Charles Brandt was the fifth child of the six and was born on February 19, 1923, in Kansas City, Missouri. He is of Danish-English heritage, the child of Alvin Rudolph Brandt-Yde and Anna Chester Bridges. His father was an auto mechanic at a Buick dealership and later served as a pilot in the Airforce during World War II. After the war, he worked as a Park Superintendent at Swope Park. Charles had two brothers and two sisters.
At the age of three, the family moved to a small farm where he had some of his first encounters of wonder in the natural world. The family raised chickens and had a milking cow. A small spring emptied into a creek on the property and there Charles would fish for perch and crawdads. In primary school, an observant teacher encouraged Charles to paint, and he enjoyed painting apple blossoms with watercolors. His Aunt, Helen F. Bridges, was on the board of the Kansas City Art Gallery and encouraged all the Brandt children to pursue artistic talents. Charles continued studying art at the Kansas City Arts Institute on Saturdays for several years.
As a Boy Scout, he earned the rank of Eagle and was drawn toward craft and book binding. Eldon Newcomb, a scientist who was also the head of the nature staff at Osceola Boy Scout Camp, became a major mentor and influence on Charles. For several summers, he served as a counselor at the Osceola Boy Scout Camp, where he taught bird watching and natural history. As a Scout he was elected to the Mic-O-Say tribe, which is an honor society that exists within the Boy Scouts of America. (In recent years the organization has been criticized by Indigenous people over concern that it engages in cultural appropriation. But in Charles day, it was a different time.) Charles was very early on fascinated by birds. Charles writes,
“During the spring of my 2nd year of high school, having become quite interested in bird study, I had an experience on weekend out along the Blu River. It was beside a small stream with the spring foliage when I began to see a stream of warblers moving along the stream and in the bushes, feeding and calling. The amazing thing was there were about nine different species in all their mating plumages, migrating through their nesting grounds. It was an overwhelming experience of beauty and wonder and wild. I wanted to preserve it forever” (Brandt 2006, 2).
This fascination with birds, birding and wildlife was a key dimension of Charles’ contemplative approach to ecology, and ecological approach to contemplation.
Father Brandt attended high school in Raytown, Missouri. Active in debate, band, swimming, oratory, sports, drama. He also worked as a life saver and lifesaving instructor. When Charles was thirteen, he read Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden Pond, and immediately felt the desire to “go to the woods”, a desire that eventually would call him to the hermit vocation. On Thoreau Charles said,
“I got interested then in Henry David Thoreau. He went to the woods to find out what life was all about, and that was really quite exciting, and a real challenge for me; and I wanted to do something like that. That was probably my first inroad into the hermit life” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 42).
Land, place, ecology and silence were for Charles a single whole from a very young age.
But at university, he decided to study conservation at the University of Missouri where he majored in wildlife conservation. Reflecting on this later, Charles realized that he had roomed with Starker Leopold who was studying wild turkeys in the Ozarks. Starker was the son of the famed conservationist Aldo Leopold (1987-1948).
In 1943 Charles entered Active Service with the US Army Air Corps. It was around this time, while Charles was studying in Colorado for the army, that Charles began attending a Baptist Church. And until 1946, when Charles was discharged, he travelled and studied for his service positions with the US Army, including bombardier training in Victoriaville, California. Charles was appointed a Flight Officer but never saw active combat before the war ended. When he entered military service, he didn’t really reflect on whether or not it was the right thing to do, since it seemed to be a patriotic duty. But by the end of his service, he felt that he had become something of a pacifist and winced at the thought of being an actual bombardier.
In 1947, Charles headed to Cornell University to study ornithology. Charles studied birdsong recording under Dr. Peter Kellogg and studied nesting birds at the Edwin S. George Reserve in Michigan. He was also elected to Phi Kappa Phi, a student scientific society for his high academic achievement. Charles would go on to graduate first in his class with a Bachelor of Science in biology. Charles’ first scientific article was published in the Wilson Bulletin, based in Anne Arbor, Michigan. The essay was entitled “The Parasitism of the Acadian Flycatcher.”
Taking serious stock of his spiritual life, Charles began attending Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Ithaca, New York. Soon, Charles met the Reverent Francis Voelcker, the priest in residence there, who saw in Charles a great contemplative potential. He began mentoring Charles and encouraged him to explore a vocation to the Anglican priesthood. Charles spent that summer living with an Anglican religious order, the Brothers of Saint Barnabas, who were devoted to the care of men and boys with developmental disabilities and incurable illnesses.
Though as a Hermit-Priest Charles never married, and he doesn’t mention many romantic partners, it seems that during this time he was quite fond of a woman he refers to as C.C. They attended services together at Saint John’s and Charles simply writes, “we spent considerable time together” (Brandt 2006, 4).
After graduating from Cornell in 1948, Charles decided to pursue Holy Orders. He returned to Colorado where he lived during his military training and was accepted as candidate for Anglican priesthood by Bishop Bowen of the Colorado Diocese. He entered Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin, living there for three years where Charles enjoyed the routine of the community which included Mass and the daily office.
However, during seminary Charles continued to wrestle with finding a meaningful spirituality and began to read more widely from books by writers such as Jeremy Taylor and Father Benson of the Cowley Fathers of England, another Anglican religious order. He seemed to be seeking a deeper spirituality of silence and contemplation. Then, Charles stumbled upon Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Story Mountain and found a deep resonance with Merton’s rich contemplative spirituality. Of Merton’s writing he said simply, “it blew me away.” So much so that he and several seminarians had arranged to spend easter at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived, to experience Trappist life firsthand and meet Merton in person, but the trip was cancelled at the last minute, and they didn’t end up going. On reading Thomas Merton for the first time, Charles reflects,
“So when I read The Seven Story Mountain, that was what I was looking for; that really answered my question. I wanted to know if it was possible to really experience God in this lifetime, can you talk to him, as a person? That was really a revelation, The Seven Story Mountain, and it changed my whole thinking. From then on, I was thinking in terms of monastic the life” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 48).
That year, however, Charles ended up visiting another Trappist monastery. He made arrangements to meet with Father Bede O’Leary the Abbot and theologian of Our Lady of Guadeloupe Trappist Abbey which at the time was located in New Mexico (in 1954 the community relocated to Carlton, Oregon). Charles wanted to talk with O’Leary about contemplative, or mental prayer and Father Bede became a great voice of council for Charles.
In 1950 Charles spent the summer at the Community of Augustine and Anglican Contemplative House in Orange City, Florida and on December 7th Charles was ordained a Deacon at Saint Andrew’s Church in Denver, Colorado by Bishop Bowen.
In 1951, accompanied by Reverend Voelcker, Charles went to England to explore the varieties of the Church of England’s contemplative life. They visited Chevetogne, Belgium where he met with Dom Lambert Beauduin (OSB) who was interested in the Anglican re-unification with Rome. This meeting brought Charles to question the validity of Anglican Holy Orders, because he learned that they had been declared invalid by the Vatican.
From here, Charles began to try his hand at the monastic life in earnest and in 1951 he became a Postulant at Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican monastery in Mirfield, Yorkshire. Despite his doubts, in 1952 he was ordained an Anglican Priest by Bishop of Wakefield, UK.
In 1953 Charles left the Community of the Resurrection and spent some time in continental Europe making various stops in France and Rome. He spent ten days in Assisi, a few weeks in Rome, and met with a Benedictine monks named Father Dennis Stratham OSB. Father Stratham was from Saint Gregory’s monastery in Shawnee, Oklahoma. This meeting would prove providential, as Charles was received into the Roman Catholic Church there in 1956.
In the meantime, Charles continued his quest for a place to express his contemplative vocation within the existing religious communities of the Anglican/Episcopal traditions. When he returned from Europe in the latter half of 1953, he travelled to a property in Gaylordville, New York where Father Paul Weed had a property that he wanted to transform into a contemplative community. Father Charles built a small hermitage on the property out of old railroad ties and started working as a Chaplain at Kent School in Connecticut where he also helped with the garden.
Soon however, Charles discerned that this was not his place and he decided to move to Three Rivers Michigan, a small Anglican Benedictine community in 1954 and entered as a postulant. While he was there, he learned to chant the divine office in Latin, and continued his voracious reading of the mystics and contemplatives. Charles was deeply moved by the writings of Camaldoli monk Father Bede Griffiths whose autobiography The Golden String deeply impacted Charles. Griffiths was a monk in England for many years, but eventually found himself in India dialoguing with Hindu Sanyasis and fusing East and West. Father Charles also began reading John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Newman had spearheaded the Anglo-Catholic revival in the Church of England in the late 19th century, but eventually converted to Catholicism and was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. This period sealed Father Charles movement to the Roman Catholic Church, so he left for Louisiana to meet with the only catholic priest he knew, Father Bede O’Leary who was on leave and serving a parish there. O’Leary sent Charles to St Benedict’s Monastery, and he met with the Prior there. Despite meeting daily for a month, Charles was not quite ready to make the move from Anglican to Roman Catholic. So, Charles decided to travel to Mexico City on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our lady of Guadeloupe, accompanied by Father Bede.
Upon returning, he decided to head to Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, Oklahoma where he continued his discernment, studied Latin, and met with a resident theology professor regularly. It was during this time that Father Charles fell in love with book binding, a skill that would become his own contemplative bread and butter throughout his years as a hermit in British Columbia.
On January 26, 1956, Charles Brandt was received into the Roman Catholic Church and in April he was confirmed in the Cathedral at Oklahoma City. Charles continued his stay at Saint Gregory’s, taking theology classes and deepening his bookbinding skills. That Easter Charles decided to travel to Gethsemani Trappist Abbey where he met with Thomas Merton who was the novice master at the time. Merton was warm and received Charles with kindness.
On his first meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Brandt recounts, “So at Easter I went to Gethsemani. I knew Merton was the novice master. I didn’t realize I was going to meet him. I was in the guest house for about a week. So [knocking] I hear this knock on the door, and in enters Thomas Merton. You know, he sat down there, just the most ordinary person in the world. Immediately, I liked him, really liked him as a person, and we talked. My intent was to enter the novitiate there, but he said, “Don’t come here. We could make a good monk of you, but not a good contemplative”” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 52).
After several chats with Merton and later his Bishop, Charles decided to forgo a trip to Rome to pursue a quicker pathway to priesthood and decided to first solidify his vocation as a monk. Charles decided to enter New Melleray Abbey, Dubuque, Iowa, another Trappist Abbey. This decision seemed fruitful and in 1958 Charles made Simple Profession (temporary vows) and was put in charge of a small book bindery. Charles continued his studies in philosophy and theology.
In 1964, during the upheavals and experimentation of Vatican II, Charles became uncertain about making final profession (vows). All over the world, monastic orders were studying their roots, which went back to the hermits and recluses of Syria, Judea and Egypt. Charles remembered that Thomas Merton told him about the Camaldolese Order which had a monastery in Ohio. So, Charles and his Abbot drove to visit them. However, the Camaldolese stood for the duration of the divine office. Having a back problem, Charles knew within ten minutes that he wouldn’t make it.
Back to the drawing board, Charles wrote a letter to Thomas Merton. Merton’s reply was published in a collection of letters, and Merton encouraged Charles to continue his search for a more contemplative place to live out his vocation. Charles soon found two eremitic experiments: A Benedictine hermit named Peter Minard in North Carolina and Dom Winandy, greatly admired by Merton, who was leading a small group of hermits on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
After visiting Peter Minard, Charles was impressed. Minard lived a simple life on old plantation. But soon it became clear that Father Minard was mostly looking for someone to run the farm. So, the Abbot of New Melleray wrote to Dom Winandy, who gave Charles permission to come for a visit.
In March of 1965 Charles arrived at Winandy’s group, The Hermits of Saint John the Baptist, located on the Tsolum River in Merville, BC one hundred acres of forested land. Charles moved into a small trailer and then began to build a hermitage there with some local help which was completed in September. To earn a living Charles decided he would try his hand at being a professional book binder, and the Trappists of Carlton, Oregon, Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey (who Charles had previously visited in New Mexico), donated some book binding equipment. With this Charles began to search for clients in the local area.
Despite Dom Winandy’s misgivings about hermits becoming priests, Winandy gave Charles permission to meet with Bishop Remi De Roo, who eventually accepted him as candidate for priesthood. In August he received minor orders and was incardinated in the Diocese of Victoria which essentially ended his temporary vows at New Melleray. On November 21, 1966, Charles was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest by Bishop De Roo at the Canadian Martyrs Church. According to Charles, he was the first full time hermit ordained in Catholic Church in several hundred years.
While living on the Tsolum River, Charles began working as a fisheries technician, and assisted in some parish work on Cumberland on Sundays. Eventually the hermitage site became a bit too crowded, and Winandy and several hermits including Charles dispersed to other properties. In the Spring of 1970, Charles moved his hermitage structure to its current location on the Oyster River.
In the mid-1970s Charles travelled extensively to improve his bookbinding skills. He spent several months in San Francisco learning book restoration and then travelled to the New England Document Centre in Andover, Massachusetts to learn more about flatwork conservation of maps, parchments and prints. Charles was even appointed Chief of the Bindery, which kept him very busy teaching workshops and conducting surveys. In 1975-76, Charles travelled extensively in Europe where he both worked and studied additional conservation techniques.
Returning to Canada, from 1976-1981 Charles was employed by various Canadian book conversation programs. First, he worked for the Canadian Conservation Institute in Moncton, NB as Professional Book and Paper Conservator. Charles said a daily noon Mass in an English-speaking Church in Moncton. When this office closed, he moved to a centre based in Ottawa where he restored bound volumes, maps and art works on paper. Charles was also hired by the Manitoba government to design and oversee the building of a state-of-the-art restoration laboratory in Winnipeg from 1981-1984. The purpose was to survey and restore the Hudson’s Bay archives. Charles also travelled throughout Canada doing conservation work in Yukon, Manitoba, and Alberta during this time. On his love for bookbinding and conservation Charles wrote:
“Probably the best contemplative part of bookbinding is sewing the book. It’s a very relaxing, I think a very meditative, contemplative aspect of binding. Literature is disappearing at a great rate from our libraries all over the world, and it’s our written record of humanity. So if you’re preserving that, as I am, you’re preserving humanity, the culture, and I think that’s really quite worthwhile. It’s like preserving the earth. It’s not just a job, it’s something that’s conducive to the prolongation of civilization” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 55).
Charles was a craftsman and appreciated work well done. The embodied nature of the work, the quiet and the sense of purpose facilitated a contemplative atmosphere that was conducive of prayer.
In 1984, Charles finally returned to his beloved hermitage where he began making additions to the structure and installing a conservation lab and library. Charles began teaching conservation and restoration techniques at University of Victoria, UBC, Simon Fraser, University of Alberta, Washington State University and in many communities across Vancouver Island.
Even before he left for his travels related to book binding and document conservation, Charles was a passionate lover of place. He would write letters to local officials protesting proposed developments on the Oyster and Tsolum Rivers. When he returned to full time residency at the hermitage in 1984, he began lobbying campaign which mushroomed into a large number of environmental projects throughout the Campbell River and Comox Valley. Throughout the years, Charles was involved in many environmental groups and causes: The Steelhead Society of BC, Haig Brown Kingfisher Creek Society, the Campbell River Environmental Council, the Tsolum River Enhancement Committee, the Oyster River enhancement Society, the Oyster River Watershed Management Committee and the Tsolum River Restoration Committee. In the 1990s the local media began to take notice, and he even received several environmental awards for his work on river restoration and conservation.
It was at this same time that he began holding meditation retreats with the local community, despite some Catholic leaders warning against “Eastern” forms of prayer and meditation. His work of ecology and contemplation were quite a natural fit: Action and Contemplation were connected. In 1990, the meditation group became a regular event, which continued to the end of Charles’ life.
In 2001, Charles was the keynote Speaker at the Western Conference on Christian Meditation in Edmonton, Alberta which solidified his leadership in the global contemplative movement. On prayer, Charles reflected, “I think that anybody who prays benefits the whole body of Christ. Prayer touches everybody. The person next to me is affected by whatever I do. If I pray, that helps them, and it also helps the natural world” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 39).
Charles life was a series of questions lived out in many different places and among many different communities. But his love for craft, ecology, and prayer shine through all of this. Charles is an exemplar of contemplative ecology lived well. Toward the end of his life, Charles reflected on the contemplative life and on the hermitage property that the Hermitage Society lovingly maintains. He said,
“In a way, I’m looking towards eternity now. I’ll be 93 on February 19th, , so I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling. And this is my place. I walk out and I know the trees, and I know the birds and the animals. They’re my friends. As I said, the human community and the rest of the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community. I feel that I’m part of this community where the natural world and people come and go; and if we don’t, as Thomas Berry says, we’ll perish” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 57).
Father Charles Brandt died at the age of 97 on October 25, 2020, after a short stay at a local hospital in the Comox Valley. Upon his death, close friend and co-founder of the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society Bruce Witzel reflected, “His stature as a spiritual teacher as well as his whole legendary reputation as someone who integrated spirituality with ecology will live on after him in the lives and efforts of the many people he directly inspired” (Closter 2020).
Charles Brandt. Meditations from the Wilderness: A Collection of Profound Writing on Nature as the Source of Inspiration (Harper Collins, 1997). 150 quotations about ecology, place and contemplation.
Self and Environment: On Retreat with Charles Brandt. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2000). An outline of Charles thinking on contemplative and ecology.
Charles Brandt, “Autobiographical Timeline” Email from Charles Brandt to Judy Hager (Dec. 14, 2006).
Rev. Don Grayston (1939-2017) and David Chang “A Single Sacred Community:
An Interview with Charles Brandt—Hermit, Bookbinder, Ecologist” The Merton Annual (29, 2016). http://merton.org/itms/annual/29/Brandt38-57.pdf
Darron Closter, “Hermit priest who cared deeply for environment dies at 97” Times Colonist Nov. 4, 2020, https://www.timescolonist.com/local-news/hermit-priest-who-cared-deeply-for-environment-dies-at-97-4685292
Thomas Merton’s Letter to Fr. Charles is published in The School of Charity.
Hakai Magazine Article about Charles:
Vancouver Sun Article:
Short article about Dom Jacques Winandy:
One thought on “Biography of a Contemplative Ecologist”
Well done and very detailed biography Jason. This I know took a lot of work. I learned much in reading it. Thank you so much for this amazing review of Charles life. Just amazing.